Man as Architecture: Robocop and the American Dream

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If Robocop was a staple of your childhood, you probably had the same experience that I did: the struggle in trying to get anyone to watch a movie with as stupid a title as… Robocop. Specifically, I recall a contrast between Robocop and the movie Blade, with one particular friend of mine. See, Blade is cool. Let’s not deny that. Back when vampires were still somewhat almost interesting, it held that vampire hunters would also certainly be something to look at. And his name is Blade. Robocop beat the SyFy Channel to the whole portmanteau scene — not cool now, not cool then.

But we know. Robocop. It’s bloody. It’s violent. Something we might’ve called cyberpunk but probably instead went with TechNoir. It’s sort of the optimal fusion of apocalyptic 70s thinking-man’s scifi with the energetic 80s action mentality that managed to stay more relevant in the 90s than the two 90s sequels. There’s a scene where the main character, Alex Murphy, is blasted apart by a hail of shotgun fire, and this is the catalyst for vengeance. We never lose sight of how absurd that is, and yet the rest of the film matches and surpasses that absurdity. Verhoeven and the writers have a magical control over tone, where the movie exists on this elevated, operatic plane. One scene out of context would feel like every other shlock 80s scifi action movie, but in context, turns out to be the appropriate moment in the greater emotional ride.


It’s the rare cult classic scifi that, unlike They Live, The Thing, and early Cronenberg, was very well received at the time. People responded to the action, the characters, and the satire, a formula repeated but never to the same effect in later Verhoeven classics, Total Recall and Starship Troopers.

But I think we can all agree that the title is dumb and what it’s doing is referencing our hero, a guy who, perhaps consistently, looks pretty dumb. That didn’t help my case either.

In designing Robocop, the special effects team looked at Judge Dredd and Iron Man, and Iron Man in particular is pretty known for flying around with jet hands and being quick and athletic. They took something from Iron Man for Robocop, but not that. As the movie ages — and it is, like most other 80s action movies, an 80s action movie — it becomes more and more apparent that Robocop is a clunker. With CGI being the mainstay of modern effects, where the threshold to use CGI is very low, even in the face of its prohibitive costs, we’ll never see a slow-moving, heavy, and painful-to-wear suit like this again. It’s almost like he was outdated technology at his very creation, but that’s… the point.


It should be painfully obvious that Robocop is a machine, that human movement has been mutated into this bizarre mockery of its former self by this technology, because the cyborg parts are a sort of mobile prison — they gave him life, but that life came with hard limits.

“They,” of course, referring to OCP, Omni Consumer Products, Robocop’s own Weyland-Yutani, but less enigmatic. We get to see boardroom goings-on and guys in suits walking around calling each other ironbutt. But hey, they’re both dedicated to building better worlds. In the case of Weyland-Yutani it’s the colony on LV-426, and with OCP, it’s the similarly infested Old Detroit.


We have internal corporate strife, these suits jockeying for power over robot-security products. Dick Jones has ED-209, a giant chicken-walker with double high-calibur machine guns, and this one kind of doesn’t work out exactly, falls short of expectations, let’s say. So Bob Morton, the younger, more ambitious guy, steps in and pitches the Robocop program, which Security Concepts has been developing. As we see, Robocop is born from this interdepartmental political coup, which itself ends in murder.

OCP is here to rescue Detroit, and to do so it’s privatized the police department. But there’s corruption at the top, as Dick Jones, basically the #2, makes a deal with Clarence Boddicker to kill Bob Morton for showing him up in front of the boss, and for striking down the possibility of some kind of deal with the military that would pay out for the next ten years. Coincidentally, Clarence Boddicker was the guy who, with his gang of ethno-diverse ruffians, murdered Alex Murphy and set the wheels in motion for Robocop.


So when Robocop goes on his mission of vengeance, haunted by memories of a family he could never go back to, he uncovers the Dick Jones plot. Boddicker lets spill in their confrontation at the cocaine factory, which in a simpler tale, would have been the climax. Robocop now is Dick Jones’s problem more than ever, so this is where Directive 4 comes in. Now, Directive 4 might seem like a cheap deus ex machina device to define plot point 2, but no, actually, that honor is reserved for the Robocop tracking device.

Directive 4 is a little insurance policy, and Dick Jones’s sole contribution to the Robocop program. It is something of a killswitch, activating if Robocop tries to arrest a senior member of OCP. Instead of shutting Robocop down it kind of cripples him, and so in the scene where Robocop goes to confront Dick Jones, and we find #2 acting all cheeky, Robocop is stricken down and on one knee and it’s like the machinery is getting all screwy. And so what we have here is the human interior being affected almost wholly by the machine exterior — limited, and controlled.


Just shoot him!

After escaping Jones’s office, which is soon under rocket fire by ED-209, Robocop heads out through the garage and is greeted by a squadron of heavily armed SWAT team members. Now, Robocop is basically bulletproof, because nobody, not even the little kid from Part II, figured on shooting him in the chin, but he gets nailed hundreds of times by machine guns from all angles, and that gets to him. He’s gotta get rescued, and here to save the day is good ol’ partner Lewis. She rolls up, gets him in the car, and speeds away. They hide out in that rusty nail factory that Murphy was killed at, and Robocop has to get himself together because Boddicker’s men are returning to finish the job.

