RoboCop was one of my first forbidden movie fruits. The initial tantalising peep was during a late night showing on television when the recently deceased police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) was being brought back to life as the title character. The scene played like a harrowing and realistic depiction of surgery, and the implications were terrifying to me at such at a young age. At the same time, the vivid moments were an all too real shattering of the schoolboy fantasy of wanting to be a robotic policeman.
In returning to the picture and reflecting on its thirty-year legacy, it impresses as an important text in illustrating the excesses of America in the 1980s. As an outsider to the culture, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven feels like he is commenting on Americana.
It has been well documented that Verhoeven was satirising over the top violence in American movies with scenes dedicated to people not only being killed but decimated to the point of looking like squashed watermelons. One notable scene has a boardroom executive being repeatedly shot at by a malfunctioning peace keeping machine called Ed-209. The horrifying act eventually becomes comical in its prolonged absurdity as the employee loses all semblance of identity and humanity with the sheer amount of gunfire.
The film is also filled to the brim with amusing commercials. In particular, a recurring one has a man with glasses and bushy brown moustache fooling around with a pair of bimbos and ending each instance with the uproariously delivered catchphrase- “I’d buy that for a dollar.” The adverts represent a wry commentary on the excesses of the Reagan era, whereby overspending was resulting in debt because of people acquiring presumably life changing products.
Verhoeven also sets his sights on the dehumanising effect of corporate culture. Bob Morton’s (Miguel Farrier at his smarmy best) rise to the top in the aftermath of a superior’s failed pitch shows an utter lack of consideration and empathy. When remarking on the bloody death of a colleague, he simply says- “That’s life in the big city.” His creation of the RoboCop program is an attempt to climb the ladder of his company even if it means thinking of his subject in less than human terms. There are many instances where he refers to Murphy as a product and crucially requests for the former cop’s left arm to be surgically removed.
Concurrently, the central corporation OCP (Omni Consumer Products) represents the vicious cycle of business at its worst. They promise and feign noble intentions but in reality their contributions not only create crime, but fan the flames of its continued existence for justification of product. In particular, the second in command Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) backs and funds a ruthless crime leader to justify his Ed-209 machines for urban and eventually military use.
In between the social satire, RoboCop is firmly a grisly resurrection story that in its Philosophical implications posit the soul as a real source of humanity that comes to the fore even in the bleakest of circumstances. In some of the picture’s most powerful moments, Murphy bypasses his programming due to past memories of his family and death that hit the character like an emotional maelstrom.
But in my recent big screen viewing of the picture, the most striking aspect of the film is its small moments that are brimming with irony and humour. Weller’s somewhat robotic line deliveries as Murphy foreshadow his eventual fate, and his twirling gun gesture carries weight when later memories show his son wanting him to copy the gesture from a robotic cop on television.
The sleazy moments also remarkably lend the film with a midnight movie quality that the actors adhere to in their performances. In particular, Kurt Woodsmith injects his atypical character Clarence Boddicker with a disgusting sense of ego, which he illustrates through various vulgar acts. One scene has the character flirting with a receptionist and taking out a piece of chewed gum and attaching it to her name plate and then proceeding to use it as a punchline- “You can keep the gum.”
Finally, the direction is commendable in punctuating the intricacies of its subject matters. Master shots reveal details of the urban decay of the Detroit setting and close-ups make the characters seem like mythical characters out of a Sergio Leone Western. In many ways, the framing reminds the viewer of the way in which movies stir the imagination and portray the heightened truth. The Detroit in the picture is a hellish landscape of comic book proportions, but Verhoeven in his satire reaches for the universal conditions of such severe impoverishment, decadence and inhumanity.