Robocop celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Well, it was last week, but I was on the island of Lokrum sat on the Iron Throne. Holidays pass too quickly! Robocop is one of my favourite films. It holds a place on my Top 10 Films Of All Time (click here to view) and my Top 10 Films I’ve Watched More Than Fives Times (click here to view). I’ve loved it since I was a kid (yes, my parents allowed me to watch a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have watched!). It can be viewed as a straight sci-fi action film, a revenge thriller, a satire on capitalism/privatisation, a Christ parable…but however you view it, it’s a bloody pleasure to watch.
The story’s fairly straightforward. In a near-future Detroit, a company called OCP owns the police (plus has interests in the military, space exploration, city building…). They are producing a line of cyborg cops (in hope that the military will pay for similar cyborgs). They need a dead cop and recently transferred officer Alex Murphy is duly murdered by cop killer and all-round evil criminal Clarence Bodderick and his gang. His brain is utilised in the programme and he becomes Robocop. However, Robocop begins to be haunted by visions of his past life and seeks revenge on those who killed him.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Cop is murdered, comes back from the dead due to technology and seeks revenge on his killers. Even from that point of view, it is a satisfying watch. There’s more humanity in Robocop than most of the other characters combined (apart from his partner, Anne Lewis). Thus, his journey is relatable and sympathetic. Yes, cyborgs/robots in Hollywood are either presented as efficient murderers or anthropomorphic cuddly toys. But we see just enough of Murphy to like him before he’s murdered (rather brutally, if you watch the Director’s Cut. And who wouldn’t watch the Director’s Cut?). After he becomes Robocop, he’s haunted by dreams that he shouldn’t be having, according to his creators. They tease us with snippets of his family life. Robocop begins his crime prevention with an impersonal and brutal approach. But his humanity yearns to be brought forth. Just watch the scene where he walks through his old house, and those flashbacks become clearer. Powerful film making.
“You’re dead…we killed you!”
Every revenge film should have a sympathetic human at its core, and Robocop does that with ease. But you need an equally detestable (yet charismatic) villain as well. Dick Jones provides the corporate loathsome man, but Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker chews up the scenery with evil aplomb. He’s one of cinema’s great villains, oozing with vileness and odiousness. “You probably don’t think I’m a very nice guy,” he says. That’s after throwing one of his companions onto a cop car during a car chase. Violence is second nature to him. And he relishes in it. It makes the revenge story even more engaging than the humanity of Robocop.
Of course, with a revenge film, you expect revenge with extreme prejudice. Those hoping for ultraviolence will not be disappointed. An OCP board member is murdered by a faulty ED-209 (another robot cop programme) minutes into the film, and it’s over the top. He’s shot countless times, with blood flying out of his many wounds. The ultraviolence continues throughout (most notably with Murphy’s murder). Those with a thirst for ultraviolence will love it, but I hope they don’t miss the point of the film because they’re blinded by the gore.
“I can feel them, but I can’t remember them”
First and foremost, Robocop is a satire. A wonderful satire that’s all the more relevant in today’s world. Violence, the police, capitalism, privatisation, the media and guns all are critiqued in a way only Paul Verhoeven can. Take, for example, the murder of the OCP board member I mentioned before. The “Old Man”/Chairman looks at the man responsible for ED-209, Dick Jones, and simply says “I’m very disappointed!” There’s no remorse, just a pity that something went wrong with a product. In a world where privatisation rules, people aren’t people, they’re products, to be bought and sold. Murphy is the extreme example of man as a product. He’s literally owned by OCP after becoming Robocop. OCP disregard the rest of the police, even in the face of a strike, because they think Robocop can solve the crime problem in Detroit. Who needs humans when you can have robots? In an era where that threat is becoming ever more present, Robocop is a warning from the decade that began viewing people as products and public services as something to be bought by private companies.
The jokes at the expense of capitalism/privatisation are very funny, but because everything is played without a wink and a nod they can easily be missed among the ultraviolence. Even the frequent news snippets and adverts can be misunderstood as simply part of the plot. But, look again. The news readers present every tragedy (from two deceased ex-presidents to a civil war in South Africa) with a smile. They don’t care about what they’re reading; they’re just waiting for the paycheck at the end. If news or adverts aren’t on the TV, then there only seems to be a brain dulling programme about an old man buying young ladies for a dollar. If the news isn’t desensitizing you by hurling tragedy after tragedy at you, then a dumb TV programme will rot your brain instead. First comes tragedy, then comes farce, as Marx once wrote.
Only unions, public services, and humanity will save us from the impersonal forces that want to destroy us. That’s the message from Robocop. It’s one of the many reasons I adore it. It can be understood in many ways, and satisfies each way you take it. You want a revenge thriller? Done. You want ultraviolence? Done. You want a warning about the pitfalls of capitalism and privatisation? Done. You want a smile on your face while you realise the pitfalls? Done. You can even view it as a superhero film, or the best Judge Dredd adaptation put to film. Robocop does these things and much more. Don’t dismiss it as another science fiction film about a cyborg. It’s so much more than that.
VERDICT: 10/10. Robocop is one of the all time great science fictions films. It’s revenge thriller, hilarious satire, Christ parable, and comic book origin story all in one. Just don’t think its ultraviolence is only skin-deep. Or mistake it for the remake.
What do you think of Robocop (1987) Leave your thoughts/opinions below!
Click here for my review of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997)