RoboCop review: a flamboyant indictment of American society

In 1987, our critic compared Paul Verhoeven’s science-fiction police film to Casablanca, by way of Umberto Eco’s cultural theories.

19 May 2022

By Sean French

Robocop (1987)
Sight and Sound

Now that imitators and repeated TV screenings have made Star Wars stale, it’s easy to forget what gave its original freshness and excitement. George Lucas suggested that a futuristic science-fiction film (please don’t anyone write in reminding me that Star Wars is ‘really’ set ‘long ago’) didn’t have to have to be about machines; it didn’t have to be a moral fable: it could accommodate a straightforward cinematic genre like the adventure story. This is what gives the film its saving sprightliness, with its rumbustious John Williams score and the references to other quest films like The Searchers and The Wizard of Oz.

The film’s second perception was that the future shouldn’t be like a pristine architectural drawing. The film’s visual effects now bear the scars of the financial constraints that plagued its production, but the grubby, rusty androids and battered spaceships still look terrific.

This double perception has spawned a hybrid cinematic form of its own: traditional film genres translated into a seedy, ‘realistic’ future world. Outland, for example, a Western in space (High Noon, to be precise); Alien, a horror film; Blade Runner, a private detective story; Aliens, a war movie (of the Vietnam type); The Terminator, a hitman thriller.

And now one of the most flamboyant (and profitable) of them all, a police movie: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. A summary of the film’s plot makes it seem barely worth serious consideration by anyone but the DPP. Murphy (Peter Weller) is a decent, old-style policeman who is transferred to the toughest precinct in Detroit. While pursuing a psychopathic gang which is responsible for the deaths of 31 policemen, Murphy is trapped and brutally murdered. Happily, since this is taking place in the future, Murphy’s remnants can be grafted on to the prototype of a new law enforcement robot developed by Omni-Consumer Products, a private company that controls Detroit. The resulting ‘RoboCop’ is then sent out on the streets to fight crime with predictably violent results. And, as anyone who has seen Blade Runner will suspect, RoboCop ultimately finds himself fighting against the company who made him.

RoboCop (1987)

But matters are more complicated than they seem. It’s worth considering RoboCop, and the other films I’ve cited, in the light of a contention by Umberto Eco in his essay, ‘Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage’ (published in his recent collection, Faith in Fakes). Eco argues that Casablanca’s cult status comes from the intuitive way it draws on a whole host of cinematic archetypes. It is these that we identify and respond to. But, he says, there is a new kind of film which he humorously terms ‘metacult’, a product of a ‘Cult Culture’. He goes on to say that ‘It would be semiotically uninteresting to look for quotations of archetypes in Raiders or in Indiana Jones. They were conceived within a metasemiotic culture, and what the semiotician can find in them is exactly what the directors put there. Spielberg and Lucas are semiotically nourished authors working for a culture of instinctive semioticians.’

There’s nothing accidental about RoboCop. A number of people will see the film fearing, or perhaps hoping for, a crude, cybernetic reworking of Death Wish. But in a sophisticated fashion the film quotes Death Wish to ridicule it. ‘RoboCop’ is an officer of the law and before blowing criminals away he reads them their rights. He not only rescues a girl from two hoodlums but notes her anguish and assigns her to the local Rape Crisis Centre.

Eco noted that the charm of Casablanca was its intuitive use of cliche. (‘When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architecture like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia: the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius.’) The effect of these new SF films lies very largely in their highly nonintuitive use of cinematic allusion.

This is not just a matter of incidental details. The magnificent design of Blade Runner transforms the symbolic mean streets of the private eye genre into a whole world: decayed, permanently rain-soaked, abandoned by all but the poorest. RoboCop is similarly true to its genre. As in Hill Street Blues, the basic moral argument is pointed up by the gap between the cynical bureaucrat and the decent cop out on the street. But, far more than its predecessors, RoboCop works through a whole frame of reference, and it is this playfulness and intelligence that makes the film such fun.

European directors like Verhoeven are even more intoxicated with the American movie heritage than their American counterparts. As RoboCop plods around Detroit rescuing the innocent, he is by turns a robotic Superman and a benign reincarnation of Schwarzenegger’s ‘terminator’. Later, as memories of Murphy’s human existence start to filter through his programmed brain, he assumes the pathos (and many of the movements) of Karloff’s version of Frankenstein’s monster. And when he is forced into single combat with an earlier, far larger ‘enforcement droid’ we witness a clear tribute to the animation of King Kong.

RoboCop (1987)

RoboCop is a shrewdly enjoyable movie – enjoyable because of its shrewdness, a film of comic-book violence that is also a parody of comic-book violence. It’s a sophisticated anthology of American archetypes that is made disconcerting by a European archetype hovering close behind: Lang’s Metropolis, a society run as an industry, with its robot (on which RoboCop’s design is clearly based) becoming an inhuman woman, foreshadowing RoboCop, where a man becomes a humane robot, superior to its makers. Where RoboCop disappoints is in its characterisation. Alien and Blade Runner were actors’ as well as designers’ films, but Verhoeven leaves little for his team to do. Nancy Allen makes a superb first appearance as a violent street cop, but is then left with almost nothing to do. And the villains are a pallid collection, hardly worthy of their armour-plated opponent.

These new SF films ritually attract ideological attack and it’s worth registering how politically benign they are in comparison with other recent popular cycles (the intensely misogynous slasher cycle, the rabble-rousing vigilante cycle). Aliens, with its dominant females and its neurotically ineffectual males, could profitably be shown in female assertiveness classes. RoboCop’s script (by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) is remarkable for its political intelligence: it’s a world of rundown inner cities as privatisation has gone mad (RoboCop pays a community visit to the children of Detroit’s Lee Iacocca Elementary School – a nice touch), in which the war in Central America has spread to Mexico and an American SDI satellite has malfunctioned, attacking Southern California and killing three retired presidents.

Opinion will be divided by RoboCop, but it’s a film far less worrying than the country it so tellingly comments on.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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