The question of our humanity—how to find it, safe guard it, lose it, redeem it—I think, is the ultimate purpose of storytelling. At the root of it we consume stories, yes, to be entertained by the proceedings, but also to be nourished spiritually. Whether that be through a reinforcement of morals and ideals, a cathartic release, a vicarious experience of watching the fantastic, unlikely or uncanny, the method of delivery for that nourishment depend both on the story in question and your predilections at that moment. But that desire to be enriched, it is always there. Art and storytelling allow us to examine themes and aspects of ourselves that might otherwise go unexplored.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this and I’m (almost) always serious when I talk about movies. Hence, when I say without hyperbole that Robocop is the greatest science-fiction movie I’ve ever seen—I mean it. More so than any other science-fiction film it begs that question: What does it fundamentally mean to be human? And more so than any other film of its kind, when I watch it I feel better. Stronger. Faster. Harder. Most people hear the word Robocop and then the phrase “greatest sci-fi film of all time” and immediately tune out. “Robocop? That’s just a mindless action movie!” But if you hear me out I’m hoping you will at least see my point of view, even if you are not completely convinced by the argument.
First and foremost, let’s be clear about qualifying it as an action movie rather than a science-fiction movie. There are really only three-ish action scenes it that are noteworthy and I feel by other “action” movie standards it’s really not consistent. Yes, there is violence in it. And, yes, the violence, when it appears, is quite extreme (especially, if you’re watching the director’s cut—which I always recommend for this film). But while the violence in it is intense, it really isn’t protracted and it is certainly not frivolous. It’s punctuation to a scene, but not really the point of the movie. You have primarily: 1. The scene where Robocop busts (destroys) a drug lab and arrests Boddicker. 2. The ending, where Boddicker’s gang blows up half an abandoned iron foundry trying to kill Robocop and 3. The scene where ED-209 shoots Robocop a lot and he stumbles down the hallway to escape, only to find himself in the parking lot at the mercy of the police who also shoot him a lot since they have orders to “shoot to destroy” (getting shot at a lot and limping your way to an escape doesn’t exactly strike me as “epic action”, but I’m including the last one because there certainly are a lot of bullets spent). Aside from that, Robocop punches a bad guy or two, fires a few other shots, but it’s all so quick that the action is over within a few seconds.
This isn’t an action flick with elements of sci-fi. If so, I think by my highlights section above you could consider it one of the laziest action films ever produced. If anything, this is a science-fiction film that incorporates violence in order to further the story. Not the other way around.
Now, I’ve said this numerous times before and I think it’s worth mentioning again here considering the topic, but I think violence for the sake of violence is lazy, flaccid storytelling. It adds nothing to a plot. Robocop does have moments of ultra-violence, but it is always to serve a purpose. Filming mindless violence does nothing but expose the sadistic nature of the film-maker and the audience who willingly buys into such a production. Or, to sort of appropriate another literary idea: If Ensign Chekov shows up unexpectedly with a phaser drawn and doesn’t shoot it before the episode is over, I’m going to wonder why he was in that scene at all. In good storytelling, if it doesn’t serve a purpose, then you should cut it. It doesn't matter if it is dialogue, settings or gunfights & explosions, if it fails to propel the narrative forward, then it is dead weight.
While the film is directly about the reestablishment of one man’s lost identity, I think in a broader sense you could make the argument that it is also about the assertion of our collective identity and worth. Time and time again, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) manipulates local events for their gain
and considers people’s lives a commodity. When the young executive is turned into hamburger meat at the ED-209 unveiling, it’s “a glitch”. The Old Man is pissed because they might lose up to 50 million dollars in interest payments. And Bob Morton leaves that meeting without a second glance for his friend that was killed that he was talking to just moments before.
