Robocop (1987): The Future is Here

Moviegoers of nowadays might find particularly interesting to know that British director Ken Russell (“The Devils”(1971)), once declared that “Robocop”(1987) was, in his opinion, the best sci-fi movie ever made since Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1926). This may sound like an overstatement for many. However, if you take a close look at Russell’s highly subversive vision of cinema, and the overall treatment of “Robocop,” you’ll figure out why this movie is among this director’s very favorites.

“Robocop” is a cynic, utterly pessimistic, ultra-violent vision of the future populated by evil and greedy men who use their money and their ruthless means to substitute real- men enforcers of law with killing machines. The city of Detroit, in this movie, is intended to be seen as a nearly-apocalyptic big metropolis with no place for decent people. Featuring excerpts of fictitious TV news serves for accentuating the condition of city in crisis.

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The only two good characters in the movie are, in fact, Alex J. Murphy (A.K.A Robocop before getting shot up)and officer Louise (his partner). It’s mystifying, in this respect, to see that Bob Morton (Robocop’s creator) is depicted as an egocentric, opportunistic, insolent prick. He is, after all, just one more among “the people in command.”

The satire-filled TV ads (like in Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers”(1997)) are a very imaginative way to illustrate how the high rankings of society feed the mob with high consumerism messages to turn them away from problems of a more human nature.

To truly understand “Robocop” today, we must go way back to the period of time to which it “belongs.” This movie has the “80’s glow” in it. Someone once said that the 80’s was the decade of greed in America. This movie, like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) was- and still is- a look at American society and those people who itch for running the main institutions of the country. TV brainwashes and feeds the shallow holes of our ability to rationate. The machines of war utilized by the Government is the big business in the country. All those who claim to work for the country, actually take advantage of it. Hence, businessmen, if they had the chance, would deal with criminals in order to achieve their own purposes. Violence is, supposedly, the motor that wages peace on the streets: if there is crime out there, there will be a greater need for more violent machines to tackle this plague. These statements mean to define the philosophy of a decade both representative and outrageous in U.S. history. We could go on and on about this, but what is to be understood here is the subtle identification Verhoeven is making between actual American society and the microcosm of crooked, lawless city of Detroit that is depicted in the movie.

The main difference between “Wall Street” and “Robocop”-and some would find this too obvious-is that the former is a drama, and the latter is a fantasy. “Robocop”, because of its being a fantasy, can afford to take its purpose one or two steps beyond and jiggle with different elements, apparently alien in order to make this movie a metaphor about what the future could be like in America. Real Citizens are torn out of their lives (or out of their deaths) to fill in the place of useful weapons for society. Society transforms us into war machines. Our human nature may still come to life and be at odds with that of an emotionless machine. If we hold on to our human values, we might have to also confront the whole system that conceived us. This is what happens in the movie. “Robocop” constantly moves through parallel worlds (that of a machine and that of a human being locked into a full metal armor). Therefore, he has two ways of thinking in constant conflict. It’s praiseworthy the way the movie wants us to deal with this character. It gives an even greater importance to the human dimension of the Alex Murphy character than that of the robot. We really get to care about the complex duality of the character. Here is where the intrinsic appeal of the movie resides, beyond all the otherwise brutal violence.

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In this regard, there is a remarkable similarity between this movie and “Total Recall” (1990), also directed by Verhoeven. The two movies are about the nearly-nightmarish search of one man for himself. In both quests, the capability “to remember” seems crucial to save not only each main character as a human being, but also the concepts of space and time they inhabit (Detroit in “Robocop”, and planet Mars in “Total Recall”). The places where both movies take place seem to be conceived on the verge of self-destruction and they may blow up at any moment. Dreams and nightmares guide these two men through the entire journey toward salvation and self-identification.

Aside from the social commentary, “Robocop” has stunning special effects, crafted by master Rob Bottin, and a brilliant soundtrack by Basil Poledourius which displays a clear sci-fi connotation. The script, by Ed Neumeier, is surprisingly well penned and it reflects very wisely through the characters and the action, a disturbing and visually unique atmosphere all the way.

Dutch Verhoeven accomplished, on his first American adventure, a movie both dark and bright; both thought-provoking and absurd… but all in all, definitely dazzling.

 

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