Analysis of ‘RoboCop’

RoboCop is a 1987 science fiction action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. It stars Peter Weller in the title role, as well as Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Dan O’Herlihy, and Ronny Cox.

It is considered one of the best films of 1987, and it spawned two sequels, several TV series (including two cartoons), video games, and a comic book, as well as a remake that got a comparatively lukewarm reception. There is much more to this film than just the usual ‘shoot-’em-up’ action film formula: there is much social commentary on the evils of capitalism, media manipulation, gentrification, and one’s sense of identity.

Here are some quotes:

“I’d buy that for a dollar!” –Bixby Snyder, repeated line from a TV show

Dougy: We rob the banks but we never get to keep the money.
Emil: Takes money to make money. We steal money to buy coke then sell the coke to make even more money. Capital investment, man.
Dougy: Yeah, but why bother making it when we can just steal it?
Emil: No better way to steal money than free enterprise.

Good night, sweet prince.” –Joe Cox, to Murphy after the gang has shot him

Bob Morton: How does he eat?
Roosevelt: His digestive system is extremely simple. This processor dispenses a rudimentary paste that sustains his organic systems.
Johnson: [Roosevelt dispenses the paste into a cup and hands it to Johnson] Tastes like baby food.
Bob Morton: Knock yourself out.

“Your move, creep.” –RoboCop

Reporter: Robo, excuse me, Robo! Any special message for all the kids watching at home?
RoboCop: Stay out of trouble.

“Murphy, it’s you!” –Officer Lewis

Officer Lewis: I asked him his name. He didn’t know.
Bob Morton: Oh, great. Let me make it real clear to you. He doesn’t have a name. He’s got a program. He’s product. Is that clear?

“I dunno, I dunno, maybe I’m just not making myself clear. I don’t want to fuck with you, Sal, but I’ve got the connections, I’ve got the sales organization, I got the muscle to shove enough of this factory so far up your stupid wop ass, that you’ll shit snow for a year!” –Clarence

“What’s the matter, officer? I’ll tell you what’s the matter. It’s a little insurance policy called ‘Directive 4’, my contribution to your very 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?” –Dick Jones, when ‘Directive 4’ interferes with RoboCop’s attempt to arrest him

“It’s a free society – except there ain’t nothin’ free, because there’s no guarantees, you know? You’re on your own. It’s the law of the jungle. Hoo-hoo.” –Keva Rosenberg, Unemployed Person

Nukem. Get them before they get you. Another quality home game from Butler Brothers.” –Commercial Voice-Over

Dick Jones: That thing is still alive.
Clarence Boddicker: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dick Jones: The police officer who arrested you, the one you spilled your guts to.
Clarence Boddicker: Hey, take a look at my face, Dick! He was trying to kill me!
Dick Jones: He’s a cyborg, you idiot! He recorded every word you said! His memories are admissable as evidence! You involved me! You’re gonna have to kill it.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, listen, chief…your company built the fucking thing! Now I gotta deal with it?! I don’t have time for this bullshit! [heads for the door]
Dick Jones: Suit yourself, Clarence. But Delta City begins construction in two months. That’s two million workers living in trailers. That means drugs. Gambling. Prostitution. [Boddicker stops, backtracks into the room] Virgin territory for the man who knows how to open up new markets. One man could control it all, Clarence.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, I guess we’re gonna be friends after all… Richard. [Jones tosses Boddicker RoboCop’s tracker.]
Dick Jones: Destroy it.
Clarence Boddicker: Gonna need some major firepower. You got access to military weaponry?
Dick Jones: We practically are the military.

“It’s back. Big is back, because bigger is better. 6000 SUX – an American tradition!” –Commercial Voiceover [caption on screen says “An American Tradition. 8.2 MPG”]

“You are illegally parked on private property. You have twenty seconds to move your vehicle.” –ED-209, seeing RoboCop drive up to the OCP entrance

[last lines] Old Man: [to RoboCop] Nice shootin’, son. What’s your name?
RoboCop: [stops and turns around; to Old Man] Murphy. [warmly smiles and walks out]

The sardonic take on the media is apparent right from the beginning, with TV newscasters played by none other than Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons (she having been on such programs as Entertainment Tonight) discussing the shooting of Officer Frank Frederickson, the policeman Murphy (Weller) is replacing in the local Detroit police force. An example of media phoniness is seen when newscaster Casey Wong (Machado) roots for Frederickson to recover from his injuries.

