Film Club / Thrives on Adversity and Demonstrating Superiority

Directed by Paul Verhoeven



Ok so my question is – why exactly do people say Robocop is a satire? Like – what exactly is it satirising? 

Obviously before I start I guess I should come up with some kind of definition of satire. “Webster’s Dictionary defines” etc. So how about this – it’s a type of story that ridicules or pokes fun at some flaw of people, institutions or the world. Or in other (more English) words: it’s something that’s taking the piss out of something

Team America: World Police is a good example. It takes the piss out of a whole bunch of stuff: action movies, American foreign policy, actors, puppets, Rent etc etc etc. (God I love Team America – we should totally do a Film Club on it sometime…). 

But yeah: what exactly is Robocop taking the piss out of? The thing that springs to mind first is that it’s taking the piss out of American Corporations. OCP. The Old Man. Dick Jones. Bob Morton. Obviously these are all over-the-top caricatures who could never exist in real life – right? Except it really doesn’t take much for me to watch Robocop and think that the only thing holding back a company resurrecting a dead person to make them into robot cop is the… lack of technology. Does that make me a cynical person? Maybe. Perhaps there are some lines that companies will not cross when it comes to ethical wrongs and the exploitation of human beings. Maybe there are things which are more important than making a profit. Maybe there are still some values and ideas which are sacrosanct. 

But I doubt it. 

Of course it’s not the best feeling in the world to watch a movie that was originally intended to be a wild and crazy over the top cartoon adventure set in a nightmarish world where good people don’t exist and the hero isn’t even a human being anymore – but literally a few body parts tossed together and wrapped up in a tin can and a CPU and go – oh yeah – this actually all feels kinda normal. But then the Verhoevenisation of our reality has been happening so slowly and so surely during the past – oh – 30 years or so that it’s hardly fresh news. I can’t help but feel a little bit cheated tho. Like of all the realities to get stuck in – Verhoeven World is probably one of the worst right? I mean damn – I wish I’d ended up in Spielberg World where every 30 minutes you’re looking at something that makes your eyes shine with awe and there’s always a merry little John Williams tune singing in the background. Hell – even Burton World would be better. At least that place has got a strong aesthetic and the good guys always win (even if they do have pumpkins for a head).  

And before you say that hey – Robocop wins at the end of Robocop I would invite you to go back and actually watch the movie. Because like yeah ok the bad guy gets killed and dropped out of a window Hans Gruber style – but the actual big triumphant moment is when the Old Man says: “Nice shootin’, son. What’s your name?” and Robocop turns towards the camera and with the ghost of a smile says “Murphy.” 

And yeah ok it’s a fist pump moment and the crowd cheers and leaves feeling satisfied and yeah it’s a statement about his regained humanity etc etc etc. But can we just stop and think about this for a second? Like how bad do things have to be for us to have got to the point where a character saying his own name is considered a victory? Like that’s some proper dystopian hardcore right? Cheering someone for doing something that a toddler could do. Like the ending of the sequel should show us Robocop using a toilet all by himself and Nancy giving him a high five saying “Good job dude!”

But hey – yeah. That all being said: I do love this movie. 

Everyone hates crime. I mean not all crime, sometimes crime is good, but generally it’s seen as a bad thing. People want to know that when they wake up in the morning their stuff is still where they left it, they want to not be robbed or attacked. But how much do you hate crime? Do you hate it enough to have a huge overbearing authoritarian state that watches and monitors your every activity? [Looks around] Aah, I see you do. OK but would you like robot cops? What about an army of zombie cops conscripted into service following their brutal dismemberment at the hands of blood thirsty criminals? OK I see you are more equivocal, but that is why you are not a go-getting up-and-coming executive like Miguel Ferrar’s Morton in Robocop. I fuckin’ love that guy.

He is the most interesting character in Robocop and the one who basically drives the movie forward as a hyper-ambitious cross between Tony Stark and Kendall Roy. His casual demand for Murphy‘s working arm to be amputated is somehow the most chilling part of a movie where another character is turned into a mutant. Morton is the necromancer who disregards Murphy’s dignity to turn him into an undead slave and replace the hapless police force. His threat to the only goodies in the movie the grumpy sergeant and Lewis is that if they ever struck for a union is that they potentially lose autonomy over their own bodies. And he is basically the hero of the movie, while the guy who just wanted to create an army of robots is the antagonist. 

Immediately after the amputation scene is the amazing New Year Party bit which despite being 20 seconds long could be a movie in itself. While it depicts just another cheesy office social, the celebrating R&D workers happen to building a cybernetic killing machine, somehow taking the phrase banality of evil to life in its purest form. A female engineer gives Robocop a kiss, presumably forgetting that it is a effectively a walking corpse, dehumanised and defiled by her very hand. At the end of the movie, Murphy, having regained some sense of self but still otherwise exploited looks over to the man who signed all this off (and who’s life he just saved) and smiles gratefully for the small measure of praise he is offered. 

Of course all this makes sense when you take the  main starting point for Robocop which is that it is a movie that absolutely hates people, showing nothing but distain for OCP Executives, lazy ineffective police, and most of all the public. Even though you feel sorry for Murphy, he is portrayed as an over-confident prick right from the start. 

