Robocop at 35: why the satirical action movie still holds up today
Written by Michael Green
Robocop begins with a lovely establishing shot of futuristic “Old Detroit” at twilight. The camera soars across a body of water (presumably the Detroit River) and pushes in towards the city. The buildings are clean-lined and elegant. The sky is a deep cerulean. This place seems pretty nice, we think.
Ah, but it’s an ironic joke — one of many at the expense of the city’s people who yearn for a livable urban environment amongst the industrial ruin — because nothing else in the movie will be beautiful, at least not in conventional terms. Any beauty is seen through the eyes of rapacious men who can only appreciate the lethal curves and angles of militarized steel, the vertiginous skyscrapers of wealth and privilege, and the shimmering aura of money in all its forms. When a crime boss chews out a subordinate for accidentally scorching the cash from a robbery, he seems almost as aghast at the desecration of the pristine greenbacks as the fact that the gang won’t be able to spend them.
Robocop is a movie about these evil men, the venal institutions over which they preside, and the flickers of human decency that keep them from enveloping what good is left of the human spirit. Among the many reasons why the movie remains so popular after 35 years (rousing sci-fi action, scathing wit, seamless world-building, first-rate filmmaking) is this insistence that the good among us can still rise from the (sometimes radioactive) muck that threatens to overwhelm us.
Paul Verhoeven is a serious director
A lot of bad movies were made in the 1980s, and many of them were in traditionally disreputable genres like science fiction and horror. This was partially due to the massive popularity of the new home video market that was desperate for products to fill the shelves. Any old straight-to-video geek show would do as long as it contained some splatter gore and a little T&A and maybe had a sense of humor about itself.
Robocop has plenty of all of that, but the acclaimed Dutch director Paul Verhoeven — who was making only his second film in America after Flesh + Blood — signals that he is a serious filmmaker by employing bravura filmmaking early on. Even as the angry Black police sergeant yells “scumbag” repeatedly (could anything be more ‘80s?), Verhoeven establishes the station and the new recruit, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), with some complexly choreographed long takes and a moving camera. It’s as though he wants to put the viewer on notice that, while Robocop may go on the video store shelf next to The Toxic Avenger, it will hardly be some tossed-off exploitation quickie.
A gnarly toxic avenger of sorts does appear late in the movie thanks to that ubiquitous ‘80s movie feature, a vat of acid, but the looming threat in that early scene is that the police officers might strike, thus leaving the populace unprotected. But like the lovely opening shot, it’s another bit of misdirection by Verhoeven. While labor unions were a public enemy for many in the conservative ’80s, Robocop is radically, subversively leftist and firmly on the side of besieged workers. The institutions facilitating run-amok capitalism – whether political, corporate, or military-industrial – are the real threats to public safety and well-being in the movie.
Corporations are the real criminals
Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner waste no time in identifying the bad guys in the first of the movie’s famous satirical future news reports. The talking heads (Entertainment Tonight’s fizzy reporter Leeza Gibbons was an inspired casting choice) cheerfully recount the legacy of European colonialism in Africa, now in the threatening form of a French neutron bomb, along with the bumbling inadequacy of the US president, who floats around helplessly during his visit to the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform.” The point is quickly made: Modern Western leadership is mired in the past, potentially deadly, and ineffectual. As the movie will soon dramatize, governments could never hope to match the ruthless efficiency and undiluted purpose of global corporations.
Sure enough, the first speech by the corporate Big Bad, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), is about how the privatization of public endeavors such as hospitals, space exploration, and the military have enriched Omni Consumer Products (OCP). Their next goal is to privatize policing, a ripe target given its low level of public trust (thanks mostly to poor funding). Jones’ solution is to roll out robots/tanks designated “ED-209″s to keep the peace. But Verhoeven savagely lampoons the idea of a machine doing the delicate human work of policing in the now infamous sequence in which the ED-209 prototype shreds a junior executive into bloody hamburger without ever understanding what it’s doing (the machine keeps on pumping the corpse full of lead long after the man is beyond dead).
The fact that the robot (who is programmed for “urban pacification)” is rendered in quaint stop-motion animation is a sly joke about how out of touch it is. In another subtle jab, the name of the scientist who heads the program is Dr. McNamara, as in Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Vietnam War and the warmongering scourge of Errol Morris’ Oscar-Winning documentary, The Fog of War. That the bloody corpse ends up flattened on top of the diorama of Delta City, OCP’s gentrification model for Detroit, is less subtle, but the point is that none of the cold-hearted executives are in a position where they need to even pretend to care. Delta City could be an ocean of carnage and they would only see the next profit opportunity from their executive boardroom in the sky.
