“Well, he signed a release form when he joined the force. He’s legally dead. We can do pretty much what we want to him.”
Articles probably ought to begin with a punchy, attention-grabbing argument, so here’s one: RoboCop is an underrated film. As financially successful as it was, as oft-quoted it is by its legion fans, and despite all the sequels, the TV spin-off and the 2014 reboot, the brilliance of its filmmaking is still easily overlooked. Why? Because RoboCop‘s writing, direction, acting and design all slip together so seamlessly that singling out exactly why the film works so well is difficult.
RoboCop is often described in terms of its spectacularly bloody violence or its satirical humour – but the movie’s also a masterpiece in terms of its pacing, its construction, and the specific shots director Paul Verhoeven and cinematographer Jost Vacano use to tell their story. Case in point: Alex Murphy’s death and resurrection as RoboCop.
RoboCop‘s first act lays out its future world and characters within a few concise minutes: Old Detroit is a hellscape of crime and urban decay; a corporation, OCP, plans to tear it all down and replace it with shiny boulevards and skyscrapers. As an overstretched police force goes on strike, OCP’s response is to create its own private army of mechanical law enforcers, with the hulking ED-209 – a kind of military attack helicopter on legs – being the first prototype out of the gate.
Away from the OCP boardroom, police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is brutally shot to death in the line of duty. The remains of his body are dragged off to OCP, where he becomes an unwitting member of a rival law enforcement project at the corporation. Resurrected as RoboCop, Murphy’s freewill is replaced by a series of pre-programmed directives.
What RoboCop does so brilliantly is place the viewer in Murphy’s situation. Both Ed Neumeier’s original script and Verhoeven’s final film cut to Murphy’s point of view in his final moments; we see gang leader Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) deliver a deadly bullet to the head, a few grim close-ups of paramedics trying to keep Murphy alive, and a deathly fade to black. Then, in a burst of static, we see first-hand what it’s like to be resurrected by science; lab technicians stare down at us. There’s the whine of electric screwdrivers. “Bring in the LED,” someone says.
The POV sequence is an exercise in contrasts, since it’s a reflection of Murphy’s gun torture in Boddicker’s hideout. Murphy’s death may have been horrible, but his treatment by OCP is no less ghoulish. We watch as Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) coldly tells his staff to cut off Murphy’s remaining arm; Morton’s colleague Johnson (Felton Perry) concurs: “He’s legally dead. We can do pretty much what we want to him.”
Later, as Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop has reached its end, we hear Morton excitedly talk about his new science project to a gathered group of business-types. “We get the best of both worlds. The fastest reflexes modern technology has to offer, onboard computer-assisted memory, and a lifetime of on-the-street law enforcement programming.” It’s the slick patter of a car salesman.
We may not consciously think about it, but this three-minute sequence symbolises the true meaning of Murphy’s transformation: he’s no longer a human. He’s a product.
Shooting these scenes from Murphy’s point of view also builds a pleasing sense of anticipation, since we can’t see what OCP have done to him; Neumeier and Verhoeven tease bits and pieces of his final cyborg form, with a disembodied arm straying into the frame, or his new body glimpsed on a flickering television screen.
Overwhelmingly, though, the POV scene sets up one of Murphy’s primary motivations. RoboCop is, of course, partly about Murphy finding and apprehending – often with a bullet – the criminals who ruthlessly killed him. But the film’s also about Murphy’s path back to humanity: overcoming the barriers put up by his programming, and freeing the soul within.
It’s possible that Neumeier got the idea for these first-person sequences from The Terminator – James Cameron’s sci-fi film distributed by Orion Pictures in 1984. In Cameron’s film, we see a number of shots from the perspective of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin – each one designed to underline the cold, inhuman nature of the character.
In RoboCop, on the other hand, the POV shots do the opposite: they show a human enveloped and contained by technology. Murphy’s new body may be keeping what remains of him alive, but the directives imposed by OCP serve as a prison.
The remainder of the movie is about Murphy’s reawakening. At first, he stomps around Old Detroit just as he’s programmed, but gradually, the memories of his previous life bubble back to the surface. As he tracks down Boddicker’s gang and its hidden connection to OCP and evil executive Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox), Murphy’s suppressed humanity continues to emerge – as symbolised by the moment where he removes the helmet which previously obscured much of his face. By the end of the film, Murphy’s taken out all the bad guys – Boddicker, Dick Jones, the monstrous ED-209 – but most of all, he’s reclaimed his freewill.
RoboCop fits many genres: action film, dystopian sci-fi, black comedy and so forth. That it manages to be all those things and more is a testament to how rich its storytelling is. But for this writer, RoboCop‘s beating heart is its human story; its protagonist’s fight to reclaim his individuality. It’s worth comparing RoboCop to one of the first sci-fi stories about the creation of an artificial human: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Frankenstein, the monster is an imperfect creation, shunned by its creator and fated to be an outcast.
RoboCop is also an artificial creation: like Frankenstein’s monster, an amalgam of science and human body parts. But unlike the monster, Murphy triumphs – over his enemies, and over the directives that confine him. Through those superbly-crafted first-person sequences, we’re shown what Murphy loses physically and mentally in the first act. In the final scene, Murphy gives a wry smile as he utters his own name. It’s a small gesture, but one that symbolizes Murphy’s ultimate victory: in a battle against humanity and technology, the humanity wins out.