Though it often seems like nothing more than a schlock b-movie, Robocop is actually one of the most savage satires of '80s America the decade produced.
RobocopDirector: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Ronnie Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Dan O'Herlihy
MPAA rating: R
US DVD Release Date: 2004-06-08
Until very recently, fans of the Robocop series were bracing themselves for an impending remake of the 1987 original. Thanks to MGM’s financial difficulties, that reboot has now indefinitely shelved and fans can breathe easy once again. But with the news that there will be no further entries into the series, it’s about time Robocop gets the reappraisal it has long deserved. While Paul Verhoeven’s semi-cult classic can claim a huge number of fans born in the '70s and '80s, relatively few of these fans would actually call Robocop a good film in any conventional sense. Appreciation is usually qualified by that heady mixture of irony and nostalgia afforded to other childhood staples from the decade.
All the hallmarks of trashy ‘80s cinema are there: terrible haircuts, yuppies, cocaine, excessive violence and corny one-liners (all together now: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”), while the blood-soaked and morally simplistic tale of vengeance against low-level street crime fits the ultra-conservative ideology of Reagan-era America perfectly. Yet just below this tacky surface are signs that the film isn’t playing entirely straight with its material; an arch delivery that suggests the film makers were poking fun at the ideology they were operating within. Indeed, with thoughtful analysis it’s possible to claim that Robocop is actually one of the most savage satires of '80s America the decade produced.
It’s helpful to mentally retrieve the film from the trash can of '80s action cinema and restore it to the slightly more respectful trash can of thoughtful science fiction. While Robocop certainly features its share of surface-level genre tropes identifying its action movie influence, it also features key genre elements that reconfigure the gunplay and the coke. The film is set in a near-future Detroit with several points of departure from the present day: the city has undergone an economic recovery from the dark ages of the 1980s, accruing a glittering new skyline which includes the monolithic headquarters of Omni Consumer Products, the multinational corporate giant which runs the Detroit police force. More saliently, there are several technological advancements in the Robocop universe which are key to understanding the film as a whole.
In sci-fi discourse, the term for a technological or scientific point of difference between the fictional universe and our own is a "novum", a term coined by influential critic Darko Suvin. Science fiction (or "SF") nova are sometimes mere agents of the plot, as the state of the art Cobra Assault Cannons are in Robocop, but more often they are an important symbolic apparatus. Genre theorist and SF writer Adam Roberts explains, "We might say the 'novum' of SF is a part of the imagined world that stands in for the process of a whole environment; whereas the whole SF text operates metaphorically.”
Thoughtful science fiction tends to reflect or represent aspects of the real world through futuristic or otherworldly metaphor, and the technology of those future worlds is the device through which that metaphor is conveyed. The world of Robocop is really a metaphor for '80s America – in fact it’s barely distinguishable from '80s America, which is why it contains all the tropes of '80s cinema listed earlier. As Robocop producer Jon Davison put it “Although the movie is set in the future, like any movie it’s a product of its time, and this is really a product of the Reagan era.”
If we want to know what the film has to say about the Reagan era, analysing the technology is the place to start, and it quickly becomes apparent that most of the futuristic innovations of Robocop are parodic in nature. Several of these innovations are revealed right at the start, in one of the first signs that Robocop is an altogether smarter films than the '80s revenge flicks that provide its narrative template.
These nova are not richly intricate symbols, but they humorously illustrate how the film re-presents '80s American culture. The film’s scriptwriter Michael Miner points out that “Foreign directors critique America better than Americans can” and Dutchman Verhoeven, making his first American picture, sharpened the satirical edge of Miner and Neumeier’s script. The media-parody framing device became a recurring feature of the director’s work (notably in Starship Troopers), and even a casual viewer can spot its keenly observed satire of American media, right down to the obligatory "man on the street" interviews with rambling dullards.
The satirical nova do not end with the joke products, although it's worth pointing out that almost every piece of technology in the film, including Robocop himself, is a product in some way. ED-209, the malfunctioning robotic police mech, may be Robocop’s metallic nemesis, but it’s also an OCP product and its designers didn’t miss the chance to poke fun at corporate design principles. Special effects designer Craig Davies said of ED-209:
"I thought it wouldn't be designed to be wholly functional. First they'd design it to look neat and then they'd worry about making it work. In other words, these futuristic designers would pay a lot of attention to the cosmetics of it in an attempt to market the thing on looks alone -just like an American car."
Robocop himself is also an OCP product, a rather more efficient one, and his product-ness extends to programming that prevents him acting against OCP employees. "We can’t very well have our products turning against us," smirks corrupt exec Dick Jones, as Robocop tries in vain to arrest him.
