RoboCop (1987)


The thing about Robocop is, it keeps getting better every year. It was already good when it came out and now we’re all living in the future it depicted, whether we want to admit it or not. People used to ask me, whenever I’d say something like that, “Why do you have to be so cynical?” Nobody asks me that anymore, and I take that as a bad sign.

Cynicism usually gets a bad rap, despite being popularized by one of the realest Real Gs in Ancient Greece, Diogenes the Cynic. He didn’t invent Cynicism, but he did a lot to popularize it by living a life full of stories that are too good not to repeat, even if they aren’t all true. Like the time he owned Plato by going to one of Plato lectures with a freshly plucked chicken, because Plato had previously defined “man” as “a featherless biped.” “I’ve found you a man!” Or that time he owned Plato by going to one of Plato’s lectures and just straight-up shitting on the floor, the (ironically) Platonic ideal of a negative review. Or that time he owned Alexander the Great so hard, and in public, that not only did he get away with it, he may have saved the city he was in from destruction.

Like modern cynics, Diogenes believed that most people were shits. But unlike modern cynics he did not chalk this up to some abstract, intangible, unchangeable bullshit like “human nature.” For him, the general shittiness of humanity could be lain at the feet of the artificial, over-complicated, and inherently corrupting prison we’re all trapped in, otherwise known as “civilization.” We are not “naturally” shitty – we have to be taught to be shitty through a lifetime of what we now call operant conditioning. Since we USians are a nation founded by Roman Republic fanboys, who were in turn Classical Greek fanboys, we’re still trapped in a society that conditions us to adore fame, fortune and power over others, pretty much for their own sakes. And because it is lifelong, that conditioning is incredibly effective. Most people don’t even notice, and if you point it out them, they shrug and go, “What can you do?” Indeed.

According to modern movie legend, writer Edward Neumeier walked past a poster for Blade Runner in 1982 and asked a friend what it was about. His friend gave the (technically incorrect but) fairly standard answer that “it’s about a cop chasing robots.” And in a grand moment of writer-ly inspiration, Neumeier thought, “Well…what if the robot was a cop?” That’s another one of those stories that’s too good not to repeat, even thought it isn’t true. Really, Neumeier was working on a robot cop script while Blade Runner was still getting butchered in the editing room. It took him until 1984 to hook up with music video director Michael Miner, who was working a similar idea, called SuperCop. With their powers combined, they started to get their script looked at by the movers and shakers of mid-80s Hollywood. Not the top players, of course…but at least a fair few mid-level dudes, most of whom laughed their idea out of the office.

Nineteen eight-four was also the year Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoven moved to Hollywood to seek his fortune and make the Rutger Hauer sword-and-pillage movie Flesh and Blood…which flopped. Shrugging that off, Verhoven turned to the script pile every director had back then, found Numeier and Miner’s RoboCop, and promptly tossed it into the trash, where a lot of people thought it belonged just on the name alone. We might not even have RoboCop at all, and Verhoven would certainly have a very different career, if Verhoven’s wife Martine hadn’t picked the script out of the trash, actually read it, and said, “Wait a minute…you might have something here.” This is nearly identical to the story Stephen King tells about the first three-or-so chapters of Carrie, and it underlines a piece of advise I first heard from old man Sol in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi: “Listen to your wife – she will give you perspective.”

Making the movie was, by all accounts, a miserable disaster from start to finish, as if having a protagonist named “Murphy” called the full force of Murphy’s Law down on this production’s head. This makes the finished product even more remarkable for its coherence and overall quality. It’s a slick one hundred minutes that never wastes a second, creating a world so well-realized that it can now pass for a documentary, despite being just as much of a cyberpunk dystopia as anything else inspired by Blade Runner (directly or otherwise). Neumeier envisioned this all taking place in something like Ridley Scott’s 2019 L.A., but Verhoven wisely (and budget consciously) chose to set it in a not-too-distant future, nearly indistinguishable from the then-present, apart from some signage and some robotics technology.

