“There’s no better way to steal money than free enterprise.”
What is this line doing in a 1980s blockbuster about a futuristic, cyborg police officer? Well, it’s one sign that RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven, working with screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is interested in more than action (the pedestrian action scenes are another sign). Indeed, RoboCop should be thought of as a sneering satire first and a genre picture second.
Set in a future Detroit so overrun by crime that a new, highly secure city is being planned nearby, RoboCop is a sci-fi exaggeration of the way elitist paranoia can give way to totalitarianism. In pursuit of safety – and the money that will come with being able to guarantee it – a security firm launches a program in which cops killed in the line of duty will be resuscitated as programmable, robotic law-enforcement officers.
Verhoeven spends just as much time on the picture’s venal bad guys.
The first of these is Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a transfer to Detroit’s toughest district who is killed on his first day. He regains consciousness of a kind – in an ingenious, first-person POV sequence – and discovers he’s mostly made of metal. He’s also fixated on a series of commands that have been implanted in his brain, although there are these memories…
There are shades of Frankenstein here – especially when Murphy goes off program and the villagers come after him with machine guns – but RoboCop isn’t all that interested in being a hero’s tale, tragic or otherwise. Indeed, Verhoeven spends just as much time on the picture’s venal bad guys: the sadistic crime boss (Kurtwood Smith) who shoots Murphy at the start; the weaselly executive (Miguel Ferrer) who runs the RoboCop program; the power-hunger vice-president (Ronny Cox) who has vindictive reasons for shutting it down. These juicy character actors bring just the right touch of buffoonery – rather than sincerity – to their roles to make much of RoboCop play as comedy.
The satire, meanwhile, mostly takes place in the background, with television ads for gas-guzzling cars and “Nuke Em” board games, followed by news reports of government satellites accidently firing on the earth with lasers. Verhoeven doesn’t have a light touch, and the cynicism in these and the more violent scenes sometimes borders on nihilism. Yet as the years pass, his movie seems more prescient than ever. RoboCop depicts a world in which technology is designed to shoot first – often gruesomely so – and ask questions never.