Robocop is the central novum of the film – the symbol of everything the film as a whole is about. While his symbolism is far more subtle than the other examples, it is also far more layered, and decoding it is central to understanding the piece as a social commentary. Robocop is also the central character, the protagonist, and so his technological presence is no mere facilitator of the story: he is the story. Robots in SF, particularly part-human cyborgs, conventionally signify questions about what it means to be human in the face of ever-encroaching technological advancement. True enough, these themes do occur within the film, but they had been worn into the SF carpet long before 1987, and it’s more interesting to follow the pattern of the film’s nova thus far and think of Robocop as a satirical symbol.
In many ways, the cyborg formerly known as officer Alex Murphy represents the archetypal '80s action hero: the victim of some terrible wrong at the hands of the criminals who takes the law, and a Magnum, into his own hands to settle the score. This right-wing revenge fantasy was especially prevalent in '80s cinema, epitomised by films such as the Vigilante series, but Neumeier was quick to point out that Robocop was actually a "reaction to the later Eastwood and Bronson action pictures… The excessive¬ness of these films struck me as a kind of desperation, an indication of how ludicrous the genre was becoming." Robocop is fittingly ludicrous, particularly in its utterly one-dimensional portrayal of criminals who are evil for the sake of being evil, but the difference is that its writers were well-aware of the absurdity of their genre.
Robocop doesn’t just represent the '80s action hero. His character is sketched from several other recurring hero figures of American culture. There are elements of the Western sheriff in his cleaning up the town crusade and his pistol-twirling signature move that signals one of his few echoes of former humanity. As Robo-née-Murphy dispatches Dick Jones in the final scene with a triumphant flourish of the pistol back into its high-tech holster, OCP's Old Man commends him in Old West talk, "Nice shooting, son".
Robocop is also the ultimate comic-book hero that never was. A reporter in the film says as much, and it’s no throw-away line. Michael Miner’s original idea was entitled Super Cop and told the story of a cop who gained special powers from a piece of advanced technology, while Ed Neumeier professes a strong comic book influence and even stated "I always wanted Robocop to be a movie that had its roots in comic books," an idea which came full circle when Frank Miller expanded the franchise into a short-lived comic series.
The Christ allusion sends the script nuclear. Suddenly, you realise that the Robocop project’s parent company happens to be Omni Consumer Products, an all-powerful conglomerate that controls seemingly every aspect of futuristic life, including the law enforcement, while hardwiring commands such as 'Thou Shalt Not Fuck With The Company' into its products. By equating God with Corporation, the film becomes a comment on the pervasiveness of corruption and greed throughout the fabric of American society, and Robocop himself symbolises the extent to which that corruption and greed has penetrated the soul of America. Here the SF trope is re-appropriated: Robocop’s struggle to regain his humanity is not a battle against technology, but commodity.
This fight is enacted literally in the scene where he tries to arrest Dick Jones but his product coding over-rides his independent will. Robocop is programmed to be a complicit, dutiful corporate product, devoid of feeling or individuality. The character’s psychomachi(n)a is a shadow play of the American cultural conflict, the complicated entanglement of faith, the American Dream and the struggle for freedom which underpins the American collective consciousness.
The theme of perverted spirituality continues with the ironic juxtaposition of Robocop’s ultra-violent revenge mission and his messianic imagery. Robocop isn’t just an American hero, he’s an American saviour who guns down the sinners rather than forgiving them, and the film’s parody of right-wing blood thirst is elevated to a cutting comment on the perverted spirituality of a nation that has entwined faith with violence since its foundation. Here the conflation of Old West gunslinger and Christian messiah is particularly apposite, the Western being the original bullet-riddled celluloid creation myth of American culture. Robocop, and the vigilantes he parodies, are merely the evolution of an archetypal symbol of American heroism that stands distinctly at odds with the religious ideology of the conservative Americans who idolise these characters.
So while Robocop dutifully acts out its generic lines on the surface, underneath it is busily taking apart the unspoken implications of these conventions and inviting the more thoughtful viewer to see them in gruesome detail. This is the great strength of the film: it works whether you’re in on the joke or not.
I suppose the only question left is: did we ever need the remake? Some might argue that the satire is no longer relevant a quarter of a decade on. Revenge narratives are nowhere near as prevalent, the action film is a wildly different beast and there is a Democratic government in power. We live in supposedly more enlightened times, and when we watch the blood-soaked cinematic products of the Reagan era we find them as funny as any of Robocop’s fake cultural snippets. And yet some could argue that the film remains an effective commentary. A glance at contemporary America; its products, its media and its people, suggests that many of Verhoeven’s most wicked barbs still cut as deeply now as they did in 1987.
Adam Roberts, Science Fiction (New York: Routledge, 2000)
Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (Yale University Press, 1979)
Flesh & Steel: The Making Of Robocop dir. Jeffrey Schwarz (Automat Pictures, 2001)
The Robocop Archive, Creating ED 209, http://robocoparchive.com/
The Robocop Archive, Comments, http://robocoparchive.com/