RoboCop: The Thinking Man’s Action Movie
by J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)
In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven introduced America to a modern Frankenstein, an unholy alchemy of Kevlar-coated titanium, cutting edge robotics, and bullet-riddled flesh. In Robocop, the post-flatline second act of Officer Alex Murphy offered durable street justice to a battered, demoralized urban landscape, devoid of hope and flush with illegal narcotics. Robocop patrols a broken America, where news stories wring gallows humor from international tragedy, where slapstick comedy appears the highest form of mainstream art. Human life is cheap, especially if you wear a badge, and collective bargaining does not quite apply to those deputized to combat a criminal element as militarized as they are amoral.
In 1987, Robocop was presented as a corporate solution to American failure, specifically the failure of domestic policy to address widespread unemployment, violent crime, and drug addiction in metropolitan areas. The villains of Old Detroit in this original are played by Kurtwood Smith and Ronny Cox; Smith’s cop-killing Clarence Boddicker displays a smarmy ruthlessness recognizable only to those familiar with small business owners or middle managers, while Cox’s Dick Jones, Senior Vice-President at Omni Consumer Products, personifies the Reaganomics-era corporate executive, in conservative three-piece Brooks Brothers Cox embodies the dour greed and polished vision of the Eighties’ corporate raider better than Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko or any of Bret Easton Ellis’ creations. This is science fiction satire, where the audience reflects on the failure of the American experiment through its interactions with street murder and sadistic research and development.
In 1987, police officers die horribly in abandoned, rusting Motor City factories. When high-caliber rounds exit magazines, human blood spills abundantly. The murder of Officer Alex Murphy in Verhoeven’s film horrifies; the viewer endures several minutes of playful banter between criminals amid gasping screams by the protagonist Everyman. Boddicker’s crew dismantles Murphy with pump-action shotguns at close range. He loses his hand to a sawed-off blast, stands weakly, wide-eyed at his own arterial spray, then loses the ruined arm altogether with the next discharge. For a full minute chunks of human male explode from Murphy’s frame; the slight Peter Weller, an actor of average build, appears slightly superhuman in that his character stays conscious throughout this terrible barrage. You resent Murphy’s gritty endurance.
Boddicker’s kill shot rips through Murphy’s cranium like wet tissue paper; you can see the waves of blood and brain matter ripple through Murphy’s head like high tide in Oahu. Extreme violence, certainly. But Verhoeven’s commentary on America’s failure is undeniable. In his Old Detroit, police officers cannot protect and serve. They too are victims of a domestic criminal element raised not on the philosophies of Tony Montana, but on the perspectives of Milton Friedman. Clarence Boddicker is not a sociopath, he’s a deal-making businessman who consolidates control over Old Detroit’s vice and drug rackets. His connection to Omni Consumer Products number two Dick Jones both outlines his capitalist bona fides and illustrates the movie’s rejection of inhumane laissez-faire capitalism.
Through it all: the incessant automatic rifle fire, the farcical news reports, the broken urban institutions, the social Darwinist boardroom environment, and the waning social responsibility among post-traumatic stress disordered municipal law enforcement officers, Verhoeven’s Robocop centers the reanimated cyborg as the digitized Pinocchio whose quest for lost humanity mirrors the audience’s quest for social order. We become more comfortable with the murderous violence Robocop wreaks upon criminals the closer he inches toward remembrance of his human life. We also become more comfortable with the concept of the barely human as law enforcement agent after meager steps toward remembrance occur. Justice can decompose into bloody vengeance, so long as a recognizable human pulls every trigger. José Padilha’s RoboCop examines this theme abundantly.
Today’s RoboCop forces the viewer to consider modern day questions of social disorder: inhuman urban pacification of hostile sovereign nations with unmanned drones, the nature of privacy and free will amid ubiquitous closed-circuit television and secret online metadata surveillance, the unholy collusion between globalized corporate marketing and cable-television opinion journalism. But Padilha’s RoboCop is not satire, it’s action drama. The audience is not intended to consider this present-future as a dramatized extreme. In 2014, RoboCop is a statement about now, or at least, the future now represents. RoboCop’s computer generated tactical data intersperse phenomenal first-person shootouts (while drawing brilliant inspiration from the original film); next-generation video game console designers would sell their family members’ souls to recreate this high-definition carnage in upcoming Splinter Cell and Call of Duty installments. The urban pacification technology OmniCorp hawks the world over in Padilha’s RoboCop replaces human private military contractors with robotic ones, under the guise of preserving American blood and treasure; in action, OmniCorp devolves into Halliburton without emotional programming, Blackwater without ethical restraint.