Like the best cyberpunk dystopian novels, RoboCop takes place in a world entirely captured by rapacious corporations, with one in particular standing above all as the true antagonist of this film…and, indeed, the entire franchise: Omni-Consumer Products. OCP. See, it almost spells “cop,” so it’s no wonder they won the contract to fund and run the Detroit Police Department. It’s even less of a wonder they’re deliberately running the department into the ground in a bid to eventually replace everyone with deliberately defective robots. Back in 1987, ED-209 was an obvious-to-the-point-of-being-on-the-nose metaphor for automation, planned obsolescence, and the aesthetics of a product being more important than its function, at least to the product’s manufacturers. Nowadays I can also see ED-209 as a metaphor for all that and what the American (in)justice system turns people into: malfunctioning murder machines. A better metaphor, even, than RoboCop himself.

Omni-Consumer Products comes from taking early-Reagan era trends of corporate America to their logical conclusion. We’re taught capitalism depends on competition, but since capitalist wealth is tied to unrestrained, ever-expanding growth, capitalists actually hate competition, and seek to buy it out at the earliest possible opportunity. Look no further than the history of YouTube itself to see what I mean. YouTube’s current CEO, Susan Wojcicki, used to be the head of Google Video, which once upon a time tried to compete with YouTube directly. But despite being explicitly tied to what was fast becoming the “aspirin” or “band-aid” of internet search engines – a brand name that’s now an eponym for a whole concept (“google it!”) – Google Video never caught on. Personally, I never used it for anything besides watching MST3k episodes you couldn’t find on DVD. So in late 2006, Google threw up its collective hands, backed a few dump trucks full of money up the driveways of YouTube’s founders, and the rest is increasingly-depressing history.

Capitalists consider governments to be competitors as well, since governments can theoretically limit the growth of capital through things like taxation and regulation. That’s why, since at least late-1970s, both taxation and regulation have been labeled inherently evil by right wing politicians around the world. This was, as is, a deliberate attempt to starve governments of the money and power they need to restrain the effects of capitalism…or even ameliorated it in any meaningful way. As a result, we now live in world full of OCPs, and the only thing that seems to be stopping them from consolidating even further are the egos of the various Old Men at their heads. See, for example, the now-legendary pissing contest between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

The one thing I’d ding this movie for is its comparatively-naive assumption that capital would treat the police the same way it treated every other public sector union in the ’80s. It’s a by-now-familiar playbook, especially if you come from a family of teachers like some of us. Step 1: make their working conditions worse until they all go on strike. Step 2: use the strike as an excuse to fire everyone, and, in Step 3, replace them all with either cheaper laborers or machines…or machines made by cheaper laborers. This happened to air traffic controllers in 1981, and by firing everyone who refused his order to go back to work, the devil Ronald Wilson Reagan told every union in the country that the executive branch of the US federal government would no longer have their back. From there, it’s easy to imagine a civic government handing its own enforcement arm over to a private corporation, especially if that corporation already seems to own everything. “We practically are the military,” Dick Jones, Senior Vice President of OCP, says at one point, and I believe him…but if that’s true, it means they already have the feds by the short-and-curlies and their desire to bulldoze Old Detroit and replace it with Delta City is little more than a mopping-up job – a consolidation of already-assumed power. A great victory lap around American democracy, which even its framers were never really all that into, even before the French Revolution made them shit their pantaloons and declare every mass movement they don’t like a “mob.”

OCP’s power seems total, from what we see. There’s no mention of the federales, and no member of local government appears on screen…they saved that for the sequel. Sgt. Reed, apparent commander of the Metro West precinct, is the highest ranking civic functionary we meet, and he spends the entire movie eating shit from OCP, where the closest thing to what we consider “politics” takes place. And like the absolute monarchies of old, OCP politics involves jockeying for the Number Two position, occupied at the start of the film by one Dick Jones – played by the great Ronny Cox, most famous prior to this for playing the Lieutenant in Beverly Hills Cop.