What the movie ultimately discusses in this violent but extraordinarily well-paced narrative, on a par with Raiders and The Matrix for pitch perfect action movie pacing, is realizing oneself in, and transcending a particular societal context, in this case a hypothetical arena where crime and law enforcement are both engaged in an arms race that’s escalated to science-fictional proportions and, in the darkest corners, in bed with each other.


There is harsh criticism of modern American society going on here, between privatization, corporations, media — these are all painted with comedic strokes of satire, but the humor is in service of world-building, of all things. It’s the same design philosophy behind Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but much more restrained, without the visual gags, for example. It’s a system. The movie is reducing Detroit into a system of corrupt entities that collude, in their strange inner-machinations, to trap this one individual, rendering the individual the sworn enemy of collectives and institutions, and we measure how evil the system is by the catharsis of the individual’s conquest of it. But what is this conquest you might ask…?

This rising up must be set up by falling down, and so we have a series of Murphy being again and again victimized by the system. First he’s killed, but that doesn’t really count. You could argue that he comes into this new police station for all intents and purposes green, and is not given sufficient backup as requested, and so the foibles over at the police department were instrumental but, eh. The beginning is where he becomes Robocop, and is suddenly beholden to OCP. They’re not giving him his life back, that’s for certain. They don’t even let him leave the chair or the chain-link kennel — I mean, they try to not let him leave but he goes out and searches for Clarence Boddicker anyway, whom he sees in his Robocop dreams.

He’s victimized again when he begins this vendetta, when he begins to defy the system by regaining a sense of his old self, with his very human partner Lewis. That’s how he does it, that’s how he overcomes the accumulated filth of all the sex and murder of the whores and politicians shouting save us, by regaining his very humanity. That’s why by the end of the movie we can see his face again. It makes narrative sense that he doesn’t have his helmet on, unlike in let’s say, the ’95 Judge Dredd. The regaining culminates in the line where Robocop says “I’m not arresting you anymore.” Wouldn’t you love to kill the guy who killed you? That’s not exactly legally-sanctioned, and indeed that’s what stopped him before. Robocop nearly kills Boddicker in the factory, and Boddicker reminds him that he’s a cop. Yes, he is a cop. So he arrests him that time.


“He’s a cyborg, you idiot!”

To swing back, that arrest gets the attention of Dick Jones and then we have Directive 4. The revenge plot is expanded and pushed back on, which makes the confronting of the two villains so great. The very primal revenge plot is frustrated and then follows through. This plot also eliminates the corruption at OCP. Well, at least the corruption visible from the film’s opening (saying nothing of the Old Man and his sidekick in the sequels). And we end on a perfect line: When asked his name, Robocop says, “Murphy.”

We see all these ridiculous things, presented in the itself ridiculous news segments running throughout the movie, we see the men in suits dealing with gangsters, the crime on the streets, the coldness of the OCP technicians, expanded upon in the sequel, and through it all, an individual is able to realize himself, in this system that erases names and kills to climb ladders.


The vengeance plot is somewhat broadly expressed: take for example the idea of oppression, by way of Robocop going HRRRK on his knees before the desk of Dick Jones, but the criticism finds its way regardless, as the story moves through its dramatically satisfying paces. That’s really why the movie works so well — it joins storytelling with making a point. Every action Robocop takes is entertaining, and it means something, or builds toward a greater meaning. There is no taking a scene out to sit around on the boat drinking beer and talking about “There’s an expanse of the data net my cyber-brain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call “me.” And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits…”

Violence is in all shapes here. You got splatter violence, funny violence, cathartic violence, even disturbing violence in at least one instance. Robocop has that unexpected harshness to it that you might expect from a horror director doing an action film, think James Wan’s Death Sentence or James Gunn’s Super, though more the latter than the former.


The violence then becomes problematic when we think about revenge, that revenge is the modus of being human here, for reclaiming Murphy’s humanity. But it’s more about reaching back into the life before Murphy became Robocop. This is the action movie equivalent of if Robocop was about a guy trying to get back with his family, and undergoing that sort of bloodless struggle. Would a sci-fi drama like that have reached as many people, and made those action fans think about something, more than ‘Is Valverde a real place?’ I’d say probably not, just because of how many sci-fi dramas are out there. Eternal Sunshine, Gattaca, Code 46, 2046, these are of varying quality and rare.

The better question is whether that theoretical sci-fi drama would pack the same punch. Clearly no, though it might pack one of similar effect. Robocop is hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t trade those explosive big hit moments for anything. That they actually exist in support of an artistic intent — that is, social commentary — gives them a reason for being that’s another rarity that ought not be. Robocop might be super violent, but it is not like, say, a film by Takashi Miike, where the same sort of imagery feels frequently uncalled for.


Your movies are not funny, Miichael.

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