Criterion Cuts: “RoboCop”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted. Today’s movie doesn’t, for reasons I’ll get into, but I did watch it on Netflix Instant, and I’m sure many more of you have that.

One of the more problematic aspects of dealing with the Criterion Collection is that it started out in the dawn of home video, putting out laserdiscs at a time when such a thing was fairly novel. Criterion invented director’s commentary tracks as we know them today. They went out of their way to license stuff that nobody else seemed willing to put out and give a good treatment to. Which meant that their mandate was a little wider back in the day, when the idea of a quality home video release was far more rare and precious. Early Criterion releases, then, often would have rights revert back to the studio as licenses expired, and some of the earliest titles went out of print only to have the studios then rerelease the movie themselves.

The thing is, spine numbers (how every release is organized) aren’t reused, so you have spine numbers that belong to movies Criterion hasn’t had the rights to for years, with home video releases that are now often collector’s items, even if newer and more reasonably priced releases exist (sometimes in better quality, even). I’m not really into that collecting mentality, mostly because I don’t have the money to be, but I do think it a weird interesting spin-off of Criterion fandom. It’s also relevant because today’s movie is one that’s been out of the collection for years now, a movie you can easily find in affordable, non-Criterion home releases (or even on Netflix Instant) right now.

The Criterion out of print market has died down from it’s worst days (I remember once upon a time seeing the then out of print SALO going for $600. No joke.), thankfully, but it is kind of amazing to realize that people will go out of their way to collect a specific home release simply because of the distributor attached. That’s some crazy dedication. None of this has much relevance to today’s movie, outside of me acknowledging that you can’t go to a store and buy the Criterion release of this film. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, though, as it’s pretty amazing. And I’m pretty sure most of you already have.

RoboCop (1987)

Being able to write about RoboCop is one of those best/worst experiences in writing about movies. Best, in that RoboCop is (as most of you should know) a legitimately amazing movie, wrapping smart and fascinating social commentary and thought behind a patently silly, incredibly violent, endlessly entertaining pop culture wrapper. When I remembered it was in the collection, I did a fist pump of joy at being able to watch it (again). The downside? I have no idea where to begin talking about what makes it so fantastic, as there’s so much I could talk about that would just seem like endless gushing.

I’m going to assume everyone reading this has seen RoboCop (and if you haven’t, shame on you, go fix that) and where normally I’d recap the plot a bit I’m going to talk about some of the more amazing things the movie does. My love can’t fit conventional paragraphs of text, so you’re getting the reliable though rarely-used (by me anyway) standard: a list! We’ll get to some honest criticism of the work after that, but let me just get out some of the high points first.

  • I both love and am terrified by the fact that RoboCop barely feels like a science fiction world.
  • “Can you fly, Bobby?” Clarence is so utterly evil, throwing injured lackeys out of moving vehicles just to distract the cops. He’s like the Joker without a gimmick.
  • The commercials, many added as director Paul Verhoeven tried to get the MPAA to back down from an X-rating, that depict a world of shitty game show television (‘I’d buy that for a dollar’ haunts everyone to this day with the world’s most reliable twitter-bot) and shittier cars (the 6000 SUX? It’d be droll and on-the-nose if it didn’t constantly pop up in the actual sets as well. Not just a throwaway gag, people drive them and talk about them).
  • Nobody in RoboCop simply gets shot, they get riddled with bullets in a fireworks display of squibs and blood bags as they’re turned into swiss cheese. Made of meat.
  • RoboCop’s design feels like one of the world’s first globalized superheroes, an ultra-violent cop (US) that rocks a combination of the Judge Dredd armor/persona (UK) but with tweaks that seem born straight out of anime (Japan).
  • The amazing score by Basil Poledouris, which I’m listening to as I write this. It manages rousing heroic fanfare even as it ends up being an uncharacterisitcally emotional score in the quieter moments.
  • The hard on Miguel Ferrer’s character has for RoboCop when he’s first unveiled. The guy could not be more happy to have his own toy soldier.
  • “Bitches leave.”
  • That ED-209 is a shining example of excessive corporate product, an ultra-violent killing machine, and nobody thought to build it to go down stairs.
  • Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen), who manages to be the toughest cop in the movie without devolving into a total machismo cliche, and who has an emotional connection with Murphy that never falls into lazy romantic traps.
  • Felton Perry as OCP Exec Donald Johnson, who spends most of his time on camera being just to the side of the action seemingly in on his own private joke about how stupid everyone else is and how much he enjoys watching them suffer.
  • That Peter Weller was just as expressive with the helmet on as with it off.
  • The perfect ending, where the bad guy dies and the good guy holsters his gun and gets to say one brilliant, revealing line and then the movie closes. No lengthy resolution to a bunch of side plots nobody cared about. No emotional falling action. Hero wins end on the high point! More movies should have the conviction in their stories to end so confidently.