Jones is an interesting mix of corporate heir apparent and old fashioned warlord, working both sides of the legal line for the benefit of himself, which he sees as instrumental to the long-term health of the company, literally damn the consequences. “Who cares if it worked or not?” he says about the ED-209, to the rival who capitalized on it not working, Bob Morton. As far as Jones is concerned, ED-209 did exactly what it was designed to do: bilk twenty-five years worth of money out of the Pentagon. He views OCP’s relationship with the Detroit the same way. A person with a functioning moral compass might find some contradiction between running a city police department and keeping a notorious cop-killer crime boss on retainer, but if your goal is to turn the city into such a shithole that its shrinking tax-base winds up paying you to bulldoze and rebuild everything, the Jones/Boddicker Alliance makes perfect sense. It’s not just that “the ends justify the means,” it’s that the means are themselves the ends, and appealing to anything other than that will either get you laughed at, at best, or at worst, outright murdered.

Not that Bob Morton – played by Miguel Ferrer in what was meant to be his breakout role (and kinda was for some of us who’re fans of his voice acting work in superhero cartoons) – is some sainted martyr. I’ve seen him compared to Victor Frankenstein and, while he does create what’s arguably a new life form and then let that new life lose upon a world full of serious assholes, at least Victor started out with altruistic motives. Bob dies while living out what’s probably his fondest dream: a cocaine and…ahem…“models” party. Because if there is an end to modern capitalism, it’s to let preening narcissists like Bobby Boy live out their boring, normie, middle school rock star fantasies.

And he’s punished for it because, under capitalist morality (pretend for a moment that isn’t the most insulting oxymoron you’ve ever heard) you’re supposed always to be on what we now call “that grind.” You’re not supposed to take time out to Media Break and Chill with a pair of hotties. We never see Dick or Clarence doing that. Do they even have homes to go to? Dick could live in that office for all we know – it’s big enough, he could just set up a cot in the corner. And Clarence seems to spend all his time running around, babysitting a gang of giggling idiots, and trying to secure his position against other drug dealers (with even bigger gangs of idiots). All for the promise – from Dick Jones – that, at some point in the not too distant future, he’ll get to control the criminal markets of Delta City. Dick just needs these one or two little things taken care of…And that’s how the whole sorry system works. The Big Payday is always just around the corner. There’s always just one more little thing that always needs doing. Anything to keep us all on the hamster wheel, for the sake of people who seem like they were born in three-piece suits and genuinely love sitting through eighteen hours of tedious meetings a day.

Lost in all this – ground between the gears of all this, like Charlie Chaplin in modern times – is Murphy, whom I haven’t talked about much yet because, quite frankly, he gets all the press. That’s what happens when one of your names is the movie’s title. But Murphy is the perfect capitalist subject – what our corporate overlords would very much like to turn us all into – not just physically, but psychologically. After he dies, he’s reborn as a blank slate, with nothing but programing to guide him, no longer a man or a cop, but a product. For all their bluster about “projecting the end of crime in forty days,” Bob Morton and OCP Security Concepts wasted what was probably hundreds of millions of dollars just to recreate slavery. “What are they gonna do? Replace us?” Yes, random cop in the firing range scene, and your only “choice” in a system that likes to say “freedom of choice” over and over again until it becomes an empty liturgy, will be between a replacement with a vaguely humanoid outline and a sliver of a face peaking out from under his helmet, or a tank with legs that can’t even go down stairs. At least RoboCop screams when you stab him in the chest…though that may have more to do with kind of full-body phantom limb syndrome than any mechanical process.