The police are having such difficulties dealing with the rampant crime in Detroit–a problem exacerbated by the plans of megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to privatize the force–that one angry cop suggests going on strike.

As I’ve argued in other posts, I see the mafia, as well as police–and most obviously, corporations like OCP–as representing differing facets of capitalism: the crime gang headed by Clarence Boddicker (Smith) symbolizes the “free market” version; and the cops are, apart from their role as capitalists’ bodyguards, representative of a more government-regulated version of capitalism. How the mafia, cops, and corporations intermingle is made blatantly clear in the movie.

In fact, when Murphy and Lewis (Allen) have chased Clarence’s gang into an abandoned steel mill (the gang’s hideout), we hear Emil (played by Paul McCrane) chatting with Dougy about “free enterprise,” in the form of stealing in order to finance their cocaine business. Capitalism in general is about stealing (the fruits of worker labour in the form of surplus value) in order to accumulate capital.

Capitalists don’t screw over only their workers, though. They also step on each other in the brutal, dog-eat-dog world of competition. As Marx said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) We see examples of this striking down in the rivalry between Dick Jones (Cox) and Bob Morton (Ferrer) over who has made the superior mechanical cop.

Clarence’s gang doesn’t just kill Murphy: they mutilate his body in swarms of bullets. His hand is blown off by a shotgun, then his entire arm before Clarence finishes him off with a bullet in the head. Indeed, there’s quite a lot of mutilation in this film: consider Emil’s fate, his body deformed in a soaking in toxic waste before his body sprays into pieces after being hit by Clarence’s racing car.

Soon after, Leon (played by Ray Wise) is blown up from having been shot by Lewis with the Cobra Assault Cannon, a weapon Jones has supplied Clarence’s gang with to destroy RoboCop. Morton is also blown up by a grenade set off in his home by Clarence; and Jones’s body is riddled with bullets before he falls to his death at the end of the film. People don’t just die: bodies get destroyed.

This mutilation is symbolic of how capitalism alienates us not just from each other, but also from our own species-essence. This is precisely what Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg symbolizes. He, as a cop defending the capitalist class, is reduced to a machine. His quest for the remainder of the film is to reclaim his identity, something all tied up with this alienation from himself, as a cop who exists only as a product of a corporation.

Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg has been compared to the death and resurrection of Christ. His character in general has been so compared; Verhoeven himself has made this comparison, and one can’t so easily brush aside the interpretations of the movie-maker himself.

Still, I must respectfully disagree. Though RoboCop is the hero of the movie, there’s nothing particularly Christ-like, or even Christian, about him. He’s still a cop: (especially American) cops kill, but Jesus saves. A bullet shot clean through Murphy’s hand could have symbolized the stigmata; instead, his hand (and arm) are blown right off.

Even if one were to say RoboCop’s wading in ankle-deep water is symbolically like Christ’s walking on water, the comparison is superficial. RoboCop is wading in the water pointing his gun at Clarence, saying, “I’m not arresting you anymore,” implying he’s going to shoot and kill the mob boss in cold blood. Christ walked on water to help his frightened disciples on a boat in a storm at sea, to teach them about having faith. The meaning between the two moments couldn’t be farther apart.

We shouldn’t always take movie-makers’ interpretations of their films at face value. How they discuss meaning in their films can often have more to do with stimulating interest in the films and making money off them (speaking of capitalism) than in telling us their real intents. Saying RoboCop represents Christ can easily be seen as a marketing trick to get religiously-minded people to want to buy a ticket and see the film.

So instead of comparing Murphy’s metamorphosis into RoboCop with Christ’s resurrection (how does a mechanical body–not easily perishable–represent a “spiritual body“–utterly imperishable?), I would compare it to a rebirth, almost a reincarnation. Bob Morton is the father, and though he’s playing God in his creation of a part-human, part robot policeman, the ruthless capitalist is no Holy Father; Tyler (played by Sage Parker), the female head of the team of scientists who make RoboCop can be seen as his new mother–she even kisses her baby at a New Year’s Day party, her red lipstick supposedly meant to arouse Oedipal feelings in her ‘son.’

Psychologically, RoboCop can thus be seen as a baby…not the ‘babies’ I characterized Carrie and Hannah as, with their waif-like innocence, naïveté, and vulnerability, of course, but in the sense that, newborn, he has no more than fragments of memories of his former life. He has no sense of self, or a meaningful sense of his past; it’s as if he were born yesterday. He even eats baby food.

