A Critical Appreciation of Explosions: RoboCop

For the 2nd post in this series, here’s a terrifically well-written guest post from Yaz

If you were to ask me to name my five favorite science fiction movies, the list would go as follows:

A Clockwork Orange. Videodrome. Minority Report. RoboCop. Blade Runner.

 There’s no irony there, no tongue-in-cheek, so-bad-it’s-good appeal. I love RoboCop. It is one of my favorite movies. It’s one of the best action movies ever made and it has a lot of depth to it. Ken Russell (director of Tommy and the film version of Lawrence’s Women in Love) described it as “the best science fiction film since Metropolis.” Roger Ebert compared it to Chaplin’s Modern Times. It’s the director of Showgirls and a cyborg tromping around, spouting monotone one-liners and fighting the most 80’s villains imaginable, but out of it all come some really complex ideas and a startling amount of heart and pathos. It is a great film, and the fact that anyone on Earth could think otherwise, well–that’s the kind of crime not even RoboCop himself could stop.

“I have to go. Somewhere, a critical misinterpretation is happening.”

So come with me, now, to the ruins of Old Detroit, and let’s look at the elements that make this film so damn amazing (and, by the way– I’m going to be consulting the Director’s Cut of the film, which goes heavier on the satire and the blood).

RoboCop was made in 1987, and, from the looks of things, looks to be set in the far-off year of 1986. It’s in the gutted, burned-out ruins of Detroit, plagued by crime, corruption, and drugs. So, essentially, Detroit. The film’s about the ’80’s, and specifically it’s an incredibly harsh attack on Reagan: on the belief that private businesses can be trusted with the welfare of the people, on the way that Reaganomics pampered the rich while leaving the urban poor trapped, on the notion that fancy technology could save us from human nature– the film opens with a news broadcast about the Star Wars missile defense system being operational; later, as a background event, that system misfires and kills both Reagan and Nixon.

Peter Weller, the titular Robotic Cop, said it himself: “the real story of RoboCop is a message about the return and renewal of life, and it all takes place in Detroit.” RoboCop himself used to be a rookie cop named Murphy, murdered by drug dealers and then rebuilt to be the perfect officer by the corrupt company that owns the police force. Like Detroit, he’s been torn apart and gutted by criminals and businessman, rebuilt by the same people who want to rebuild Detroit into a shining, perfect city, and, like their plans for Detroit, they’re more concerned with using him for their own means than with helping anyone. RoboCop is a passionate film about American Urban decay and what it does to people’s souls, and the film brings the dirt, decay, and despair of a ruined Detroit to life beautifully.

Beautiful.

Hell, they even have Robocop drive a Ford Taurus and have the villains all lust after expensive, foreign-made Toyotas. That’s how much this film loves Detroit and takes its side.

RoboCop also has some of the darkest, most merciless satire I’ve ever seen in a movie.

I touched on this earlier– when the film casually incinerates Reagan and Nixon and then never mentions it again –but this is a film with a dark, dark sense of humor and a deep disrespect for authority. Whereas a lot of the great action films of the ’80s have cool, terse villains with great haircuts (like Die Hard’s Hans Gruber or Lethal Weapon’s Mister Joshua), Verhoven’s villains are the sleaziest, most unlikable parts of the ’80s. The absolute scum of the Reagan era: an Eichmann-lookalike drug dealer and sleazy businessmen most reminiscent of Futurama’s Eighties Guy. Utter sociopaths, self-absorbed and childish and with no respect for Murphy’s dignity and soul.

“Murphy, we’re Eighties men. That means for three bucks we cut out your soul and turn you into a steel monster.”

Throughout the whole film, we’re shown what a cultural wasteland the world has become. The only TV show we ever see is one composed entirely of obvious innuendos and inane catchphrases, and every character in the film watches it and quotes it. The hottest car in America proudly advertises its 8.2 mpg mileage, while RoboCop, a marvel of engineering, drives a Taurus. The film is intercut with ads for nuclear-annihilation family boardgames and news reports of total disasters are given less time than fluff pieces, making it clear that this is an America that has long since given up caring about the rest of the world.