Or maybe I’m wrong. After Murphy has his first post-resurrection dream about his own murder, one of the lab coats in charge of babysitting him down in the holding cells (and there’s an image pregnant with meaning all by itself – the future of law enforcement resting in the basement of the bacon shack, probably just down the hall from the drunk tank), says, “This system was never designed for a somatic response.” The somatic nervous system is the one in charge of all the muscles you can consciously move, as opposed to the autonomic one, which keeps your heart beating and food moving through your guts without you having to think about it. This does not mean the somatic nervous system is totally under your control at all times – like, say, for example, when you sleep. RoboCop literally tosses in his sleep and, given the content of his nightmares, who can blame him? But when Science Lady (whose name is not “Marie Lazarus,” for the record) says, “This system was never designed for a somatic response,” she’s saying RoboCop shouldn’t even be capable of tossing in his sleep. And yet…

From one perspective, the Death and Life of Officer Alex Murphy is the story of the human spirit triumphing over a technological prison that’s ensnaring both its body and mind. What is the perfect last line in this impeccably perfect movie? The Old Man asks RoboCop his name and he says, “Murphy,” with the warmest smile he’s given since he died. But on the other hand, is he Murphy? Or a machine that’s chosen to identify as Murphy? Or is that just a meaningless trick question that doesn’t actually matter? A false, binary choice in a messy, analog world too complicated to be parsed by such stupid questions?

Before he died, the Murphy family lived at 548 Primrose Lane. The primrose blooms in early spring, and therefore represents new life and new beginnings…and RoboCop is beginning a new life here, too, even as the ghosts of his old one drive him back to his old home. The ghosts give him new purpose – a personal one, separate from his programing, but complimentary to it. Like Murphy’s Prime Directives, which compliment, without directly overriding, each other…except for Directive 4.

RoboCop’s three big Directives are, for the most part, empty cliches. “Serve the public trust.” What the fuck does that even mean? Well, it means that democracy rests on the idea that the “public” – the “masses,” the “population,” whatever – is the real seat of government power and legitimacy, theoretically wielding power by placing their “trust” in representatives, either by electing them or having someone they elected dole out power to others. Even if that may have once been true (and you can have a good argument about that, given our country’s long, sorry history of voter disenfranchisement, which continues to this day) it certainly isn’t now. The business of America is business, President Coolidge didn’t actually say, but enough people think he did that he might as well have. They certainly act like he said it, and take it to mean that it’s actually good massive corporate monopolies own and control everything, including the true seat of power in this country, which is money. There’s your “public trust”: the public trusts that it’s duly elected representatives are all crooks and liars, easily swayed by greed. No need to slap down a briefcase full of cash on someone’s desk when the promise of a six-figure job once they leave office accomplishes the same thing, with less legal liability.

“Protect the innocent” is a little less fraught, even if we accept the judgmental, Protestant worldview, so central to American psychology, that nobody’s actually innocent since we’re all sinners in the hands of an angry god. Some people are more innocent than others, though this movie does stack the deck in Murphy’s favor by putting him in situations where it’s easy to spot the difference. “Uphold the law” is last on the list, I think, because it has the most potential conflicts with the other two (the old Supervillain’s Sadistic Choice Routine comes to mind). But you can’t really do any of them when “the law” is privatized, arbitrary and capricious – captured by corporate interests with armies of lawyers whose only job is to make sure their clients adhere to the letter of the law, even as they undermine its spirit. Besides, the potential conflicts between these Directives are all Opportunities for A Story. Like this one. Which is why it’s OK for Murphy to just straight-up stab motherfuckers in the neck by the end. Even if he is a new being, made in the image of Alex Murphy, his ability to tell Clarence “I’m not arresting you anymore,” is a clear sign of his ability to make one of the most human things you can make: independent judgment calls.

Let’s assume he is Murphy, though, and ask ourselves how he survived all the trauma and the programming? The simplest explanation is he actually believed in the literal interpretations of those Prime Directives, even before they were coded into the remains of his brain, and OCP just got real lucky with their placement of a “prime” candidate in a high risk environment…or real unlucky, from Dick Jones’ perspective. We barely meet Murphy as a human, but what we see paints a picture of someone much more well adjusted than your standard, late-80s action movie cop protagonist…or any cop protagonist in the post Dirty Harry era who isn’t played by Eddie Murphy. At least this Murphy had a living wife and kid who didn’t outright hate him…as far as we know. His visor could always be adding a rosey tint to the fragments of memory he recovers.

