Ooooh. Guns, guns, guns!
— Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), RoboCop
Bad language makes for bad feelings.
— RoboCop (Peter Weller), RoboCop 2
RoboCop is really fascism for liberals. The picture has a very liberal viewpoint, and does it in the most violent way imaginable.
— Jon Davison, commentary, RoboCop
This is my perception of the United States.
— Paul Verhoeven, “Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop“
“I like violence, you know,” says Paul Verhoeven. “I like violence in movies. I wanted to show Satan killing Jesus.” No kidding.
Verhoeven’s declaration, made for the featurette, “Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop,” on MGM’s new RoboCop trilogy DVD set, is charmingly obvious, as if anyone listening doesn’t know already that he is a straight-up genius when it comes to making onscreen violence. Understanding his movie as a running commentary on the U.S. capitalism and aggression, he concludes, “At the end, he’s an American Jesus, a Jesus who uses his guns.”
Strikingly, RoboCop‘s political insights are as timely today as on its release in 1987. For all its comic-booky ingenuity, clever stop-motion animation, and specific references to Reaganomics, the movie is intently focused on corporate irrationality and aggression, U.S. self-inflation and selfishness. At the time, asserts “RoboCop Expert” Paul Sammon, no American director would take on the project (Verhoeven credits his wife Martine with seeing the intelligence and political critique in the script, which he had tossed on the floor). Sammon says, “It was considered to be just another low budget science fiction movie with a silly title.” Today, RoboCop is considered by many a masterpiece of cartoonish violence that serves as well as an indictment of U.S. cultural inclinations toward meanness and brutality. As his first U.S.-made movie, it introduced the director of Soldier of Orange and Turkish Delight to summer action movie fans.
RoboCop, the first film of what turned out to be an increasingly untenable franchise — including two theatrical sequels (directed by Irvin Kershner, then Fred Dekker), a tv series, animation, and assorted consumer items — focuses on the protagonist’s origin story. Namely, eager Detroit beat cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is killed in the line of duty by the ferocious gang led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), in front of his helpless partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), caught behind a fence, so that she sees and reacts to the vile murder with the audience.
“It’s the ultimate nightmare, isn’t it?” asks Verhoeven during his commentary track with producer Jon Davison and writer Ed Neumeier (a different track than the one on the Criterion DVD). He’s right. This particular blitz of violence (even cut to suit the MPAA ratings board) is ghastly. And yes, it tells a story all its own, at once condemning, exploiting, and probing viewers’ own fascinations with spectacular violence. Verhoeven describes his thinking as a combination of aesthetics, politics, and morality: “By making the violence less,” he continues later, “by making the violence more elliptic, you were taking away maybe the burlesque, or the grotesque of my staging, that was so over the top that it was nearly kind of absurd.”
But if the original version of Murphy’s demise is longer and bloodier, the edited, theatrical release version retains something like its powerful absurdity. Murphy briefly flashbacks to his married life, his son, his home in the burbs, then flat-lines. A crash team doctor calls his time of death and the screen goes black, just a half-hour into the film. And then, he is resurrected, courtesy of the film’s corporate villains. (Davison observes, “Paul always said he wanted to make Murphy’s death the most violent scene imaginable, because you cannot have the resurrection until you have the crucifixion.”) Headed by the Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy) and overseen by Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox), the perfectly named Omni Consumer Products (OCP), already looking to privatize urban policing, remakes him with mechanical and computer parts. Now he is RoboCop, “the future of law enforcement.”
Part science fiction and largely sociopolitical satire (indicated by the raucous news reports (“Bush should really look at this scene,” says Verhoeven on seeing a “strategic defense peace platform” accidentally targeting California. “It’s still a warning to the government to really look at this movie, before they start to install all these missiles”), game shows (the reality show, I’ll Buy That for a Dollar seems oddly tame compared to the shows that have followed, in “real life”), and commercials for items ranging from the Nuke-Em “family” board game to the gas-guzzling 6000 SUX), the film borrows (imprecisely) from Asimov, in assigning RoboCop three prime directives, namely, “Serve the public trust, uphold the law, and protect the innocent.” All good ideas, and none possible, given that the public trusts no one in authority, the law is designed to serve corporate interests, and the innocent have no chance to stay that way. In charge of the RoboCop project in the first film is the mealy-mouthed, ambitious junior exec, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer).
Gradually introduced by way of some point of view camerawork, the first sight of RoboCop is stunning. Inspired in part by the famous robots in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Metropolis, RoboCop, designed by “RoboTeam,” is exquisitely practical and excessively promoted. As Davison puts it, “We always went back to sleek, a product of Detroit.” In appearance, as in mission, the character is weirdly apt for 2004: a gorgeous, impossible device, this self-described “peace officer” is designed to fail.
His “existential dilemma,” as one crewmember describes it, reaches a couple of climaxes, perhaps most faux-humanistically when he recovers enough of his fragmented, zapped, pre-death memories to go looking for his past. Verhoeven describes the scene when RoboCop returns to his now empty (and for-sale) home, recalling images from his time with his family. Here, he notes, “You get these flashes of the past, this kind of in-the-brain-going stuff, in which you would participate in the brain of a half-man, half-robot, were extremely seductive to me, because I felt there, nearly a theological experience, meaning, a search for a lost paradise.”