The only heroes in the film are Murphy and the other cops, good people fighting against a plague of crime and a private company that would rather use the police as its own private security and as test subjects for their experiments than actually help anybody. After a member of the board is gunned down (in what looks like a fireworks display of red corn syrup) by a malfunctioning test robot during a board meeting, Omni Consumer Products CEO’s biggest worry is the amount of R&D time wasted on the project. The businessmen try to talk like gangsters and the gangsters try to act like businessmen, and the only hero Detroit has left is a cop who, when you strip away all the robotics, was barely competent to begin with.

Let’s face it, any cop who can go on to play Burroughs is a man you don’t want handling a gun.

RoboCop is not a film that pulls any punches: it’s dark and it’s bloody, but it never glamorizes those moments. Paul Verhoven grew up with V-2 rockets launching out of his neighborhood and British bombs falling in his backyard; he’s not going to make an ultraviolent cop with no restrictions look cool. The film instead pretends to be science fiction just because, like the best satire, no one would believe what it had to say about America if it tried to convince them it was true.

Like a lot of great art, RoboCop wants to make you feel uncomfortable about where your loyalites lie. RoboCop is, by the end of the film, unquestionably a hero. He saves the day, kills the people who killed him and used him (that’s not a spoiler, this film was made in the ’80s), kicks a little ass, takes some names, rides on an eagle, and gets some incredible theme music. So it says something about the darkness and strength of this film that it’s uncomfortable to watch him do so.

See, RoboCop used to be Alex Murphy. And Murphy was a good man, with a kid he wanted to impress and a wife he loved and a partner he bickered with. But Murphy was just an ordinary cop who literally couldn’t make it one day in South Detroit without getting shotgunned to hamburger and executed by a bunch of sneering punks.

And he was just thirty years away from retirement.

Murphy’s death is a tragedy, but his transformation into RoboCop is even more of one: he never gets his wife and son back, the identity and humanity he loses to become RoboCop can never fully be reclaimed. His death and resurrection— seen through his eyes as no one really tries to save him and OCP’s scientists never consider the man he used to be –is, rather than triumphant, one of the most horrifying moments in the film. Murphy’s transformation is an even greater crime than his death, and the fact that OCP approves it so callously, so unthinkingly, and is so proud of the machine they turn him into is the thing that drives home their evil.

But without that happening, the happy ending would never happen. We cheer for what RoboCop does, and we love it when he punches through walls, and in doing so we cheer for the same evil that we want him to defeat.  The same programming that lets him fight crime also makes him a slave of corrupt business interests. Verhoven manages to make a film with a sympathetic crime-fighting superhero while still making us really uncomfortable with the notion of superheroes, just like Alan Moore did in Watchmen or Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight.

It’s telling that when RoboCop is at his most sympathetic– after he renounces being a machine and tries to get revenge for the human he was –is also when he’s at his least effective: less Robo and more Cop. The film’s never entirely clear about how much of Murphy is left (clearly not all of him), and watching him struggle to remain human, with the grotesque exposed flesh and circuitry and his malfunctioning program, is heartwrenching and beautiful. The happiest moment in the film is when we see him smile, even though he’s battered and near death: the film reminds us that we’d rather have a human we can cheer for than a machine who always wins.

Okay, put it back on now.

(This is, by the way, the main point that the Frank-Miller-themed sequels miss. Frank Miller, king of missing the point of things, thinks that a cyborg badass who shoots criminals in the face is really really cool and forgets that he’s supposed to be human.)

Paul Verhoven famously said of RoboCop, “he is Jesus, but he is an American Jesus, so I gave him a gun.” I think it’s beautiful that a Dutch man made such a perfectlyAmerican work: it’s violent, satirical, smart, cool, has great action scenes, and draws so heavily from a quintessentially American setting. There’s a lot of things in RoboCop that make it one of my favorite action films, and this list has only covered some of them. Like great science fiction (most of Dick’s work comes to mind), it asks us questions not about the future, but about humanity and our current world. And, like most great ’80s action films, there’s a scene where a one-liner is spouted and a bad guy gets shot off the top floor of a skyscraper.

It really is a damn fine movie.

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One thought on “A Critical Appreciation of Explosions: RoboCop

  1. Pingback: Death Proof IV : Evel Knievel | CAPTAIN KELLY'S KITCHEN

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