Morton, as RoboCop’s ‘father,’ wants total prosthesis (i.e., all mechanical limbs) for his new product, so he insists on amputating Murphy’s one good arm. This amputation is a symbolic castration, yet another symbolic example of the mutilation and disempowerment inherent in capitalism.

Along with this, Morton goes over RoboCop’s Prime Directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. These directives represent the Name of the Father: symbolically castrated RoboCop is being introduced by his ‘father’ into the law and customs of society, though his ability to connect with others, and therefore to know himself, has been severely compromised.

How has this stifling of his sense of self and others happened? Consider the screen that has been fitted in front of his eyes. That screen is symbolically like a filter, blocking out the human connection felt between two faces–i.e., two pairs of naked eyes–looking at each other, empathically mirroring each other. It’s another symbolic manifestation of alienation.

His screen is similar to the TV screens people feel themselves glued to, addicted to, watching the news, commercials, or the TV show funnyman who’d “buy that for a dollar!” It’s similar to our experience today on social media, staring at phone screens instead of looking at each other, person to person, in real life.

In the film, we often see characters breaking the fourth wall and looking at us, who see them from RoboCop’s point of view, through that screen, which has an imperfect resolution like that of the TV screen showing Casey Wong and Jess Perkins (Gibbons), with people communicating insincerely and manipulatively.

Since I compare RoboCop to a psychological baby, I find it apt to compare the screen before his eyes to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of a beta screen. Normally, raw sensory data (beta elements, which tend to be agitating) that we receive from the outside world are taken in and processed in our minds (through alpha function) and turned into alpha elements (emotional experiences now made tolerable and usable as thoughts, dreams, etc.). Some beta elements remain intolerable and are never processed; they’re either projected onto other people, or they accumulate on the periphery of our minds in the form of a beta screen. Excessive accumulations of them can result in psychosis.

RoboCop–someone more machine than man, and who is relegated to the form of a mere product working for a mega-corporation (his ‘father,’ Morton, tells Lewis he has no name–he’s a product)–is no longer able to relate to people normally; so he cannot exchange emotional experiences with them in the form of processing beta elements and turning them into alpha elements, a processing that is the basis for growth in knowledge (Bion’s K) and learning from experience. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

These deficiencies of Murphy’s are far from absolute, though. Those fragments of memories still loom in his unconscious mind, for they have already been processed as alpha elements, and so they can be used in dreams. RoboCop has a dream about having been killed by Clarence’s gang; he wakes up, and he’s determined to find his killers. He’s no longer working under OCP’s orders, and this new willfulness of his makes his creators nervous.

Lewis stops RoboCop as he’s leaving the police station, for she knows who he originally was. She stands before him, looks him in the face–attempting genuine human contact and empathic mirroring–and wants to tell him his name is Murphy. With that screen–his symbolic beta screen–before his eyes, though, he can’t process the emotional experience properly. He can only drone, “How can I help you, Officer Lewis?” in the monotone voice of an automaton. He will, however, remember the name ‘Murphy,’ since his programming records everything, as if on tape, so he’ll eventually learn who he was.

Here’s a paradox about RoboCop: he has few human memories, just scattered fragments (he later tells Lewis that he can feel the memories of his wife and son, but he can’t remember them); any new experience, though, is literally videotaped through his programming, and is ‘remembered’ in minute detail.

When learning the names of all the members of Clarence’s gang, RoboCop finds Murphy’s file, is shocked to see the word “deceased” shown on it, and learns of his old home address. He finds the house, which is now up for sale, since his wife and son, understanding that he’s dead, have left. Fragments of memories of them flash in his mind as he looks about the house, in which a TV shows a real estate agent advertising the virtues of the house.

The pain of realizing what he has lost drives RoboCop to punch the TV screen. Screens divide people from each other; capitalism causes mutual alienation.

Meanwhile, Jones wants revenge on Morton for making him lose face with the success of RoboCop over the disastrous failure of ED-209. Morton’s murder reveals Jones’s business relationship with Clarence. This in turn symbolizes certain paradoxes about capitalism: one capitalist may strike down another, but that same capitalist may, at other times, also cooperate with a third capitalist if doing so is in his interests.

Right-wing libertarians like to fantasize that “free market” capitalism, devoid of government influence, is a purified version that will never result in corruption. This is nonsense, and is a grotesque oversimplification of the problem. Capitalism, in any form, cannot exist without at least some state intervention, and the corporatocracy (what libertarians label with the misnomer “corporatism“) that the “free market” is supposed to prevent is an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism.