The privatization of the police is a calculated move on the corporation’s part so that they can mismanage it enough to force a police strike, creating a platform for their new security products. Never mind the city that is tearing itself apart with crime or the officers who fell in the line of duty from this negligence (which OCP later capitalizes on as a pool of “volunteers” for their Robocop project). It’s chaos, carefully cultivated and orchestrated, so that when they tell the populace they have the solution and it’s called DELTA CITY everyone will jump at it.
At times, I too feel like a mere statistic. An employee number; a figure to be quoted in an article about my lost, jobless generation; a license and registration; but not always a person. You can call it cliché, but the real bad guy here is Big Business, with too much power and no supervision. I think the social comment is, "Watch out before they turn us all into machines".
The promise of a better future is a grim irony here. With enough violent crime, OCP can get the support it needs to finish its project.
And here is Robocop. Our dilemma of fighting the system gets played out by his actions.
Dick Jones calls him a thing. He’s a product. The clandestine Directive 4, Dick Jones reveals, was added by him. It’s a program inserted into Robocop’s mind that prevents him from acting against an officer of the corporation. After being told time and time again that he is property and replaceable, even programmable to do things against his own wishes, what happens during this confrontation between the two? I think it’s one of the film’s most important moments. Robocop is shot and part of his visor is broken off. Remember your classical art studies—what do the eyes represent? They are windows to the soul. And here you have Robocop at his weakest moment since being turned on, literally knocked to his knees, and he is revealed to be—still in the end—a man.
Every good movie, in my opinion, has a heart to it. There is a central moment that anchors all of the proceedings, and from that place all of the ideas unfurl. With Rushmore, as I’ve said before, it’s the moment where Ms. Cross takes off Max’s glasses and sees him for the man he might be. In Return of the Jedi, in fact for the whole original trilogy, it is the moment where Vader looks upon his son moments from dying at the hands of the Emperor, the good and the evil aspects of his life, and he chooses to save the former. With Robocop it is the scene where he returns home.
In his remembrances he is always leaving home, but when he reclaims his memories after becoming Robocop he finally has the chance to return. The house, naturally, is empty. The detritus of his old life lay scattered about, too painful for his wife to keep—their potted plants withering away, A World Class Husband mug, some recent Polaroids (burned in a hurry because they didn’t want to keep them), a sink full of flowers. Each room he enters awakens a new memory and this process is a revelation to us watching. Throughout the movie we have seen brief glimpses of Murphy’s family life, but his homecoming scene is the most complete and sustained recollection of the life he once had. Because of this story construction, the scope of what has befallen him dawns on him and us simultaneously. His wife was madly in love with him. His son seemed bright, young and happy. They were a perfectly adjusted, suburban, happy family. Now we understand what he had and what he had taken away. Beyond the loss of his own life, we see some of the effect it had on his wife and son. That house was a pain they couldn’t escape fast enough.
Robocop’s body language is very consistent throughout the movie, but in this one moment it changes. It almost seems like Murphy is trying to break free of the armor, of the Robocop persona, of the situation. That brief instance before he smashes the monitor, he looks like he cannot contain himself. It’s an all too human reaction when faced with outrage.
With an awful clarity, his desire for justice comes into focus. It wasn’t just his body Boddicker and his gang destroyed, it was his whole family too. Which, in a way brings me front and center to the primary reason why I find myself so fascinated with this movie: It seems to say that no amount of science, magic or alchemy can ever occlude the human spirit, our dedication to those we love, or our basic need to be revenged. His corporeal self was annihilated. His life was painfully taken from him. And when he was resurrected his memory was erased and his personality stolen and reprogrammed from the bottom up. He was no longer Murphy, he was a just a shell, branded by OCP and told how to act. But piece by piece that construct sloughs itself off as his original self resurfaces. By the film’s end he is no longer the man he began as, but is certainly no longer the cyborg the company thought they had constructed. That human spark that is in all of us could not be smothered; it smoldered and eventually caught aflame again. That to me is a truly remarkable idea, both inspiring and comforting. We are more than flesh and synapses. Even if it is not necessarily true, I want to believe it.