Paul Verhoeven

USA / France, 1987


Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 11 July 2004

Source The Criterion Collection DVD

The key aim of RoboCop is discerned, if not in the campy title, in a scene in which the title character invades a narcotics factory. Robocop enters slowly, pans the scene, targeting each individual (in a manner directly reminiscent of Terminator). Every person in this room has a semi-automatic weapon. Without a hint of fear, the protagonist utters: “Come quietly or there will be trouble.” In stride with many, similar scenes in the film, this action functions doubly to inspire laughter and wonder. Likewise, director Paul Verhoeven’s first American effort relies heedlessly upon satiric humor and mythic icons.

RoboCop is a meld of flesh and metal, a creation that involves a staunch ability to reason, and — as it is later discovered — the memory of its human component. This machine is created by OCP (OmniConsumer Products) for use in Detroit’s police force. The city is plagued by abundant crime. The police face the indomitable task of battling it, and a workforce strike is imminent. At first, RoboCop is an effective remedy.

In a montage that is either hilarious or rousing (or both), RoboCop makes arrests with consummate ease; he sends a convenience store robber through refrigerated cooler, disenables a potential rapist in the most justified manner, and finally, ends a hostage situation by retrieving the terrorist — by charging through a wall, no less — and tossing him through a window. RoboCop’s comedic brogue is apparent throughout the sequence, though is best depicted in a visit to Lee Iacoca elementary school: “RoboCop,” asks an interviewer, “any special message for the kids watching at home?” “Stay out of trouble,” he threatens in monotone.

In response to RoboCop’s success, an OCP vice president projects the end of crime in Detroit within forty days. In the scene immediately following, a polygraph shows disruptions in RoboCop’s sleep. He wakes, and unexpectedly exits. At the same time, RoboCop eschews its established formula.

Alex Murphy is seen in the beginning of the film and he is inserted into the exposition with little reason (this is an excused cliché of action films). He is an able police officer, relocated to Detriot and killed on his first day of activity. Following his death his corpse is used as the human component of OCP’s RoboCop.

Murphy’s former partner, Anne, recognizes him after he involuntarily spins a gun around his finger slipping it into his holster (hidden cleverly in his metal thigh) — Murphy did the same thing. She further conjures his memories, ultimately leading him to discover his former identity. Thereafter, RoboCop’s function is secondary to his search for identity and, moreover, his plight to avenge his death.

As expected, this creation’s ability to retain memory (and to show emotion) is not intended by its creators; it is human quality, and is, as such, a flaw.

As an action picture RoboCop stumbles beneath the stride of other action greats from which it borrows; foremost is the robotic similarity to Terminator’s cyborg antagonist. The explosions, deaths, and weapons are all established (and borrowed) action conventions. As an action picture alone, RoboCop is assembled from used pieces of other films. Ultimately action is RoboCop’s weakest element; its generic function is lost in the scope of its thematic aims.

Murphy’s human qualities overwhelm his purpose as a machine built to adhere to straightforward commands. RoboCop’s adherence to the Frankenstein myth (that for the vanity of science there exists a price) may not be consistently apparent, though it is apparent nonetheless.

Frankenstein’s monster is a durable theme in film. This progeny of science, for all intents and purposes, has a form, emotions, and drive, yet it does not exist in conventional terms; it has no identity.

To further this myth in its narrative portrayal in film (seen in each Frankenstein film and in even more abstract examples such as Pinocchio and A.I.) the creation gathers human qualities in its emotional growth. The purpose of RoboCop is to secure the law in a city ridden with crime. He is a machine built to do so, efficiently and without personal investment. The latter measure is violated once RoboCop discovers the identity of his murderer.

RoboCop’s filmmakers have updated this myth: RoboCop removes his helmet and observes himself, for the first time, in a broken piece of a mirror; Frankenstein’s monster first sees his horrible visage in the calm water of a pool (this occurs in the 1931 version). Both creatures, realizing their lack of identity, confront their creators. This occurs in abstract in RoboCop; he is made to battle crime and he seeks the city’s most notorious crime boss.

The relation between human and technology is obvious throughout the film, and it is delivered in plain sight in RoboCop’s climactic confrontation with ED-209. The latter is the creation by the same corporation, without a human basis. Its effectiveness is displayed in its introductory scene, in which ED (Enforcement Droid) threatens and kills an innocent bystander in a showing of its abilities. Because ED is not intended to be a menace this action suggests the fallibility of technology.

RoboCop is pitted against the machine later in the film. ED is an icon, of sorts, of the extent of technology depicted in the film, and it fails because it does not employ human logic. RoboCop’s more human traits — to flee from this danger — are what allow him to triumph. RoboCop escapes ED’s attack by fleeing down a flight of stairs; ED, humorously, is not designed to do so and awkwardly tumbles.

RoboCop was helmed by European import Paul Verhoeven, known in each of his American efforts to polarize audiences. He is viewed as both as sharp satirist and sleazy provacateur. In his commentary for RoboCop, he justifies both criticisms, by admitting his impulse to exaggerate violence and sex and by acknowledging the intended satiric humor of his film.

In Verhoeven’s catalogue Starship Troopers is the most fitting addendum to themes addressed in RoboCop; both are punctuated by “media breaks” in which an anchor directly addresses the audience. This is a highly effective technique. In both films the blurbs address happenings around the globe, and seem, offhand, to anchor the films’ cultural standpoint. These blurbs may be seen as incidental; however, they serve to establish Verhoeven’s take. In RoboCop this technique describes the political instability around the globe (an advertisement follows the news, for prosthetic hearts manufactured by Jensen and Yamaha — this depicts the ridiculous extent of consumerism in the film). A later advertisement, for Nukem, depicts nuclear warfare as the idea behind a Battleship-like board game that opposes members of a family. In this reliance upon media Verhoeven’s films involve a more complete setting, and similarly, his satiric aim is widened.

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