José Padilha’s RoboCop is a different mechanical animal. In 1987, Officer Alex Murphy was a martyred sacrifice, another tragic narrative to remind us that good men sometimes lose when they confront evil. His family was destroyed, forgotten outside of memory glitches and rapid eye movement recharge. As Robocop, Murphy’s organic human body is lost inside the metal and wires. Peter Weller’s face grotesquely stretches across a titanium-reinforced skull; without the helmet this special effects wizardry and Weller’s high cheekbones give the impression that Officer Murphy’s face (his last physical reminder of his former humanity) could be ripped away with one strong tug on his remaining scalp.
In 2014, the visual look of Detective Alex Murphy’s reincarnation screams ‘posthuman’ at the viewer. During much of the film, Joel Kinnaman’s face is completely visible as RoboCop, surrounded by a black metal skullcap that stretches down his ears and throat. These visuals neatly parallel New Frontier images of Apollo astronauts, along with more recent shuttle commanders before weightless spacewalks. Under Padilha, RoboCop’s cybernetic horror adapts to clean lines and colorful displays; we embrace an antiseptic techno-organic tomorrow informed less by overdubbed computer vocals and more by the quiet clicks and whispering whirrs of Robocop’s servo-motors. Gone is the managerial Machiavelli that was OCP’s Dick Jones; OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) presents a Steve Jobs visionary futurist applied to military weaponry. Public opinion, politics, marketing: all are malleable according to his design, all can be manipulated given domestic hunger for technological advancement and prosperous civic serenity. Omni Consumer Products was IBM. OmniCorp is Apple.
The result is a satisfyingly unnerving cinematic experience. In a promotional interview on RoboCop, Gary Oldman describes the new film as a “thinking man’s action movie”. I concur. This movie deserves viewing for both its timely political conversations and stunning visual effects. In recent news, jargon like ‘metadata’, names like ‘Edward Snowden’ and organizations like the ‘National Security Agency’ have, in my estimation, enraged those citizens within Western bodies politic with healthy respect for civil libertarianism and a natural disdain for overreaching government influence. Most of my generation do not sympathize; we who have come of age as social media matured think nothing of volunteering our personal preferences and private prejudices for public consumption. We expect multinational conglomerates to remember and study our opinions and attitudes; actually, we thrive on the attention. We tweet thought. We share everything. We of the first generation to live out our lives online often do not conceive of a right to privacy as a justification for anything; we crowdsource decisions about restaurants, concerts, wedding venues, political parties, television shows, tampons, identity politics, college majors and career choices. Our babies exist online before they exit the womb. And never do we expect that our public gushing could have lasting consequence.
Witness the death of the anonymity of the crowd in RoboCop, and ask yourself if government metadata collection is something you can safely ignore. When every sidewalk in America becomes a police lineup for all – not just the young Black men we mass incarcerate or the young Arab men we extraordinarily render – collective reexamination of government security policy is paramount. This “thinking man’s action movie” poses these concerns far better than any Glenn Greenwald polemic.
The biologists among us may object to some visual and narrative choices, race activists might disdain the violence toward the Black body on-screen, and Verhoeven purists will most likely recoil at the rejection of an urban dystopia for a global corporate security state, but José Padilha’s RoboCop reignites political debate in science fiction. For that alone, this film is worth the price of the ticket. Unlike the offensive and heavy handed Elysium, RoboCop centers our questions about technologically superior Leviathan authority with a relatable protagonist whose frantic grasps to maintain free will mirror our fevered insistence on social and economic agency in a world where the proverbial one percent understand us better than we do ourselves, own everything, and profit from our basic desire to feel safe.