As you can see, I took a left turn on my idea of classic monsters. Except, I didn’t. Not really. I’m willing to bet a number of you will already know where I’m going with this, but for the purposes of the blog, let me just spell it out.
RoboCop is first and foremost a cyberpunk film dealing with the line between man and machine in a transhuman state. When you peel back that shiny metal veneer, it’s also a tale that looks both death and unchecked technological progress straight in the eyes. It wasn’t so long ago that I began Project: Monster with a look at the original tale that dared to do that: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. RoboCop is, for all intents, the cinematic descendant of that classic tale, as much as any of the films with the Frankenstein name attached.
In the not too distant future, many of the civil departments of Detroit are run by the multinational conglomerate Omni Consumer Products, or OCP. This includes areas traditionally viewed as non-profit, such as hospitals and the police. Crime in Detroit is at an all-time high, with cops being killed in wartime numbers. There is talk of strike. As OCP is set to begin construction on the next generation city, Delta City, on the bones of Old Detroit, the company has invested in the idea of eradicating the crime that has brought Detroit to its knees. To do that, they need a state-of-the-art police officer with superior firepower and the reflexes to use it. Their prototype is the Enforcement Droid, ED-209. When its demonstration goes horrifically wrong, their backup project is implemented. All they need is a volunteer.
Transferring in from another precinct, Officer Alex J. Murphy is gunned down on his first day in his new territory by the notorious mobster and cop killer Clarence Boddiker. His body recovered, Murphy is rebuilt by OCP into RoboCop. OCP makes it clear that Robo is product. He has a program, not a name. His mind is wiped of his identity, and he is given his Prime Directives:
1. Serve the public trust.
2. Protect the innocent.
3. Uphold the law.
In the course of his duties, he encounters those responsible for killing him. Making the connections in his mind with the information in the city’s records, he begins to piece together his identity and the connections from Boddiker to OCP.
The movie is directed by Paul Verhoeven, who has made a name for himself with high levels of graphic violence and satire. RoboCop is certainly no exception. The thing is, as much as there is carnage in abundance, there is also an intense amount of social examination and a truly human story beneath it all. I don’t mind saying, I’ve been known to lie awake at night and ponder the themes of this film for hours at a time. As much as it entertains me, it disturbs me on a number of levels.
First, there is the human factor to consider. What would it be like to die and be put back together in any form other than your own, to say nothing of full cybernetic armor? George Lucas gave me a healthy fear of dismemberment while I was growing up. This would complete freak me out. Then there is the human will to consider. In addition to piecing together his identity and his purpose, it has to be reminded that, as stated, RoboCop is product. He’s a slave, not an employee. Less than a slave, if you think about it. The execs consider him in the same light as another piece of hardware, like you or I would see our PCs or smartphones. The notable difference, of course, is that he’s well above military grade.
On the social level, we live in a world where corporate control at that level really isn’t that hard to believe. It was a big fear in the 80s when the CEO was the all-powerful bogeyman, but back then they couldn’t get into our private lives quite so easily. Today, information is everywhere, everything’s connected, and we’re constantly offering every little detail about our lives to data-mining technologies. If knowledge is power, then technology has made virtual gods of corporate executives. As it is, it was only three years before when Hollywood gave us The Terminator, which is practically the next logical progression to the themes presented in this film. When you stop and consider the how the real world has become reflective of the one presented in RoboCop, it becomes a coin flip as to which movie presents a worse case scenario. Certainly the state of crime and poverty in Detroit and cities like it have stayed in the news, along with the failure of government that would prompt a “rescue” from a private corporation.
This film hits me on another level closer to home. Literally closer to home. As in, I pass the some of the shooting locations every day on my commute to work. RoboCop was filmed right here in Dallas, with the studio operating out of nearby Las Colinas (the rich section of Irving). That makes it a bit surreal sometimes. In many cases, a movie shoot will dress up the place so that things look a bit different. Not so here. The streets and buildings are immediately recognizable to a local, even nearly 30 years later. If anything, age and decay has made them look more like what you see in the movie. And if that weren’t bad enough, Dallas has a police problem. Crime is up, enrollment is down, and officers are being paid the lowest wages in the entire Metroplex area. Many are taking jobs in surrounding cities such as Fort Worth and Arlington. It’s the little echoes that make this movie a little too real sometimes.
Even so, I consider RoboCop to be a science fiction masterwork and one of my favorite films. And much like with Tombstone, which I discussed earlier today, it’s just a satisfying story in terms of watching a hero take on the bad guys at their own level. It fills a very primal need I have to see injustice overturned. More than that, I’ve become somewhat intrigued over the years with Peter Weller, the man inside the suit. Weller’s performance is mechanical in the extreme, and it requires a great deal of forethought simply to walk and move how he does. Go ahead and try it. Walk around your house or wherever in direct straight lines, and if you have to turn a corner, snap your head in the direction of intent, and then snap your body to face the same way without overcompensating. It’s harder than it looks, especially to keep it up over time. My deeper interest in Weller stems from his art history background. He holds a master’s degree in Roman and Renaissance Art, and a PhD in Italian Renaissance Art History. I can’t help but admire that.
Back to the movie discussion, there’s a new set of philosophical points to be raised when you consider the ethics of RoboCop. Even above and beyond the consideration of harvesting a body for use in an experiment of this kind, let’s take another look at those Prime Directives, shall we?
1. Serve the public trust.
2. Protect the innocent.
3. Uphold the law.
That sounds really good on the surface of our modern society, doesn’t it? It’s sort of like Asimov making his robots three laws safe. Most tend to forget there’s an explosive device set to go off if the robots even think about breaking those laws. RoboCop has the same problem when he’s faced with his hidden Directive 4, which shuts him down if he attempts to arrest any high ranking executive at OCP. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what I’ve thought about.
Consider what it would be like to introduce RoboCop into a society that was run with the same prejudices as before the American Civil War. What do those directives mean now? Suddenly minorities aren’t real safe. Now let’s run the clock backward some more. What do these directives mean if you employ them in Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials? Or during the Spanish Inquisition? Or Imperial Rome under Caligula or Nero? See what I mean? The parameters of the public trust, the innocent, and the law are all moving targets, no pun intended. Even in our modern society, these are not static definitions. This, of course, is part of what the writers figured out for RoboCop 2 when they gave him an entire list of directives. I always thought they never quite carried those ideas far enough. It’s still highly rewarding to watch Murphy overcome the programming and tap back in the man he was originally. In terms of cyberpunk, that’s already a far brighter message than most of the extraordinarily grimdark scenarios you find throughout the subgenre. That glimmer of hope makes a world of difference.
But then, that’s why we’re supposed to look at RoboCop as the hero, even if he is by definition an “unholy” reanimation of deceased tissue. Unlike Frankenstein’s creature, Murphy’s got public support, a purpose for being, a friend, and a fighting chance to make a difference on some level, regardless of what doors his very existence opens.
“I’ll buy that for a dollar.”