OK, here we’ve got a movie with an “R” rating, obscene language, uncountable scenes of gory violence, maybe still holding the record for the number of ordinance rounds fired in a single action movie. The violence is as explicit and awful as the filmmakers can manage: hands blown off, heads shot through, torsos shredded with machine-gun fire, carotid arteries severed, bodies dunked in toxic waste, and on and on. Perfectly appalling. When it was released to theatres in 1987 it did so well that it spawned two sequels, a television series and a huge product-line of kids’ toys. If anything is popular cinema, popular culture, then Robocop is.

            Of course the obvious question to raise about this movie is exactly the nature and appeal of its violence. Certainly no movie is going to give your violence-toleration abilities much more of a workout than Robocop. And though it does partake in what you might call the spectacle of violence, violence as a form of entertainment like demolition derby or professional wrestling where the violence is understood to be basically harmless, it hasn’t quite reached the level of complete numbness to what’s actually being depicted that, say, a Schwarzenegger or Stallone movie usually displays. I myself am a believer that violence on the screen should be upsetting: it’s when it stops being upsetting that you start getting problems. And Robocop often does make sure that the violence is upsetting—mostly by connecting it to the suffering of a sympathetic central character. Much of this movie is really agonistic and martyred, and one of its central points is exactly the suffering created by, yes it’s true, being physically riddled with bullets or skewered with a giant crowbar—but even more the sense of spiritual death, the loss of identity and selfconsciousness and human subjectivity.

            This is the fate of the protagonist, a cop named Murphy who not long into the movie is shot to mincemeat by a gang of criminals, but has his biological remains used as the basis for the first cyborg cop—a mechanized, computerized, heavily armoured Golem of power whose task it is to cleanse Detroit of the punks and slimeballs who are making ordinary life so difficult and who moreover symbolize the malaise the whole society has fallen into. Murphy is martyred several times over in the course of the film, but his real Passion is his loss of human self: his family, his memory, his identity. You might even claim that all the physical violence in the film operates as a kind of metaphor for this emotional violence, that the emotional violence is primary and the physical violence is symptomatic and expressive of it. (You might also say that violent action movies as a class operate to some degree in this way: you as a viewer are watching stuff which is not fundamentally about your imagined involvement in violent crime or punishment, but is instead about your actual confusion in living in a society where there are supposed to be solutions for problems, but there aren’t—a condition illustrated by the proliferation of crime in the news and in the public imagination. Again, metaphoric rather than literal.)

            Robocop is a “cyberpunk” movie, along with—well, I’ll just reel off some titles: Blade Runner, the Terminator films, Total Recall, Darkman, Universal Soldiers, Demolition Man, Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic. etc. etc. These movies are all set in the not-too-distant future, but in contrast to some earlier science fiction futures, these are uniformly dirty, ugly, decayed, infested with crime and corruption, dominated by ruthless corporate or state power, and at the same time completely immersed in advanced technology which is unstoppably taking over what we always used to think of as purely “human” experience and activities. A typical scenario might have a lone hero or group of derelict underclass rebels achieving even greater mastery over technology than their oppressors, and through their victory regaining some of the lost ground of humanity. This fear—of loss of human identity and meaning, of people marginalized by their own machines, of the difficulty or impossibility of telling any more what’s human and what’s artificial—is a central feature of cyberpunk. Behind this, of course, lie at least two centuries of anxiety about the loss of nature at the hands of industrializing and technologizing culture.

            In Robocop the loss of nature is seen throughout the whole environment. Locations are either incredibly oppressive and derelict, monstrous industrial garbage and pollution like the abandoned steel-mill that is such a key setting; or else just as incredibly sterile and colourless, with inhumanly clean architecture and interior decoration such as you see in the corporate offices. Missing from both of these opposites is anything earthy, organic, warm or nurturing. The yawning gap between progressive ideals of social utopia and the actual ugliness and predatory greed dominating this “advanced” society is visible in the pure white “city of tomorrow” model representing the old corporate patriarch’s desire to make the city cleaner and safer, and what happens to the model a few minutes later when a prototype law-enforcement robot runs amok.

