I’d Buy that for a Dollar: Robocop and the Pursuit of the American Dream

Robocop poster

Controversy creates cash in Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent sci-fi classic.

Robocop was something of a baptism of fire for filmmaker Paul Verhoeven.

Before making the switch to Hollywood in search of The American Dream, the Dutch director was known for arthouse projects that were very much grounded in reality, and in many ways his debut US production is the very antithesis of all that went before. That’s not surprising given the fact that the movie’s protagonist is a half man, half machine with a spectacularly gaudy 80s costume design, but the overtly comic tone was somewhat determined by outside forces.

Robocop is excessively violent, and in an era of cinematic censorship in the States it was only inevitable that the MPAA would come calling. Most disconcerting was a scene in which the movie’s protagonist is systematically mutilated by a series of highly graphic shotgun blasts and the director’s overt ‘concentration on pain’. The movie was rejected for an R rating an incredible eight times before finally shedding enough grue to please the censors, a fact that caused the director’s artistic vision to become somewhat compromised.

Robocop Murphy

What remains is still incredibly graphic, even by today’s standards, but Verhoeven’s cartoon approach softens the movie’s blunt nature, not only aesthetically but also politically, transforming the movie into a Cyberpunk gorefest similar in tone to the 2000 AD comic series. It is clear from his US catalogue that Verhoeven believes in a sex and violence mantra, particularly when it comes to flogging sci-fi action vehicles on American soil, and Robocop‘s brand of visual unreality would prove the ultimate gateway and commercial blueprint for all future endeavours.

Unsurprisingly, the theatrical cut was not violent enough for the director, who felt that the film’s graphic extremities punctuated its uber-fictional nature. Perhaps the most notoriously graphic set-piece featured in Robocop—asides from Murphy’s O.K. Coral style mutilation—comes at the beginning of the movie when an executive meeting unveils Robocop’s mechanical nemesis, ED-209, a problematic machine whose unfortunate malfunctioning sees a corporate lackey blasted into oblivion.

Robocop ED-209 death

A set-piece that would see actor Kevin Page fitted with an incredible 200 blood squibs was deemed far too graphic for general consumption, and several cuts were made to make the scene palatable, but for many the screenplay’s observational ironies are enough to diffuse the all-out bloodbath that embellishes proceedings.

Dick Jones: I’m sure it’s only a glitch, a temporary setback.

The Old Man: You call this a GLITCH? We’re scheduled to begin construction in six months. Your “temporary setback” could cost us fifty million dollars in interest payments alone!

Most of those ironies come in the form of the movie’s sociopolitical commentaries, which were strikingly innovative back in 1987. Robocop may give us thinly-drawn stereotypes of black-and-white delineations, but the cartoon rampage of Clarence J. Boddicker and company is a byproduct of corporate greed and political corruption, giving us a United States entrenched in nuclear threat and a society squirming under the thumb of mega corporation Omni Consumer Products. Their goal is to privatise law enforcement and turn Detroit into a police state known as Delta City, an authoritative stronghold that threatens to shield high-level corruption from any and all consequence.

Robocop OCP

Back in the late 80s, this was all a thinly-veiled commentary on Reagan’s America, whose association with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the global privatization revolution would see trillions of dollars worth of state-owned enterprises end up in the hands of investors. This would lead to great financial disparity, poverty, homelessness, street crime, and the infamous War on Drugs, a campaign passing laws that helped to criminalise low income communities.

While Kurtwood Smith‘s wonderfully malevolent Boddicker provides the face of Detroit’s city in dissolution, it is Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones who rules with an iron fist. Jones is next in line for the executive throne, and when smug upstart Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) challenges his position following the Jones-led ED-209 debacle with his innovative and wholly inhumane Robocop project, Jones turns to the very streets he publicly condemns to have the problem dealt with, offering Boddicker the key the city’s underbelly in return for straight-up muscle. Boddicker’s gang are a pack of crazed hyenas running roughshod over a city teeming with all-out rebellion, the kind of savage grunts Jones wouldn’t wipe off his boot heel. But every war needs a face to blame, and Clarence’s ragtag gang of murderers are more than happy to take the lucrative bait.

Robocop melt

The movie also lampoons the tenuous nature of global conflict, with smiling, matter-of-fact newsreaders reporting on accidental disasters caused by a US satellite dubbed The Peace Station, a ‘Strategic Defence Peace Platform’ which fires on America’s own and leaves downtown Santa Barbara engulfed in flames. All of this is echoed by misogynistic TV shows and brazen advertisements selling nuclear war based board games. Robocop‘s nightmarish vision is weaved into the very fabric of its fictional society. So commonplace is the threat of all-out destruction that news coverage has become blasé, in-your-face family entertainment. It’s ironic that Robocop would later spawn its own toy range and animated TV series.