I could go on, but those are the highlights (for me, anyway) that struck me most on this most recent re-watch. It’s an amazingly rich movie, which is no surprise given Verhoeven’s capacity in that period (and into the 90s) for picking stories with incredible potential and just wringing the hell out of them with smart, meticulous world building. If you’ve made it this far and haven’t seen it, or if the movie’s fuzzy in your mind, go ahead and check it out again. It’s still incredibly relevant and worthy not just to be appreciated, but discussed and thought about. It’s a rare movie that can be popcorn entertainment and critically rich, but RoboCop is that movie. So let’s get down to talking about the stuff that really caught my eye.

I don’t think it’s any great surprise to call RoboCop a satire of not only the obvious capitalism/corporatism run amok, but of the fascist justice-dispensing police hero archetype. Going back most famously to Dirty Harry, America has had a reactionary modern gunslinger sort of hero, a man who usually plays by his own rules but exists within the societal role of law enforcement who is so inundated by the hopeless crime of the world that the only way he can solve the violence and corruption is through a judicious use of barely-justified force, shooting gangsters and CEOs and not too important politicians alike as he sets out to clean up the streets. It’s a pretty popular trope, considering it makes a hero out of what is essentially a psychopath, that rose to popularity in the 70s and 80s in part as the more conservatively-minded response to the love-and-drugs set of counterculture heroes.

What makes RoboCop so special then is that it couches this character in the science fiction and superhero metaphors as a way to not only create the biggest and most excessive version of that character, but to point out how ultimately ridiculous the whole trope is. RoboCop plays fairly straight on the surface level as the story about a man who rises above the failings of mortal men to become something better, and that ‘better’ gives him the capability to clean up where other men failed. What’s interesting is that the better is ultimately so bad and/or faulty that it turns the whole movie into a critique upon itself. RoboCop is a hero only if you prescribe to the most cynical views of human nature. He’s the end game of this fascination with vigilante justice and ultra-violent catharsis: an inhuman superman savior come to liberate us from ourselves.

General dehumanization is a given state in this world. The police are owned by a private corporation (OCP), who treat crime as an opportunity for profit. It doesn’t matter that the escalating war on crime has pushed both sides into full on armament, casualties mounting on either side and cops dying by the dozens. To OCP, this situation is a simple fixer-upper, a chance to step in and replace the old outdated concepts of social policing with product: robotic lawbringers, unquestionable adjudicators of right and wrong through inflexible programming and the barrel of a gun. The thing is, this profit-first mentality has infested not only the corrupt corporations, but society up and down the ladder. Both the CEO of OCP and big baddie Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) say “business is where you find it” independent of each other in the film. Where other people see humans both the criminals and the executives see growth markets.