I mentioned phantom limb syndrome awhile back. When deprived of the usual, two-way communication with the nerves it grew up on, the brain will sometimes “remember” them…or “imagine” them, to use an unscientific term. Which is why RoboCop twirls his gun, even if he doesn’t remember why. And because he does, Lewis recognizes him. And that’s what really draws Murphy back out of the shell: he has a friend who, immediately after the nightmare of his own death, tells him who he is to his faceplate. “Murphy, it’s you,” she says, causing him to do the very human thing of backing away slowly from information he’d rather not hear. And setting up a parallel to what she’ll say to him later, in the OCP parking garage, “Murphy, it’s me, Lewis.”

Much is made about the healing power of love in American culture – and because we’re so damned repressed, when we say “love” we usually mean “sexual attraction.” Much less is made, in our culture, about the healing power of friendship. About its ability to draw us out of the shells we’ve built for ourselves, or been hammered into by this deliberatley dehumanizing world. About how good it is to have someone who reacts to our emergence from our shells, not with the horror or disgust we might expect, but with a simple, “It’s good to see you again, Murphy.” The power of having someone who recognizes you as a person, even in the midst of all the impersonal, mechanized horror of modern life, cannot be overstated. Someone to hang out with in dangerous places, drive cars way too fast, and shoot things – either “the shit,” or physical objects that represent you emerging from your second childhood, like baby food.

There’s much debate these days – at least in my circles – about whether or not there are “good” cops. My contention is, and has always been, that even if there are, they’re trapped in the same bullshit system as the rest, designed to make, not just bad cops, but state-sponsored murder machines. There’s another group of thugs in this movie who mercilessly pump Murphy full of rounds, and its the SWAT cops, much less talked about than the Boddicker’s gang because they don’t laugh while they do it, and thus cannot be turned back on the audience as a recursive criticism about the “desensitization to violence,” or some such nonsense. The cold efficiency with which the SWAT cops follow their orders to destroy RoboCop (orders from Dick Jones, whom Murphy’s just tried to arrest) is no less dangerous than the Boddicker Gangs cackling, and a much more pressing danger to those of us out here in this dimension.

I’m gonna talk more about where SWAT teams came from, and why they’re such a problem, in RoboCop 3, but for now I’d like to note the three cops who object to Dick Jones’ order: Kaplan, Ramirez and Chessman. Three characters so obscure I needed the Fandom Dot Com wiki to find their names, even after all these years of rewatches. We meet all three in the locker room when Murphy first arrives at Metro West, and they act as a secondary Greek Chorus for the film – secondary to the Media Break talking heads, but much more immediate, because they’re on the ground for the action. The last time we see them, they’re arguing with SWAT Lt. Hedgecock in front of whole rest of his team, that RoboCop is still “a cop, for God’s sake!” Hedgecock shouts them down, of course, because this is an American Jesus Story, and we need to visit all the Stations of the Cross, but also because he’s an Ell-Tee…and, hey, he’s just following orders.

So, okay – we’ve got Kaplan, Ramirez and Chessman, plus Lewis and Murphy, and that’s five “good” cops for the whole of Detroit – four of whom are ignored and one of whom is fired upon by a whole-ass SWAT team. Maybe six since, as bosses go, Sgt. Reed seems okay. His biggest problem appears to be that he’s a boss and that he doesn’t believe in direct action getting satisfaction. And why should he? Ever since the 1960s, the American ruling class has taken all kinds of steps to ensure direct action will never get satisfaction again. The old cliché (often misattributed to Gandhi, when it actually came from American labor union lawyer Nicholas Klein in 1914) used to go, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Nowadays it goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they call SWAT teams on you, then they ignore you and/or laugh at you again. All the while, you’re being monitored, tracked, cross-referenced, indexed, mined for meta data, and probably infiltrated. In fact, you’d be stupid to assume you aren’t already infiltrated, creating a level of paranoid suspicion that’s the exact opposite of solidarity and reacts to it the same way anti-matter does to matter.” Not as catchy, I’ll admit, but we strive for fairness and accuracy in reporting around here.