Clarence Boddicker: Can you fly, Bobby?

For those who are familiar with his US body of work, these themes are all very Verhoeven, but the filmmaker often works on existing material that he doesn’t write himself, and Robocop was no different. In a Q&A session with The Film Society of Lincoln, the director admitted to having very little to do with the movie’s political content. Having only arrived in the US in 1985, Verhoeven “jumped into the movie”, and was almost completely unfamiliar with the American politics of the day, attributing much of the screenplay’s content to writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, but it’s the presentation of those ideas that are stamped with the director’s inimitable thumbprint.

Robocop Clarence

Verhoeven would find inspiration in the works of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, a pioneer of abstract art who would claim that “Art is higher than reality, and has no direct relation with reality,” a quote that sums up the movie’s presentation as a whole. Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red shows black horizontal and vertical lines cutting through colourful geometric shapes, an image which would form the basis of the film’s abrupt depiction of the modern media. Discussing the various media-based social commentaries that regularly assault Robocop‘s central narrative, the director would claim, “The elements were already [in the script], but I felt they should be there as abruptly as possible…and cut right into the main narrative. Interrupt the main narrative.”

Set against the ‘bigger is better’ landscape of yuppie America, Verhoeven’s ramped-up formula would blend right in, creating the kind of controversy that invariably sells tickets. This formula would become prevalent in a series of increasingly controversial movies from the director, including the ultra-violent Total Recall and highly sexualised efforts Basic Instinct and Showgirls, leading Verhoeven to conclude that, “These two elements [sex and violence] are the most important of everything.” At its heart, Robocop is exploitation cinema masquerading as big-budget extravaganza, a movie elevated by superior storytelling and production values, but one drenched in the kind of cinematic sleaze that would have most films dismissed as B-movie trash.

Robocop action

Another less blatant but no less controversial theme is that of Peter Weller‘s narrative. A family man left for dead while attempting to apprehend a gang of criminals, Verhoeven would describe his protagonist’s journey as a “Christ story” in an interview with MTV in 2010, and even went as far as dubbing him “the American Jesus”. “It is about a guy that gets crucified after 50 minutes,” he explained, “then is resurrected in the next 50 minutes and then is like the super-cop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure as he walks over water at the end.”

Dick Jones: What’s the matter officer? I’ll tell you what’s the matter. It’s a little insurance policy called “Directive 4”, my little contribution to your psychological profile. Any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shutdown. What did you think? That you were an ordinary police officer? You’re our product, and we can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?

Murphy certainly has something of the Martyr about him. Transformed into an indestructible machine, he still retains much of what makes him human as he becomes OCP’s flagship product, their ownership of his salvaged spirit symbolising the corporate grip on free will in a modern capitalist society. Scenes in which a newly transformed Murphy is gawked at by suits and lab coats as they experiment with his very soul are heartlessly condescending and overbearingly claustrophobic, his finished psychological profile installed with a series of convenient ‘product violations’ that leave him unable to arrest senior officers of OCP.

Robocop target

Inevitably, Murphy begins to remember scenes from his old life, not only regarding his former wife and son, but also the gang of miscreants who altered his life irrevocably, leading him on a path of anarchic destruction that will ultimately lead him to OCP’s top brass and a battle to salvage his own lingering humanity. Robocop is a walking irony, violently enforcing the law with pre-programmed edicts that read like a Public Information Film. Looking to integrate their multi-million dollar investment into everyday society, Murphy’s high-tech incarnation is quickly transformed into an overnight celebrity, as OCP’s propaganda model pollutes the airwaves with ‘Robo’ posing as their poster boy for a safer future.

Unfortunately, humans are not known for their willingness to accept the unfamiliar, a fact that raises certain moral questions and which constitutes the character’s true conflict: an internal struggle between Robocop’s pre-programmed command system and the dying embers of Murphy’s own freewill. This is highlighted during a scene in which Murphy’s only human ally, Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), helps him rediscover his human touch after his target system falters, resulting in a quasi-romantic scene that sees Murphy liberate himself by blasting containers of the very baby food that punctuates the character’s total degradation at the hands of his corporate parents.

Robocop Murphy and Lewis

Stripped of its comic book storyboarding and violent overtones, it is this internal conflict that makes the character so enduring. Murphy has lost his own version of The American Dream to those who build their empires on the misery of others, and in the ultimate irony it is the semi-benign pragmatism of OCP’s most imperial creation that is left to sift through the hostile garbage and hit corporate ambition with a heavy dose of hard-earned humanity.

Cedric Smarts




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