RoboCop (1987)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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RoboCop is a wild movie.  It’s a fun action movie with layers upon layers of satire.  It’s dark and grim but also fun and absurd.  It’s a version of Detroit straight out of Gotham, where crime isn’t just rampant but there are movie villains everywhere you look.  They laugh like hyenas, taunt mute gas station attendants and eventually all get what’s coming in grotesque, over the top ways.

The main character is Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), an idealistic young police officer who is brutally torn apart by gunfire at the hands of one of the movie’s several villains, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang.  Murphy will then be revived, though with most of his memory wiped, as Robocop, the “future of law enforcement.”

He’s suddenly a Batman-like hero, though of course the nature of this transformation strips him of any and all agency.  He is suddenly at the mercy of Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a company with whom the mayor of Detroit has to make a deal so as to avoid bankruptcy.  OCP then controls the police force who will eventually go on strike due to the low wages and copious amounts of danger of their line of work, and it will install RoboCop on a trial basis… except that he kind of has free reign to roam the streets almost immediately.

RoboCop is the brainchild of executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) after the previous idea, a large turret-bearing machine straight out of Aliens, proved to have its drawbacks (it obliterated another board member during a demonstration).  That machine was Dick Jones’ (Ronny Cox) idea, and he will take issue with Morton going over his head to make RoboCop a thing.

So there’s a lot going on here.  We empathize with RoboCop, but for the most he is only following orders.  His orders make him do good things, like stop those hyena-like criminals, but it all goes back to making one of the movie’s villains, Morton, look good.  So everything RoboCop does only further ingratiates him into a system that doesn’t give one sh*t about him.

Now there’s also Boddicker, whom RoboCop begins to realize is the man who killed him.  Boddicker happens to be working with Jones, and together they kill Morton, apparently with ease.  This erases some of the antagonistic forces off the board a little too quickly for my taste, mostly because I enjoyed watching Jones and Morton try to outmaneuver each other.

In the end RoboCop will begin to assert himself.  He must follow certain protocols, but he learns how to circumvent the law, and he begins acting in his own self-interests.  This sort of growth helps him reconnect with his partner, Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen) and get vengeance on those who worked to destroy him.

Alright, so RoboCop is fascinating because it presents such a horrifying dystopian future. It’s not just that crime is so comically bad but that the people of this time are so used to it.  The movie, like Starship Troopers, opens with footage the people of this world would be watching.  It’s a local tv new station that tells us about all the things going wrong in the world.

There was a space station, for example, that malfunctioned and destroyed much of Santa Barbara including two former U.S. Presidents.  The news anchors have no intonation as they explain this before transitioning into a commercial break that tries to sell us on the hot new car, the “6000 SUX,” or a family game designed around the concept of nuking other countries.  It’s silly, absurd and frightening, much in the same way as Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, though that movie took this kind of satire to a whole new level.

This dystopian world is so disturbing that there’s really no winning here.  What could RoboCop possibly do to suggest he has won anything?  He will forever be a kind of monster, stripped forcibly of his own life and lacking any control over himself as anything more than a company line item.

Because of that the movie doesn’t try to get too sentimental or delve into any of this.  He visits his old family home but never again runs into his wife or son after he has been brought back to life, and when the movie ends, giving Dick Jones what he deserves, RoboCop smirks and we cut to the credits.

This false happy ending feels subversive?  By not going into the more horrifying implications of this reality Paul Verhoeven is treating it as almost fact.  This world is such a mess, even when the three main villains have been dealt with, that it’s not even worth discussing where they go from here.  RoboCop will still be in RoboHell, contemplating who he once was, what was taken from him, and how long he will be expected to march through the streets shooting the genitals of would be rapists or complicating the plans of would be terrorists.  That level of crime is just expected now, both in this dystopian future and, to a lesser degree, in our own world.

So I think RoboCop has been so successful not just because of the entertainment value, but also because it reflects back to us the more grotesque aspects of our own culture.  I mean, Detroit did file for bankruptcy in 2013, and while there was no RoboCop or cartoonish movie villains, we live in a world where certain levels and types of crime feel expected, just background noise.  I don’t watch the nightly news so much anymore, but when I did it seemed like every story dealt with corruption, violence or natural disasters, all before the final time slot of the show allowed for some kind of innocent uplifting news story about a Vietnam Veteran who now grooms dogs or something.

Up Next: Memphis Belle (1990), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Wildlife (2018)

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