A new wrinkle’s emerging these days, after months of sustained protest. First they do all of the above, and then they cancel a few Copaganda TV shows in the hope you (pig ignorant, symbol-obsessed American that you are) will mistake that for meaningful change. Oh, wow – you canceled Cops a full decade after everyone under 60 stopped watching it. Call me when Dick Wolfe has to beg for change on the streets of LA. But moving this fight into the realm of symbolism was always inevitable. As a country, we’re much better armed for that fight, since it doesn’t usually involve tear gas or pepper balls. Friendly fire’s just as inevitable in any given conflict, so when I see people out there calling RoboCop Copaganda, I cringe in disappointment, but not surprise. This is a problem Verhoven’s had throughout his American career. Over and over again, his straight-faced, extra dry satires of contemporary life have run up against the blinkered, misseducated, almost-magical realistic notion that depiction equals endorsement and endorsement can have a strong influence over the weak mind. By which most people mean, “Any mind that isn’t mine. I’m smart. I totally understood this film the first time I saw it, at age ten. But you, out there in movie land, you might take this the wrong way. So you need to be protected from taking it the wrong way by people like me. Because I’m so damn trustworthy.”

Faced with this, we have no choice but to keep our friends close and hunker down for a long, ugly fight. A fight for our own humanity in the face of mechanized death. A fight for some of the vast pools of resources currently being horded by suit-wearing Dicks. (Hmm… “Dick Jones.” “Clarence Boddicker.” “Lt. Hedgecock.” I’m sensing a less-examined theme – especially given how Murphy’s dick gets blown off and replaced with a symbolic one that only shoots Death.) A fight for a world where the Almighty Quote-Unquote “Free” Market no long determines the destiny of this so-called “democracy.” A world where I don’t have to call this “democracy” “so-called” or put scare quotes around it so often. A world where RoboCop can no longer pass as a documentary and can go back to being regarded as just the really, really good American superhero movie everyone mistook it for back when it first came out.

Though, of course, it is that, too. Which is more than you can say for its sequels.


One thought on “RoboCop (1987)”

  1. A movie so completely prescient that if it had made the joke of Donald Trump being President then it would have worked in the narrative without being the slightest bit strange. That is because the Eighties and the New Twenties are the same, or at least nostalgia for the former has created the latter. The corporatist nightmare of Detroit as run by OCP is not so much an exaggeration as merely us arriving at Point Z after starting at Point A under Ronald Reagan.

    International corporations do make everything and own everyone while being completely above the law. The big difference would be that Clarence Boddicker would have been a PMC with a nice suit in a modern thriller rather than the thugs on the streets employed by the corporate goons. Mind you, part of this is because history moves in cycles and in the 1920s the corporations were exactly like this employing Pinkertons. Cyberpunk ironically just described the kind of corporate-owned towns and local thugs employed in my states of West Virginia/Kentucky.

    In a way, DDM, I feel bad for you because there’s actually very little you can satirize and employ your razor-sharp wit on with this movie. The subject of the critique is too razor-sharp witted in its critique already. What exactly is the joke you can tell about the fact Paul Verhoven looked at American corporate culture in the 1980s, merged it with his families’ stories about the Nazis’ own corporate infrastracture, and then created something fundamentally identical to what we have now?

    Even your observation that all cops are bad cops is one the movie, ABOUT A COP, agrees with. The cops turning on Murphy at the command of their corporate overlords is fully intentional and not a happy coincidence. They also go on strike, putting their working conditions over the fundamental service they provide (even if they are terrible conditions). Murphy is the messianic “good cop” but like Jesus mixed with a Wild West Gunslinger, he is fundamentally killed by the system he is sworn to protect.

    Indeed, he is inspired by JC and Superman both with the origin of this film being attributed to “doing a superhero and Christ film” years after Superman already did it. The greatest satire of Robocop is perhaps that the Directives (minus “OCP can get away with literal murder”) are 100% played straight by Murphy and meaningful. Robocop’s lesson being, “What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” The sad answer being most Americans don’t believe the first two are compatible with the last.

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