In a parallel jab, the criminals on the ground are equally aspirational, making small talk about capital investment and free enterprise between robberies and murders. These ground-level criminals are led by the psychopathic Clarence Boddicker, played with sneering bemusement by Kurtwood Smith. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Smith and Cox play two of the all-time great movie bad guys here. Miguel Ferrer as an aggressively ambitious young executive also does slimily stellar work. The fact that they’re all here together is another reason why Robocop is considered a highlight of the genre.
Classic science-fiction themes
Speaking of genre, the movie has also become considered a classic because it artfully fuses many classic sci-fi preoccupations: dystopian futurism, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the nature of human identity. These all coalesce around the character of Murphy, the neophyte officer who Boddicker’s gang violently dispatches, leaving just enough warm meat (and handsome chin) to refashion into the titanium-encased super cop.
But something stirs in the consciousness or soul or whatever metaphysical designation you want to give it, and that something is the essence of Murphy, who will struggle to understand and assert selfhood throughout the film. The cast and filmmakers do great work imbuing Murphy/Robocop with affecting pathos, especially since we don’t really get to know him before his transformation and only see his family in flashback snippets. When his former partner, Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen), tells him that his family moved on after what they assumed was his death, we genuinely feel for the crestfallen tin can.
Of course, this is after we are already on his side, having witnessed his acts of reckless superheroism protecting the community. Another of the movie’s jokes is that Robocop is effective, but not very efficient. He tends to cause a great deal of collateral damage whenever he foils a crime or saves a victim (he’s really no better than ED-209 in this regard). Nobody seems to care though, either because the city is already such a shambles that it doesn’t matter or because people are so happy to see something working on their behalf that the destruction is worth it.
In terms of genre, Robocop is also one of the rare sci-fi films that predicted a real-world future that more or less came to pass. Like Blade Runner (starring Verhoeven’s frequent collaborator, Rutger Hauer) it features big cities that are simultaneously crumbling and gentrifying, a rising gap between rich and poor, an evisceration of social services, global corporations that control all the wealth and have monopolies on the best technology and research and development, and all of it teeters on the edge of environmental catastrophe.
Unlike Blade Runner, with its perpetual rainy night and empty streets, the urban environment depicted in Robocop still looks like the decaying industrialism in some big cities today. If you wandered around parts of the real Detroit, I’m guessing you couldn’t tell much of a difference.
Despite rooting around in dystopian sludge (at times literally), Robocop is not a nihilistic movie or even a cynical one. Though its primary form is scathing satire, it is profoundly humanist. Verhoeven was a child in the Netherlands during World War II and he witnessed the carnage and the chaos firsthand. While it probably seemed like the forces of darkness were extinguishing the light of civilization, that light survived amidst profound acts of courage and heroism. The movie dramatizes a similarly optimistic scenario with conviction.
Verhoeven has also said that, from a boy’s point of view, the war felt like a spectacle or adventure, which may account for both the fun and the briskness of the film (and some of his other films as well, such as Total Recall and the World War II action-drama Black Book). A good satire has to move, lest it gets bogged down in either depressiveness or preaching (one of the great satirists in the English language was named Jonathan Swift, after all). Verhoeven and the writers know when to get in and out of the story, and indeed the movie sports one of the tidiest conclusions in all of cinema: the hero dispatches the villain and reclaims his human identity all in one stroke. Cut to black, cue the music.
Robocop is a Hollywood film made within the studio system by a foreign director during a blatantly commercial era of American moviemaking. It eviscerates capitalism and suggests that democracy is nothing more than a civics textbook fairy tale in a world run by authoritarian tycoons. This version of the world is pretty well accepted now that we’re all just a little bit wiser about the way things work (thanks Internet!).
But in 1987, when President Reagan, virtually nestled among amber waves of grain, was delivering speeches about American exceptionalism, such notions were little more than pinko hippie-speak. The fact that Verhoeven’s punk treatise was made at all in that environment is a miracle. That it has become one of the enduring indictments of its era while still being relevant to our contemporary moment and a helluva lot of fun makes it a special film indeed.