            But of course the film’s most emphatic loss of nature is personalized in Murphy’s traumatic death and loss of self, the many poignant fragmentary flashes of memory and the haunting sense of having been psychologically eviscerated, made into a casualty and a monster by essentially social forces. So on the one hand Robocop is invincibly strong, fearless, invulnerable, incorruptible; but on the other hand he is infantile, un-self-aware, turned on and off, his remaining organic system is sustained by paste-like baby food. A psychoanalytic reading might reveal this subject as polarized between impossible masculine control and mastery and infantile helplessness, and his condition as one shared by contemporary male culture in general, with its insistence on strength, dominance, competitiveness on the one hand, and its greater and greater sense of being out of touch and without any certainty or direction on the other.

            Robocop, like most commercial movies (though with more selfconsciousness than usual) is a mass of contradictions. Is Robocop himself a triumphant hero or a powerless victim? He is both, though rationally he can’t be. The source of much of the movie’s popularity, and all those sequels and spinoffs, is I’m sure the spectacle of Robocop as a super Dirty Harry easily arresting or blowing away sleazos, except with straight-arrow one-liners instead of contemptuous ones. Like some other superheroes, he is a caricature of the good idealist champion of right rather than the rebellious loner reluctantly yielding to his better nature. But the pleasure of watching Robocop frustrate crime lies exactly in his high-tech cyborg powers: his firepower, his computer vision, his bulletproof armour. Yeah, but isn’t it exactly this stuff in the name of which his human nature was crucified? Where do we get off having fun with it? The movie’s implication, very visible at some times and covered over at others, is that if you want heroic mastery, especially if you want Dirty Harry’s kind, you’re going to have to pay for it with a loss of humanity. So the pleasure at Robocop’s inflicting violence on bad guys is always shadowed by a subliminal sense that he can only do this because he has been deprived of memory, name, intimacy, and humanity. At the same time the movie does manage to sell itself with technology and violence even while coming out against technology and violence. This kind of contradiction is typical, and indeed Robocop is in general a particularly good example of how popular genre conventions and narrative patterns can embody social or ideological conflicts without appearing to do so.

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            So Murphy gets his name back and everything is hunky-dory. Not. Robocop does go soft at the end, it does yield excessively to the desire to have a nice closure, a happy resolution to the problems. Still, the problems don’t really go away. Will Murphy live happily ever after married to Lewis? Uh...nope. He is still a monster and a casualty even in his triumphancy. The unease he suggests Lewis might feel when he takes off his helmet and reveals the schizoid nature of his cyborg construction—human face and mechanical head—is perpetuated throughout the movie. He remains another Quasimodo, consoled momentarily for his monstrosity but still a monster. Likewise putting the good old capitalist back in power after having disposed of the sharklike bad younger capitalists is essentially an illusion. Do you really think OCP is now going to build a utopian new Detroit and everything will be great? There’s been too much undermining in the belief of institutions, whether commercial or public.

            That brings me to the movie’s political stance. It is unsually explicit in its political message, especially given the nature of that message. The TV commercials and news spots are relentless in their attack on commodification, capitalism, free enterprise. The dialogue between two of the criminal gang here is pretty amazing: one says “Why should we make money when we can steal it?”, and the other answers happily, “No better way to steal money than free enterprise!” The commercial pitches for artificial hearts and nuclear-war family board games kind of spell things out, and the absolutely pitiless smugness of the news readers trying to make the disaster into a painless experience is chilling. (Chilling because it’s so recognizable, that is.) At the same time the movie is really giving a cheerful middle finger to Reaganism (remember, it was released towards the end of Reagan’s second term)—not only in the ruthless anti-business nature of the corporate boardroom- and washroom scenes, but, most pricelessly, in the news item revealing that a Star-Wars attack-satellite has accidentally wiped out a rich-guys’ enclave in California, including two former presidents living in retirement. That’s just another of Robocop’s enlivening contradictions: one of the bloodiest action-movies ever made, and for much of its length it’s preaching a political message which could have been endorsed by the NDP before it moved over to the right.