RoboCop (1987) shows what power truly is, where it actually comes from, and why everybody should wake up to this reality before it is too late.
It is easy to confuse RoboCop (1987) for an exploitation film. The gratuitous level of vivid violence in Paul Verhoeven’s classic portrayal of a dismal future is enough to unsettle even the unperturbable. Several times over the course of the hour and a half or so that is RoboCop the blood and gib become so extreme it can be hard to watch for squeamish viewers. There is a gluttony of hyper-violence: between the complete decimation of an unsuspecting executive during an Omni Consumer Product (OCP) board meeting at the film’s opening, the horrifying dismemberment of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) at the hands of Clarence Bodicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang, the utterly gruesome deformation of Emil (Paul McCrane) during the film’s final chase sequence, and the several other bloody and explosive incidents Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), and numerous nameless goons are subjected to.
The extremity of RoboCop’s depiction of violence is a feature of a greater purpose though. The traumatic and horrifying news reports that open the film are accompanied by two reporters who act as though these tragedies are of no weight or significance. It is meant not only to disturb but also to parallel the emotionless reaction audiences have to the violence before their eyes in the film. The cold open is the perfect metaphor for the entire film: a subtle satire of a culture that not only tolerates but covets violence.
Beyond the general satire and cultural commentary, RoboCop sought to examine a particular result of this mentality. Through constructing an exaggerated version of the real world, the film explored how conceptions of power play a role in that construction as well as its inevitable deconstruction. OCP is not just a corrupt and greedy company, it is a representation of a proliferated, naive belief that the accumulation of power protects oneself from the horrors of the outside world.
Bigger Is Better
Throughout the entirety of RoboCop, the villains constantly overestimate the power of the “bigger is better” axiom. Dick Jones, foolishly believing his status at the apex of OCP corporate structure is enough to shroud him from wrongdoing, makes a fool of himself when his gigantic ED-209 predator drone malfunctions and murders another executive. It is a big, gregarious project that several times over is defeated, embarrassingly, by the RoboCop project that was smaller both in scale and physical size. Dick’s mistakes cost him cession of power and favor with OCP’s chief executive to a younger, wilier executive who mocks him unscrupulously. Bigger did not prove any better for Dick Jones.
Clarence Bodicker is mistaken to believe that bigger is better just as well. He thinks that having the support of the most powerful company in Detroit will keep him protected from the law, but his run-in with RoboCop proves otherwise. He thinks that a firing squad is automatically going to be the end of Officer Murphy when they capture him, but that cannot be further from true. The assumption that highly explosive, military-grade weaponry will be enough to put a stop to RoboCop would seem to be fair, but that assumption is proven otherwise at the film’s climax. If he can amass all the power possible in Old Detroit, so Bodicker thinks, he will be invincible and undefeatable. Bigger was not better for him though, as eventually, RoboCop brought him crashing down.
Should the fallacy of the “bigger is better” axiom not, then, go both ways? When the hulking, bulletproof RoboCop confronts a measly mortal, he is not necessarily better just for being bigger either. His wanton defenestration of criminals is constantly causing major damage to innocent shop owners and their property. The orders programmed into his brain would seem to ensure justice would always be served. But, justice is subjective, and justice to a corporate-legal entity is not the same as justice in the eyes of the public. This externality is proof of that. Furthermore, the attempt to design RoboCop as purely cybernetic as possible fails as his human mind overcomes the robotic cage he was meant to be enslaved to. All of the things that were meant to make RoboCop big and Alex Murphy and his human emotion and intellect insignificant by comparison backfire. It is the empathetic, independently thinking part of RoboCop that saves the day in the end.
Dead Or Alive
In a genre where robots are often and increasingly either scapegoated, villainized, or completely misunderstood, it is jarring that RoboCop is simply a hero. Films like The Terminator and Blade Runner from earlier in the decade helped craft a narrative in the popular zeitgeist that could leave a viewer weary that RoboCop too would live in this vein. The rallying Western music that plays as he rides off to fight crime is seemingly ironic while the moment of RoboCop’s betrayal of the public trust or the miscarriage of justice seems to loom. When the moment never comes, it comes neither as a relief nor as a shock. Rather, as the film concludes, it just seems natural. Murphy, before introducing himself to the Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy) as such, thanks him for firing Dick Jones so that Directive 4 no longer applies. Murphy’s quipping and the subsequent near-gloating is in perfect form, reflecting the old Westerns his son adored and RoboCop was meant to emulate all along.
RoboCop himself was far more complicated than just a machine designed to have superior strength and near invincibility. Even while still encased fully in his metallic trap, the mere mention of his old name by his former partner, Anne Lewis, triggers something locked inside the brain of Alex Murphy. The moment RoboCop’s visor is blown off the camera zooms in on Murphy’s revealed eye; the first time his real flesh is seen since his apparent death. This is the moment it becomes clear that RoboCop was never a machine at all. The sequence where Bob Morton instructs RoboCop’s limbs to be made entirely prosthetic and his memory wiped is meant to mislead the audience into thinking he is entirely mechanic. Alex Murphy had not been made into a machine though. The man inside had been enhanced. He was made into a cyborg, a human being with mechanical parts. The moment Murphy’s eye was revealed not only set Murphy free of many of his programmatic restrains, but it was also the moment of humanization for the character. Murphy was alive and RoboCop reduced to a nickname rather than a programming.
The Ability To Act
RoboCop is truly a hero and the bigger, badder weapons at play are small compared to the power of avenging those that have been wronged. RoboCop was not just a neo-Western though. It wants to drive home a greater lesson about the state of humanity. There is a faux-progressivism that is intentionally layered on thick at the onset of the film. The lead scientists on the RoboCop project are women, the officer in charge of Murphy’s new precinct, Seargent Warren Reed (Robert DoQui) is a black man, and his partner is a woman who is presented as completely competent as a cop can be. These characters and their competence are diversions designed to make the future world of RoboCop seem more advanced and civilized than the standard depiction of the time. This is only a feeling though. The scientists are still harassed by grimy men, Seargent Reed has no real power and is repeatedly humiliated, and Lewis is embarrassed and squandered by a lude joke while going after Boddicker, directly leading to Murphy’s “death.”
Between a seemingly intentional dismantling of the “bigger is better” thesis, the confounding Western-hero archetype, and the faux-progressivism, RoboCop begs its audience to critically question what it is being told. Performed might can easily supplant the appearance of a genuine capacity to protect oneself, but it cannot replace the actual ability itself. Not all those who appear to be good are good just as not all those who appear to be bad are bad. Subtle cues or underlying traits that could not break through the surface may provide better perspectives. If people all act like OCP, overconfident in their understanding of the world and their place in it without continuous reassessment, they can be self-destructive. RoboCop wants its viewers to not be inured to the ongoing reality, like the news anchors. Instead, they should be cognizant of and be questioning the things that subvert expectations, like why bigger is not always better and why the appearance of something progressive does not imply actual or full progression.
Power is the ability to act. The more ability one has to act, the more power they have. OCP believes that because they hold more indicators of what they believe to be an ability to act than anybody else, that they are at the acme of power. Yet, they are undermined at every turn by their own naivety, corruption, and greed. They lose their power because OCP does not have the absolute monopoly on the ability to act they think they do. RoboCop is not just a warning against a world where one company accumulates too much power. It is a warning against a world where individual citizens give up their own power by failing to recognize that they have it in the first place. The 1980s RoboCop satarizes is full of media that that normalizes things like violence and glamorizes the appearance of concentrated power. Perhaps viewers will question what they are told is the natural order of things so that they might recognize their own power to disrupt dangerous norms and use it.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.