By Thomas Drake
Short: “I’ll buy that for a dollar.” ”Dead or Alive, You’re coming With Me!”
Medium: Murphy (Peter Weller) is an old school cop who is part of a privatized police force in a decaying old Detroit. Detroit has been bought by the megaconglomerate, OCP, which plans to rebuild her in their shining image. Two competing robotics projects change Murphy’s life forever when the Ed-9000 project goes haywire and kills a major OCP exec, causing Project Robocop to initiate. Murphy is fatally wounded in the line of duty, and since he is now an OCP employee, his corpse is OCP property as well. They turn him into a cyborg with three laws: “Serve the Public Trust”; “Protect the Innocent”; “Uphold the Law.”
Robocop is a hit with the locals and cleans up against the bad guys. However, the brain of Murphy begins having flashbacks of his former life. Meanwhile, a vengeful OCP employee turns against Robocop to sabotoge the project and supplies street gangs with military weapons. Shenanigans.
Maximum Verbosity: When I try to explain the subgenre of cyberpunk to Slines, they look confused at the mention of NEUROMANCER or SNOWCRASH. Then I say ROBOCOP, and they usually get that. ROBOCOP was a pioneer of movies like it – a dark future where corporations ruled, near enough to feel familiar but far enough that they had the freedom to radically change society. We do, in fact, have corporations buying up cities, influencing elections, and gaining a dominant hand in our daily lives. We do, in fact, have anthro-modeled drones with guns being put together by the military to shoot people in war. We do, in fact, have cyborgs with mind-linked artificial limbs; some of which are being developed for the military. We do, in fact, have privatized police forces. We do, in fact, have “reality television” with interactive audience participation where they can indeed “buy that for a dollar.” In fact, we do have situations where corporations can require their citizens to sign away their basic rights that have been upheld by the federal courts. People like to talk about how prophetic BLADE RUNNER or MINORITY REPORT were about the direction things are going, but ROBOCOP is batting a much higher average.
Of course, the movie is not real life. Reality is much more nuanced and complicated; but at the same time, ROBOCOP is also very complicated and nuanced. On the basic surface, it’s just a standard action flick; bad guys wrong heroic cop; heroic cop fights them, gets the evidence and stops the bad guys. Sure, he’s a ROBOcop, but he’s still basically a cop. Indeed, ROBOCOP is basically just a cop movie; that’s the formula it follows. In some ways you could ALMOST plug in bits of it (albiet badly) into most any cop movie and have it kind of work here. Eddie Murphy in armor anyone?
But beneath this surface, there is a complicated political statement being made about free enterprise vs the public good. It asks questions about what lines should be crossed? How far will we let corporations go? Should we be allowed to sign away our rights? Make no mistake, there is a thriving black market for organs, and there are many who are pushing to allow private citizens to sell their organs for a profit – living or dead. Since corporations frequently take out life insurance policies on their employees, why not claim a profit on their organs if they die on the job?
The best manifestation of this lies in the media coverage and snarky commercials that weave between the major scenes. This is where the ROBO (sci fi) part of ROBOCOP really shines. You see the future (well…present now) of news. You see that the past is the present is the future in terms of how commercials work and what is sold. They set the tone of the action flick that makes it much more than an armored guy going around shooting people. Indeed, at its core, Robocop is really about what it means to be a human. Is it our memories? Murphy loses those at first, but they slowly come back. Is there a ghost in the machine? Is there a soul somewhere in our meat suit? The movie struggles with these questions as Murphy watches his family from afar, cursed to only be able to watch his former family but unable to confront them based on the Frankenstein monster that he has become.
The play of the laws is also exceedingly well done and a fantastic nod to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Indeed, ROBOCOP, much like Asimovian robots, has a secret “zeroth” law, though these two are diametically opposed. Asimovian robots are compelled to serve humanity as a whole. OCP robots are compelled to serve their corporation executives at the exclusion of the innocent, the law or the public trust.
The contrast couldn’t be more clear.
Peter Weller’s performance as Murphy is fantastic. He sets the bar so high that I doubt the remake will really do the character justice by comparison. Equally impressive is the rather understated performance of his partner played by Nancy Allen. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she is the foil that encourages Murphy to see himself more as a man and less as just a machine. A bond forms between them, and she also gives the audience a connection to the character. As a sidekick she’s pretty damn impressive, especially compared to the abilities exhibited by Robocop himself. The entire cast does a fantastic job, but I’d like to make a special shout out to the crime boss played by Kurtwood Smith, who knocks it out of the park as a bad guy who is both a stereotype and an extremely complex character at the same time. Smith has gone on to do some very impressive work since then.
As a side note, if you like to see bad guys turned to goo and properly punished for their arrogance – shot, stabbed, burned and maimed – this is a movie for you. Eighties movies were very good at this kind of thing, and ROBOCOP delivers it wholesale. It is a movie that makes you think, makes you feel, and makes you cackle with glee at the destruction of evil. If you’re into that kind of thing