Is it no surprise then that society at large has adopted these ideas? Commercials show families playing elaborate board games simulating nuclear warfare. News broadcasts casually talk about man-made technological failures that result in massive loss of life, a space-weapon misfire that ‘accidentally’ killed two retired presidents and countless others gets barely a mention. People interviewed on the street for those same news broadcasts seem to have the slightly-manic resolution of people who know they’re on their own. When the cops then decide to strike, while ultimately those of us who are sympathetic to those kinds of working class ideals (and I’d never not agree that OCP is exploiting the cops) are roped into sympathizing for them, but ultimately it’s just another self-serving decision. When they strike, there’s chaos on the streets, and those cops never are confronted or admit that their job is to prevent the looting and madness that takes hold later in the film. To them it’s just a labor dispute, and the fallout is someone else’s problem so long as it doesn’t affect their personal lives.

Into this walks poor Murphy, who seems to be a decent guy in a world short on them, but who is helpless against the insane violence of the criminals he’s up against. So when he gets basically murdered, science and OCP money rebuild him, taking away his human weaknesses and turning him basically into a superhero cop. RoboCop is stronger, tougher, and smarter than any human officer. He is seemingly nearly invincible, and totally without the human frailties that make normal cops corruptible or vulnerable. He’s a no-loss product, something better than men. And sure, maybe OCP snuck some extra programming in that rendered RoboCop potentially useless in policing those who need policing most (OCP executives, for the record) but RoboCop ends up evolving around his programming by re-connecting with his humanity (this is the point when the helmet comes off, too) and becoming a full part-human, part-super being.

There’s a word for these men-destroyed-and-turned-demigods as they’re presented in popular Western fiction—Jesus figures. And Verhoeven has explicitly stated that he went into this with the intention of turning RoboCop into said Jesus figure, a man who has to overcome his humanity and become something more, without fully losing grasp of that original humanity, in order to fight back impossible evil. It’s rather explicit in the film’s imagery, too. RoboCop fully admits that Murphy died, and accepts his own resurrection as a given. When RoboCop fights Boddicker outside an abandoned warehouse, he enters the scene by walking through a large (if shallow) body of water, looking on film as if he’s walking on the water as he comes to deliver us from the bad guy that killed him once and is running wild through the city.

What RoboCop argues then, is that the kind of reactionary vigilante hero we want isn’t just unreasonable, it would require something superhuman, be it a superpowered cyborg cop or an actual honest to goodness savior come from beyond death to supersede the moral failings of mortal human beings. I think it’s the ultimate condemnation of this vigilante hero, even when they’re wrapped in the guise of a cop. None of us can expect our justice system to be anything but a reflection of our culture, and it’s hypocrisy to expect there to be a fair and morally good dispenser of said justice when it comes from people who in no aspect of society act with that kind of objective fairness. By painting RoboCop in the broad strokes, Verhoeven makes him exactly what we always wanted and ultimately impossible at the same time. RoboCop isn’t just a condemnation of that capitalist superculture depicted in the movie, but a condemnation of all of us, looking for a figure to come and enforce order that we cannot and will not do for ourselves. That’s what makes it such a brilliant movie in my eyes, and why I’ve gone on much more of a critical tear than I usually do in these pieces.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t a lot of fun, or that there isn’t other readings of the film’s themes. This one is mine, and I’d love to have someone else step in and offer a competing viewpoint. What’s best about movies like RoboCop is that they’re so full of things that you could pick at any one thread and find a viewpoint to build out of it, an equally valid but probably wildly different way of looking at the same ideas (or even some of the ones I didn’t touch on, like memory or identity). That’s what great cinema, and great science fiction in particular, create for us: out of the unreal comes a reflection of the world we know and understand, with enough wiggle room to interpret rather than outright state.


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: “RoboCop”

  1. Robocop has been one of my favourite movies since sneaking into it in 1987 (age restriction, not to avoid paying). I have the Criterion DVD, but, I confess, I haven’t pulled it out in years. Thanks for reminding me of how good it is. I will have to pay the 80s a visit and watch it again.

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