There are other ways to read the film’s arguably outrageous vision. For instance, co-writer Michael Miner observes that their film was in the works at the time of Terminator‘s release, and that both are “postmodern robot films, in that the humor is very dark.” The machines, in other words, work both as emblems of a very regular technophobia even as they embrace the possibilities of machines mixed up with humans. Neumeier adds, “He can never go back, he is always going to be something different. He’s not a man, he’s not a machine, he’s something different. He’s his own creature. Maybe.”
This “creature” struggles to come up with a name and sense of community and individuality, accommodating the film’s high-minded allegory (the search for identity). At the same time, and much more interestingly, RoboCop is all about corporate power, the erosion of identity as a viable ambition. Again, it appears prescient even as it was also reflecting its own moment (the emergence of the crack epidemic, the incorporation of public services, the increasing harshness of legal and penal structures). “Now,” says Michael Miner in 2001, “we have a more Dick Jones vision of law enforcement, a militarism in which no secrets get out. Which is really troubling, when you think about it. But you know, America deserves that. It’s a land of private property, where everything has to be owned, serial-numbered, protected, and controlled. We’re addicted to a pretty bad drug, called capitalism. Until we get over that, we’re going to need police the way that they are.”
Such judgment is carried through the series, though in increasingly ineffective storylines and metaphors. (Similarly, the DVD set’s scant extras are gathered on the first disc, including the featurettes, “Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop” (2001, that is, before 9/11 or the wars against Afghanistan and against Iraq, events that only make the film’s observations seem more relevant), “Shooting RoboCop” (1987), and “Making RoboCop” (1987), as well as deleted scenes, a storyboard sequence with commentary by resourceful stop-motion animator Phil Tippett.)
As much as RoboCop warned against the hypocrisy and tragedy of corporate aggression, the next two films tend to issue more mundane morals: drugs and greed are bad. RoboCop 2, based on an original story by the great Frank Miller, begins with a “Newsbreak” concerning the Ed-209 combat unit, deployed in five U.S. cities, even though, as the tv image of a staggering robot reveals, it is malfunctioning as much as during the first film. The urgent need for extreme policing is the epidemic use of Nuke, a highly addictive designer drug that’s given rise to a cult in search of paradise, or so says cult leader and terrorist, Cain (Tom Noonan). Meantime, OCP — which apparently owns everything in sight — has cut cops’ pay and pensions, driving them to strike, in order to haul in the moneymaking robots. This even as the prototypes for RoboCop 2 are robots “with emotional problems,” all suicidal (and expensive, as $90 million) emblems of the ‘future of urban pacification.”
Back to patrolling Detroit’s streets, RoboCop (now calling himself Murphy, following his identity-recovery in the first film) and Lewis do their best to battle the crack-like-addiction-driven violence, even as Murphy stalks his ex-wife and kid. In an effort to squelch this behavior and avoid a lawsuit, RoboCop’s corporate superiors try talking him into a new identity: “You are simply a machine.” That is, he cannot offer his ex a “man’s love.” Miserable, he assents. Yes, he’s only a machine, a point underlined when Cain captures and disassembles Murphy, and OCP puts him back together but reprograms him, so he’s less violent, more inclined to making loopy, cliché-based recommendations: “Waste makes haste. For time is fleeting. A rolling stone is worth two in the bush.” Bad language, indeed.
RoboCop 3 is easily the most ludicrous (and frankly, most juvenile) of the three films, with OCP once again attempting to replace Detroit with the shiny new model-development, Delta City (by now, this plot point is tired). Given the constraints of the PG-13 rating, the new film cuts way back on the crazy violence of the first two films, and instead relies on characterization and audience identification, neither quite strong enough here to carry the film.
OCP’s ploy this time involves a gang of elite policemen called the Rehabs, (Urban Rehabilitation Officers), engaged in a media and physically assaultive campaign to set the streets straight. “From the blazing fields of the Amazon War comes state of the art urban pacification,” announces tv anchor Mario Machado (Casey Wong), all smiles at the prospect. This time, RoboCop’s partner is a cute little computer whiz named Nikko (Remy Ryan), who separated from her family when the heavily armed Rehabs “evict” them from their home and bus the parents off to a camp that doesn’t exist. (Talk about your “enemy combatants.”) Nikko is rescued by an activist named Bertha (CCH Pounder), working with a small band of rebels, and impresses them as she reprograms a ferocious-seeming ED-209 to be “loyal as a puppy.”
The fact that it’s a little girl blowing up buildings and aiding in the poor folks’ resistance might make this movie seem aimed at kids, but the convoluted plot hardly sustains interest. By the time the Rehabs have conjured up their own super-weapon, a set of Japanese ninja warrior robots, the series has plainly run out of ideas. Corrupt Caucasian general Paul McDaggett (John Castle) looks on gleefully as his robots almost take down our all-American hero, just before Nikko and her new geek friend (Jill Hennessey, of all people) reprogram the machines to destroy one another. Yay team. The film closes with the CEO (Rip Torn) being fired by his Japanese boss (Mako), who goes on to pay homage to RoboCop, assembled photo-op-style with assorted underclass heroes (black, underage, female, mixed race).
“You can call me RoboCop,” he informs the utterly flustered CEO, reclaiming his most valuable asset, his consummate, indefinable hybridity. At a time when identity appears to be so wholly premised on image — projecting strength, loyalty, resolution unto stubbornness — this machine looks almost presidential.