This week, Paul Verhoeven's madcap cyberpunk satire of the American nightmare, RoboCop, turns 30. An acerbic look at American corporatism, incompetence, politics, and violence, Robocop remains eternally relevant—for better or worse. Its vision of an America run by neolibertarian sociopaths who exploit societal violence for profit and power seems almost quaint in the technocrap-aesthetic nightmare that is the Trump era.
The plot of RoboCop scans like a coked out extension of the idiom "blue lives matter." A dystopian Detroit privatises its police department, entrusting it to megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP or Omnicorp). Blonde beat cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is shot to pieces on the job, and is rebuilt as a pseudo-sentient mega-cop: a logic-driven killing machine that doesn't mind cracking a few eggs to make an omelette, or blowing up a petrol station to stop a mugging.
Murphy is the literal embodiment of structural violence. What is the relationship between the police, the state, private interests, the citizen, and ultimately the self? RoboCop offers no easy answers, other than that violence is a solution truly American in its inefficiency.
Paul Verhoeven may be the most under-appreciated satirist of the modern era. He came up in an era of genre filmmaking when societal parable blended with X-rated horror seamlessly—the chunky textures of an exploding gore spewing head bled into the atmosphere of the Reagan era. Cronenberg, Carpenter, Cameron, Scott, Romero: Verhoeven was part of an unhinged movement of B movie aesthetes who brought detached bemusement to the existential angst of the late nuclear age.
Verhoeven's films now have a gut churning nostalgia running through them. His vision of American imperialism, corporatism, and unchecked ignorance now seems—unbelievably—hopeful. It's hard to say whether reality has outpaced or reaffirmed Verhoeven's ribald cynicism. Films like Starship Troopers, and last year's masterful Elle, read like warning posts and elegies simultaneously. To Verhoeven, our inhumanity is integral to our humanity, it's the robotic suit that keeps us stomping onward.
RoboCop is a visceral gut shot of a film. Its action is wholly unromantic. It sits uniquely between the other action icons of its era. It has none of the tragic Herculean invincibility of Sly's films; none of Arnie's ironic unflinching jingoism; none of the bucolic American grit of Willis; or even the slapstick "I can't believe this shit" cartoonery of Kurt Russell's winking American parables.
Instead, Verhoeven turns Weller into a carnival freak show. Amidst the all American chest thumps of his action genre peers, Weller/Murphy is the quintessential travelling geek. Key to this is the distinct Aryan softness of his face, the only part of him we connect with on a bodily level throughout much of the film. He is the American ubermensch, brought into a horrifically Gothic light. A Mary Shelley perversion of G.I. Joe, a grim totemic emblem of American brutality.
For all the hysteria around the X rated violence when the film was released, RoboCop is fundamentally pacifist. But throughout Verhoeven's entire filmography, the motif of violence is one of epiphany and erasure. In Elle, a brutal rape becomes a self-exploratory examination of the nature of control, free-will, and identity.
In Starship Troopers, war is literal death and empathic death: critical thought is lost in a haze of chintzy propaganda and self-promotion. Showgirls takes the organic violence that comes with womanhood, and turns it into a spastic tone poem on the narratives prevalent violence shapes.
RoboCop's violence is fantastical. A man half-melted by acid runs in front of a car and explodes in a torrent of orange-red blood. Giant robots blast company board members out windows. Grenades are calling cards. Our hero is literally eviscerated by bullets. It's hard to pinpoint just how exactly Verhoeven elevates this shock-schlock beyond exploitation. But it does have impact.
Unlike Rambo, Commando, or even its most obvious relative Terminator, Robocop's violence is rarely—if ever—framed in the abstract. There are few cut aways, few impressionistic hints. And when people are shot, and literally torn to pieces, they are not framed in sentimental close ups or aggrandising widescreen.
Gorified but not glorified, it's an impossible conjunction that only a director as masterful as Verhoeven could pull off.
This isn't accidental. Robocop's depiction of the media and its relationship to the violence it feeds off is prescient. Throughout the film, news reports work like a Greek chorus who is complicit in the action they're so intent on glorifying. They are the only "characters" within the film who make RoboCop out to be a pure hero, and from the start Verhoeven is telling us: These people are morons.
In the age of the the 24/7 reality TV newsroom and a media leading a narrative more than reporting on it, RoboCop's Murdochian news ghouls seem prosodic and, dare I say it, subtle. Watching it now you can almost hear Rowan Dean saying he wishes RoboCop would boot Yassmin Abdel-Magied out of Australia, or Wolf Blitzer throwing to an unqualified "RoboCop expert" on a 89-person CNN panel.
But at the core of RoboCop is humanity, wielded with laser precision irony. It's there in the aesthetic, and in Verhoeven's inversion of action tropes but, mainly, it's in the characters. Characters like Bob Morton, as played by the late Miguel Ferrer.
Morton is the most basic of 1980s villain archetypes: the Wall Street douchebag, there to climb the corporate ladder, and boast about his $10,000 suit, come on! etc. The character was conceived that way, yet was rewritten to fit the boundless charisma of Ferrer. Somehow, the Omnicorp crony whose blind thirst for capital directly shapes Murphy's descent into hell becomes the films most likeable anti-hero: "Let me make it real clear to you," he explains. "He doesn't have a name. He's got a program. He's a product. Is that clear."
It's Morton who asks RoboCop, "What are your prime directives?" There's a sad undercurrent belying that iconic dialogue. Ferrer is an actor capable of projecting an immense yet funny sadness. A light goes out of his eyes when Murphy replies: "Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law."
For all its 50 cals and explosions, RoboCop is ultimately a romantic swansong for the death of American idealism. We film gronks discuss it in relation to late-capitalism, atomisation, industrial warfare, and "fake news." These recurring critiques are apt, if repetitive—the film is all those things, it is a mercilessly efficient satire, more so than Murphy is a mercilessly efficient cyborg.
But, ultimately, RoboCop is a film about feeling, memory, and identity. And a loss thereof. It asks its audience a question far more unsettling than anything it posits about globalism or state violence or the complicit media. It asks, "What are your prime directives?" and lets the question sit like a hand grenade on a dining table.
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