Friday, August 13, 2010

Paul Verhoeven, Robocop (1987)

Spoilers for a twenty-three-year-old movie!

Look, I hate to sound accusatory, but I think I have little choice but to hold you people responsible for not letting me know that this cheesy eighties action movie with a dopey-as-hell title is actually enormously thematically rich; a razor-sharp satire of postmodern late-capitalism. It's not particularly subtle, but it's still very smart indeed, to the point where the film's status as "action movie" seems somewhat questionable; sure, there's plenty of action to be had (and pretty badass action, to boot), but the parts that don't involve shit blowing up are so much more than necessary filler that it's hard to really see the one aspect really predominating over the other. Whatever. Semantics.

This is capitalism in full flower: corporate ownership of public services is pretty well complete: health care, science, the police (natch) and pretty much everything else appears to be under the control of--or pretty near to being--the megalithic Omni Consumer Products. A republican's wet dream. Sure, the idea of "giant evil corporation" isn't exactly a stunningly original concept for science fiction (and most uses of the trope are at least flirting with a similar idea), but it's rather more pointed here than I've ever seen, with bland corporate boardroom meetings discussing matters of life and death in purely profit-driven terms, with ethical concerns not just elided but rendered literally unthinkable. Don't tell me this doesn't happen many times a day across the country and the world.

The ultimate example of this is Robocop himself, of course--an individual quite literally reified and completely dispossessed in both body and mind. If that's not a potent metaphor for the human condition under an all-consuming capitalist régime, I don't know what it is. One bit I particularly liked was when Robo's consciousness is flickering in and out and we can see the staff having a New Year's party, totally unconcerned with any of this, feeling nothing but momentary giddy excitement when they see his prone form scanning them. One woman plants a kiss on his visor. They just haven't got a clue, and really, why should they? That's just how this era works.

This is not a movie that exactly relies on great acting to make its point--under the circumstances, it's no great shame that Peter Weller (as Robocop, né James Murphy) doesn't do much of it; he isn't exactly called on to. Mostly, everyone else does what they need to, but let's have a word for Miguel Ferrer as the horrible, conscience-less, yuppie-scum Young Executive, who pretty much embodies the nature of a society based on profit. There are plenty of banking executives today who would fit quite snugly into his shoes. Alas, they'll never even come close to receiving his comeuppance.

And let's have more than a word for Kurtwood Smith (aka, "the dad from That Seventies Show"--how great is that?), who pretty well steals the show as the sadistic crime boss (well, open crime boss). His psychopathic goons are pretty damned unnerving as well. Several times, he emphasizes the fact that they're just doin' what everyone's doin'--buying and selling; making the most money they can. It's absolutely instantly predictable that Smith will turn out to be in cahoots with OCP, but no less effective for that. Years later, The Wire would explore very similar themes with considerably more subtlety, but Robocop's bluntness is singularly bracing.

That's not to say that the movie CAN'T be somewhat subtle, however. One of the most astute aspects of it, to me, was the series of brief news broadcasts interspersed throughout, in which the relentlessly cheery anchors relate tales of violence, death, and devastation in various parts of the world. None of these have any direct relation to the plot, but the implication is clear: the world is completely fragmented; it's impossible to place any of this stuff into any kind of context, or understand how it relates to anything else (I just about DIED when the movie cut to a very real-looking commercial for a fun-for-the-whole-family board game about nuclear brinksmanship called "Nuke'Em." SO PERFECT.). With cause and effect essentially gone, there's no way to deal with social problems in a coherent way; hence, Robocop himself--the idea of an invincible crimefighter solving all the problems that need to be solved is a popular one for movies of this genre, but it's quite clear that a robotic police officer is not the answer to our prayers--he apprehends a few random crooks, sure, but while he may stop a convenience store stick-up and a would-be rape, the clear subtext is that you cannot fix such a deeply diseased society just by randomly hacking away at its symptoms, no matter how armor-augmented you are.

I'm sorry to say, then, that the ending kind of lets the premise down. This ending clearly implies--blatantly contradicting the movie's overall outlook--that, really, the only problems with OCP are Douchey Young Executive and Corrupt Old Executive, as opposed to there being much more endemic structural issues. The movie ends in the boardroom with Robocop doing in the latter, and everyone else in the room is all smiles in a ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead way. Are we really just forgetting that earlier in the film, they weren't particularly bothered (except for financial reasons) when a malfunctioning police droid murdered the hell out of one of them? I don't know. I suppose there could be some deep, satirical reason for this, but I tend to think that--whether or not this was the result of outside pressure--Verhoeven just decided to pull his punches, slapping a happy ending on what is manifestly not a happy movie. Too bad. It coulda been one of the best ever if he'd stuck to his guns.

Still, I was impressed as hell with Robocop. Think I'll give the directed-by-other-people sequels a miss, though. I would bet any amount of money that they jettison entirely the most interesting parts of the original in favor of more explodey stuff. But said original is definitely a high water-mark in a subgenre not generally known for its great intellectual acuity.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: When I say "not a happy movie," I'm talking in terms of the structure of society. It's perfectly appropriate for the ending to be happy in terms of Murphy regaining his personal autonomy--in Marxist terms, sloughing off his false consciousness--but much less so in the sense of implying that society as a whole is somehow all better.


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