Throughout we see everyone, whether helpless store clerks or psychotic gang members, all giggling away to the inane “I’ll buy that for a dollar” TV show.  Although the government is portrayed as being largely ineffective and also possibly evil, the only suggestion that ordinary people are angry about this is the use of the phrase “urban pacification” as part of the sales pitch for ED-209. Almost every person is either part of the criminal industrial complex or a helpless and passive victim.

So if the movie is critiquing anything it is a satire of crime and violence as just another form of entertainment, and so it is as much mocking the audience for their enjoyment of bloody and spectacular violence, as the in film civilians. “Look at you animals, you think this is over-the-top but this is exactly what you paid to see, and this is the logical extension of your war on crime. That’s right lap it up you baying dogs. You’ll buy that for a dollar!” Is the challenge of the movie, and we see ourselves reflected at the end of the movie when the villain gets shot to pieces and plunges through a 50 storey window, the camera cuts one of the characters, preciously shocked at the ED 209 murdering a colleague, now smiling with glee. 

The beauty of the movie taking this attitude is that it did not have to do any of this. The sales pitch is easy: “what if The Terminator fought drug dealers and also other giant robots?” Which would probably have been enough for studio executives and indeed any right thinking person. Of course lots of 80s movies, Alien and Bladerunner satirised corporate Frankensteins creating monsters they can’t control, but Robocop goes much further in its tone when it could have been much more sincere lent much more into the police versus criminals angle, ignoring OCP all together. But Verhoeven had other ideas and takes what could have been a good movie and made it unforgettable. 

His route to unforgettable cinema is to not dwell too much on robots and crime but instead give half the movie to the internal machinations of OCP executives. We see as much of Miguel Morton snorting Coke off his girlfriend’s breasts as we do of one of the crimes Robocop resolves in the early montage. While the film divides everyone up into corporate and criminal sharks, pathetic losers, and cowed victims, apart from that one montage Robocop is not even trying to defend citizens from the main antagonists, but merely reacting to his own brutal murder and efforts to shut him down. The aim of the movie is to paint a convincing portrait of the sort of stupid hubris that would create a Robo cop in the first place whole mocking the idiots who would want to see that.

It’s hard to make a comparison between Robocop and the Royal Tenenbaum’s. So let’s get started. 

In terms of themes, most obviously they are both of course about deficient fatherhood, Robocop himself is (not by choice) an absent father, as is his own creator Morton. Some radical feminists are also suggesting that Morton turning Robocop to an automaton slave, without humanity, dignity or free will, is sub-optimal parenting at best, and is neglecting a duty of care. 

Royal Tenenbaum does not, if I recall correctly, order for any of children limbs to be removed, but he does contribute to significant distress on their part. He derides his daughter’s play, shoots his son in the hand, and fails to recognise the torment of his other son or indeed any of his children are going through. So diminished is he in his children’s eyes that at no point do they seek his approval or thank him for his advice. 

However despite these awful and useless dads neither film argues that the characters do not need father figures, if anything the opposite. In the end Robocop finds approval  from a character referred to as the Old Man who calls him son, while Ben Stiller is grateful for a hug while admitting he has has a rough year. The, fairly reactionary, message from both films is that without that patriarchal influence there is only chaos and emotional drift. Indeed, steeped in irony though it is, the argument of Robocop is not that the Police Force is an absurd and violent institution, but that it is a force for good and that with the Detroit PD’s benign control there would be chaos in the streets. Steeped in deadpan shoulder shrugging though it is, the argument from Royal Tenenbaums is that mothers are not enough to fulfil the duel parenting role. That even the most deadbeat, lying, bastard is better than nothing: better than being emotionally stunted weirdos who hide in the bathroom, or conduct fire alarms for their children, or carry out a vengeful armed assault on a cocaine cartel. 

They also have a lot to say about the pursuit of success. The entire motivation for the suits in Robocop is to climb the ladder and they will kill anyone to do it. By contrast the Tenenbaum children start at the top of the ladder and it becomes almost a curse. Their tennis careers, office jobs and plays become totems of their dissatisfaction and pain. Although in both movies it is seen as an indication of moral decay, but while Owen Wilson – a successful novelist – is seen as out of control because of his drug habit; for Morton in Robocop cocaine is part of the prize of victory. Victory in Tenenbaum’s is about finding some for of inner-reconciliation while Robocop thrives on adversity and demonstrating superiority. 

Lastly both films have a weird view of the working class. In Tenenbaums the lift operator and Pagoda are the main stand-ins for actual working characters and it is interesting the way they are played as both passive and ingenious. The lift operator starts giving actual medical advice by the end of the film while Pagoda is one of the wiser characters, yet for some reason is happy to indulge Royal, except for the occasional stabbing. The film is very ambiguous about their roles whilst being aware that the main characters are kind of dumb and frivolous in comparison, while also being completely in charge. 

Similarly the cops and store workers in Robocop are shown to be passive yet savvy. They watch dumb shows but know enough to hide their safe under some cans, or study for a degree while work at the petrol station, or plan industrial action in the face of an evil kleptocracy. However despite all these smarts, they have no ability to affect change in their own lives, instead becoming swept up in the events of others. Both films are clear, heroes are not people who work hard, heroes are people who make a mess for good intentions. 

So in conclusion it says a lot for Robocop that it doesn’t struggle in comparison to a supposedly more sensitive film to demonstrate the alienation of its characters and that ultimately I think we can all agree they are basically the same film. 

This post was created by our Film Club email list.
If you’d like to join the conversation send an email marked “Film Club” to here

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s