In a dystopic and crime-ridden Detroit, a terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg haunted by submerged memories.
Part man, part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement.
Robocop: Dead or alive, you're coming with me!
Officer Lewis: Murphy, it's you!
Bixby Snyder: I'd buy that for a dollar!
“The cult film RoboCop, a futuristic story about a policeman shot to death and then revived after all parts of his body have been replaced by artificial substitutes, introduces a more tragic note: the hero who finds himself literally ‘between two deaths’ – clinically dead and at the same time provided with a new, mechanical body – starts to remember fragments of his previous, ‘human’ life and thus undergoes a process of resubjectivation, changing gradually back from pure incarnated drive to a being of desire. (...) [I]f there is a phenomenon that fully deserves to be called the ‘fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture,’ it is this fantasy of the return of the living dead: the fantasy of a person who does not want to stay dead but returns again and again to pose a threat to the living.”
“Verhoeven’s film advanced a completely cynical view of American entertainment. Praising the movie’s ‘healthy contempt for the culture that gave birth to it,’ Village Voice critic David Edelstein saw RoboCop as ‘a satire of the Reaganaut present’ – social services cut or privatized; unregulated corporations buying politicians and controlling devastated cities. ‘There’s no better way to steal money than free enterprise,’ one career criminal gratuitously exclaims. (...) Verhoeven was a fan of the media spectacle, telling American Film that he ‘spent every minute [he] could spare watching those Iran-Contra hearings.’ ‘I also followed the aftermath of the Challenger disaster – the same spectacle of people reproaching each other and lying and cheating. It was wonderful!’ (...) On one hand, RoboCop’s TV news is totally concerned with social chaos and physical danger. On the other, the commercials that punctuate these grim reports of disasters abroad (nuclear war in South Africa, revolution in Mexico) are all about prolonging human life through buyable remedies (like a new heart). Thus, RoboCop, the technologically resurrected police casualty, reborn from the ashes of the Vietnam War (or the Detroit riots), synthesizes threat and antidote. With his reconstructed, superior body, he is impervious to bullets and emotion (although he does prove susceptible to traumatic memories). Programmed to be a helpful Terminator, RoboCop is more humane, because more rational, than the legal vigilante Dirty Harry. Naturally charismatic and repeatedly told that he’s a ‘product,’ RoboCop is Verhoeven’s satirical view of the ideal American leader – a dispassionate, perfectly packaged technocrat maintaining order and enforcing the law against criminal enemies of all sorts.”
“In its narrative structure and in its sets, RoboCop represents a complex genre mix, using a pastiche of elements drawn from the sci-fi, gangster, romance, and western genres. (...) In addition to mixing genres, RoboCop mixes high and low art. This Hollywood ‘trash’ flick is the U.S. film debut of the distinguished Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, [who] initially rejected RoboCop's script as ‘just an action script.’ On subsequent reading, however, he saw in it philosophical themes – the Christian themes of death, resurrection, and redemption – and agreed to do the film. In an interview published in The New York Times, Verhoeven stated that RoboCop ‘is about losing your soul, even part of your body, and then being resurrected into a new body, which is a very Christian thing, isn't it?’ He's expressing the utopian aspect of Christianity, hope for spiritual salvation and redemption, which drew him in. Before making the film, Verhoeven studied contemporary action classics such as The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and Rambo (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) to learn the editing and the pace of the Hollywood blockbuster genre. (...) While RoboCop is an action spectacle, a romance, a comedy, and a revenge fantasy, it is also a complex, subversive, and even utopian text which addresses the problem of human alienation within a techno-capitalist society. (...) Through [its] sustained satire, RoboCop builds one of the strongest cases against monopoly capitalism yet delivered by Hollywood. And by having constantly inserted fictionalized TV shows into its narrative, it critiques this system's main cultural support, the media.
The real cop Murphy, cajoled by his son, learns a twirling gun trick from the TV cop T.J. Laser (himself a robot). For Murphy's son, pop is not a ‘real’ cop unless he simulates the unreal actions of TV heroes, an accommodation Murphy doesn't mind at all. Indeed, Murphy and his partner, the tough female cop Lewis, seem to be acting out fantasies of invulnerable TV cops when they chase criminals into an abandoned steel mill without any backup, much as U.S. soldiers went into Vietnam with images of John Wayne storming the hill in their minds. Once inside the building, he and his tough female partner, Lewis, both strike stereotypical cop poses, and almost gleefully, Murphy walks into his death trap. Where do these poses come from? Are they what ‘real’ cops do? Are they media exaggerations? Or do real cops pick up these poses from media representations of their roles? It becomes a hyper-real role with no identifiable origin. Murphy's alacrity to adopt a TV simulation of cops as a model suggests that his transformation into Robocop is not as sharp a division from his former self as one might initially think. In a sense, Murphy was already ‘Robocop.’ (...) Interestingly, as RoboCop played in our local theaters, another black comedy, the Iran/Contra affair, played on television in our living rooms.
RoboCop's sharpest criticism is directed not against media or capitalism per se, but against technology and ‘technicism’. At this level, RoboCop attempts to present its main message. Failed robot technology is a metaphor for and warning against the policies and attitudes behind the U.S. government's SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative). This [anti-ballistic missile] program initiated by Reagan assumes that a failsafe nuclear ‘protection’ device can be created to scientifically manage world conflicts. It is no accident then that the ‘news’ inside the film shows SDI actually misfiring. In the film's paranoid world, technology reigns supreme and out of control. The movie shows humans trying to master nature but ultimately failing. (...) Robocop is a postmodern Frankenstein who rebels against his technocratic creators. (...) RoboCop dramatizes the resilience of a subject, albeit a cyborg, amidst the most incredibly reified and subjugating conditions. The film allegorizes the robot's attempts to find meaning and, value within a corrupt world. The film preserves a moment of struggle and refusal.”
Paul Verhoeven: This film doesn't have a message. It's a fantasy, a complete fantasy; a real comic book scenario.
Indra Bhose: The film might have a comic book moral, but it's completely credible; even the leader of the gang is believable.
It's true. The comic book aspect is mostly stylistic. The screenwriter carefully studied the comic book. One of the writers [Edward Neumeier] used to be the director at Universal, where he would spend his time reading comic books to see if they had the potential to be made into movies. Something from that experience stuck with him. When I started on this project, in September of '85, the first thing I read was a pile of comic books!
Which ones did you enjoy most?
I read so many ... Spiderman, Roboman, Ironman, etc. I read only comic books for months. [The film also drew inspiration from the Judge Dredd comic-book character.] I studied the pictures, the point of view, and the style. It all came back to me during the shooting. I also made the cinematographer, the technicians and all of my collaborators read them. That being said, the film isn't a movie adaptation of a comic book. We created a work that stands on its own. That is the movie's strength; it was conceived directly from that mode of expression. It isn't an adaptation.
Paul Verhoeven in conversation with Indra Bhose4
“And I’m sorry to say that I still haven’t caught up with RoboCop.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum's top 10 of 19875
- 1. Slavoj Žižek, Looking awry: An introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 16.
- 2. J. Hoberman, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (New York: The New Press, 2019), 522-524.
- 3. Steven Best, “Robocop: In the ditritus of hi-technology,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 34(1989), 19-26.
- 4. Indra Bhose, “Paul Verhoeven Tackles Science Fiction,” In Margaret Barton-Fumo (ed.), Paul Verhoeven: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016). Originally published in L'Ecran Fantastique, January 1988. Translated from the French by Alexandra Valentine Proulx.
- 5. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “10 From ’87,” Chicago Reader, January 8, 1988.