In capitalism, the 99% don’t count: only the 1% do. This means not only don’t workers count, but small businesses don’t, either. As for the 1% of super successful businesses, we see in them the concentration and centralization of capital; the state doesn’t cause this to happen–the capitalists are doing it all themselves. The only role the state plays is in protecting the interests of the ruling class, and this relationship between the state and capital is what we see in RoboCop.

Corporations, the state, and the market are all intertwined; there’s no separating them from each other. We see this intertwining in OCP, the police department, and Clarence’s gang. Because Clarence has connections with Jones and OCP, he feels free to demand the cocaine he buys from Sal and his mafia business for a lower price. One capitalist strikes down another.

Upon arresting Clarence, RoboCop learns of his connections with Jones. But when he goes to arrest Jones, RoboCop learns of a new, fourth primary directive: he cannot arrest a senior officer of OCP. Here we see the main point of having police–they serve and protect the ruling class. Yes, they catch criminals, but it’s always been about protecting private property; this is a historic fact. This is why the criminal activity of, for example, Wall Street bankers is rarely if ever punished.

Jones tries to have RoboCop destroyed, first by an improved ED-209, then by his police force, and finally by Clarence and his gang. When Delta City is set up, a gentrification project pushing the poor out and getting the rich to buy up the homes, Jones motivates Clarence to kill RoboCop by proposing that the crime boss run the poor areas, making it possible for him “to open up new markets” in prostitution, drugs, gambling, etc. Here we see the mafia again as a metaphor for capitalists.

Lewis and a damaged RoboCop hide out in the abandoned steel mill. He removes his helmet and visor, revealing Murphy’s face again, and he can see through his own eyes. He then sees a reflection of his face. Since, as I’ve argued above, RoboCop is like a baby psychologically, his seeing himself is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, helping him establish a sense of self. Though the ego is ultimately an illusion, RoboCop didn’t even have a sense of that before. He is now becoming reacquainted with his humanity and identity.

Now, when Clarence’s gang comes to fight him, RoboCop isn’t going to arrest them because of a computer program: he wants to kill them in revenge for having destroyed his life. This is how he isn’t symbolic of Christ.

When he arrives at the OCP building, RoboCop must again face ED-209, who tells him he’s trespassing on private property; once again we see the real purpose of the police. Fortunately, Murphy is several cuts above mere protectors of private property, so he destroys ED with one of Clarence’s Cobra Assault Cannons.

When RoboCop presents an incriminating video-recording of Jones confessing to the killing of Morton, Jones puts a gun to the head of The Old Man (O’Herlihy) and attempts to take him as a hostage. When The Old Man fires Jones and elbows him in the gut to get free of him, that fourth directive no longer applies to Jones, so RoboCop is free to shoot him.

The contrast between ruthless Jones (the bad capitalist) and the “sweet Old Man” (the ‘good capitalist’) is a reflection of bourgeois liberal Hollywood’s attitude toward capitalism, and this point is my one bone of contention with the movie. In liberals’ opinion, capitalism just needs to be reformed, its excesses kept in check by the state. In my opinion, capitalism must be completely annihilated; there is no reconciling of the market with socialism. Weaning ourselves of the market may take time, eliminating it bit by bit, but it must be done away with, not just extensively regulated.

The difference between the liberal version of capitalism and the hard right-wing version is seen in how The Old Man wants to build Delta City ‘to give back’ to the people; whereas for Jones, Delta City is a gentrification project. That the ‘kinder, gentler capitalism’ of The Old Man is a sham is made clear when his response to malfunctioning ED-209 is to be upset essentially about the loss of millions of dollars, the brutal, bloody killing of Kinney having caused a minimal emotional reaction in him.

On the other hand, Morton’s “contingency” plan, RoboCop, brings a smile to The Old Man’s face, since it may save him that loss of fifty million dollars in interest payments. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned a CEO may be: the preoccupation with dollars and cents is inherent in the system, no matter how much ‘state planning’ is added to mitigate the deleterious effects of capitalism.

This is why, though RoboCop is several cuts above the average cop in terms of doing the right thing, as a protector of the interests of the ruling class, he is still far from being a Christ figure. Police who don’t protect the capitalist class would be more along the lines of the militsiya and the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, that is to say, armed militias, as well as an army of the people. No, these Soviet police were no saints, but they were much better than the kind that keep taking the life and breath out of people because of the colour of their skin.

Oh, and incidentally, a hypothetical Canadian communist RoboCop would not be Jesus, but Murphy.

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