Like The Crow (#10 in our countdown), the action in RoboCop takes place in Detroit — or, more properly speaking, a 14-year-old boy’s nightmare distortion of Detroit, where thugs kill for the sake of killin’ while muttering surprisingly mild imprecations behind their smokes (one RoboCop character, in the process of gang-raping a woman, refers to her vagina as “down there”), and every car screeches its tires at every turn. In both films, our main character is killed by bad guys in the first few minutes, is resurrected (mystically in one case, technologically in the other), and proceeds to kill his killers back. But that’s where the similarities end.
For example, RoboCop makes no use of mascara and black lipstick in his quest to set things right.
And even though it borrows its structure from the same revenge fantasy template that The Crow is patterned on, RoboCop isn’t really about the revenge that he takes. Yes, he does do his killers one by one, but he doesn’t consciously track them down, per the genre convention. He barely even remembers them. They just conveniently get in his way, due to the machinations of the real villains — a pack of Randian corporate raiders. There’s very little angst here, and even less anger. RoboCop, the character, as compared to The Crow, comes off as a bit of a sweetheart.
I hadn’t seen RoboCop since it first came out in theaters, until I decided to re-watch it for the sake of this series of blog posts. I hated it back then. I liked it fairly well this time around. The violent, fascistic movie that I thought I remembered was nowhere to be found. I was surprised, in particular, at how little pleasure the movie seems to take in its own gore and its own guns. Maybe it’s because I was a politically-correct activist and literarily-correct creative writing student, back in 1987. Maybe it’s because the action-movie violence ante has been upped over the past quarter of a century. Maybe it’s because the rotten sequels, and the even-more-rotten Frank Miller comics sort-of based on the sequels, distorted my memories of the original. I don’t know.
Here’s my favorite part: when RoboCop first wakes up to his post-cyborg life, we are treated to a set-up sequence showing us just exactly how far from humanity he has fallen. He wakes slowly, coming to consciousness for a few seconds at a time, spread out over what appears, in narrative-time, to be several months, while he is being — one supposes — built, or programmed, or whatever they’re doing to him. We see these flashes of consciousness through his “eyes,” deeply distorted by video interlacing and static: he’s the subject of a “show and tell” business meeting; he’s a prop at an office New Year’s party; etc. When he finally wakes up for good, we’re shown the disgusting food his body will automatically feed to his organic parts (looks like applesauce, only darker). The final, and most spectacular, humiliation is that his every movement can and will be tracked, by a small device that looks, ironically, like an iPhone.
RoboCop is the first cyberpunk superhero. He has been violated by the very technology that saved his life. The corporate and the political elites have had their way with him and remade him into a tool for their own agenda. He is compromised by his own power. He has become nothing but a thing, to be tagged and monitored and manipulated and controlled: a product, an asset. Technology has infested his body and his mind. He’s not quite sure who he was without it — he knows he was somebody, but he can’t remember who. He is similar, in these and many other ways, to us, glued to our Facebooks and our iPhones.
By the end of the movie, RoboCop manages to reclaim his own human name, and some semblance of his past life and personality. Let’s hope that each of us will be equally heroic, and true to ourselves, come Singularity Day. Ha!
As you might imagine from the title, this post is the second in a series of ten. You will find more posts in this series behind the “More” link, below.