ROBOCOP (Director Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker[1]

Based on an original screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, Robocop was one of the surprise hits of the late 1980s. When initially proposed, it seemed such a preposterous concept that that no director wanted to direct it and no actor wanted to appear in it. Eventually, though, director Paul Verhoeven was imported from Holland for his first American film, and a suitable cast was assembled. The result was a film that not only became a box-office hit but, in its title hero, produced one of the iconic figures of American science fiction film. This hero lived on in two film sequels, two television series, and a series of comic books, while serving as central inspiration for the spate of SF films in the 1990s that also featured robots or cyborgs as central characters. The original Robocop was an effective work of political satire that produced one of the definitive film critiques of late–Reagan era America. Robocop was remade in 2014 with much improved special effects, but that film, without the late-Reagan-era context of the original, lacked the special satirical energy of its predecessor.

Plot Summary

            Robocop begins with a broadcast of the mock television news program Media Break, immediately announcing the motif of media satire that is crucial to the film. This Headline News–style broadcast begins with the promise, “Give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world,” indicating the way in which contemporary news programs break the news into quick packets of superficial information, with little background or analysis. The program then begins with a report of unrest in the “city-state” of Pretoria, where the government has just announced the acquisition of a French-made neutron bomb for use as a last resort defense against protestors. This suggestion of excessive force in the interest of the restoration of order sets the stage for a similar development closer to home, as the program moves (after a commercial break) to introduce us to the urban problems plaguing Old Detroit, where a recent rise in crime has been accompanied by a wave of cop killings, many attributed to criminal kingpin Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang. We also soon learn that the Detroit police force has recently been privatized and is now being run by the giant conglomerate Omni Consumer Products (OCP) through its subsidiary Security Concepts.

OCP, meanwhile, has far bigger plans for Detroit than the meager profits it might make from running the police force. Indeed, it plans to wipe out the entire inner city, replacing it with Delta City, a sparkling new, ultramodern urban complex designed as a perfect corporate business environment. However, the crime rate is so high in Old Detroit that it is unsafe for workers to go into the area, so the company must first attempt to wipe out crime in the city before it can proceed with its renewal plans. To do so, they are developing automated police robots, especially the Series 209 Enforcement Droid—ED-209 for short—which they hope eventually to market to the military for use in combat. ED-209 is the favorite project of the corporation’s second-in-command Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the Senior President of Security Concepts. Unfortunately, the machine goes berserk in its initial demo in the OCP boardroom, riddling a junior executive with high-caliber bullets in an extremely bloody scene that is nevertheless grimly comic and perfectly in tune with the campy air of the film thus far. As a result, ambitious executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) is able to convince the corporation head, simply identified as the Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), to put the company’s resources behind his pet project, the Robocop, a robot policeman driven by a human brain.

The problem, of course, is to find a human brain. OCP approaches that problem in an efficient, but ruthless way—by transferring cops with histories of recklessness to the most dangerous precincts in the hope that one will be killed, thus becoming a potential brain donor. Officer Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller), newly assigned via this program to the high-crime Metro West precinct, is on patrol with his new partner, Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), when they spot Boddicker and his gang fleeing from a bank they have just robbed. They track the gang back to an old, abandoned steel mill (sign of the decay of industrial America) that they are using as a hideout. Murphy and Lewis, rather than wait for backup, split up and go into the mill, looking for the culprits. Once inside the mill, Lewis is quickly knocked senseless by one of the gang members, while Murphy is captured by the gang. Then, in a scene of truly shocking and viscerally powerful violence (very much not in accord with the otherwise campy nature of the film), he is literally shot to pieces (including a bullet to the head). The gang flees, and Lewis arrives to call for help. Murphy is rushed to a hospital, where he is soon pronounced dead. Morton’s team then manages to retrieve what is left of the head, as well as the left arm, attaching them to a robot body. Morton, however, wants an all-robot body, so he has them remove and discard the arm, demonstrating just how heartless he really is.

In a variation on Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, the newly assembled Robocop is programmed with four prime directives. These include: to serve the public trust, to protect the innocent, and to uphold the law. The fourth directive, however, is classified and thus undisclosed. Robocop is soon put into service, driving about the city interceding (with little subtlety and much violence) in a series of crimes, including one in which the mayor and other officials are being held hostage by a deranged former city councilman, upset over losing his bid for re-election. This particular scene, clearly based on the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Mosconi, along with gay city councilman Harvey Milk, indicates the tendency of Robocop to draw upon specific historical events, thus keeping in touch with reality despite its science fiction setting.

The news media make a big deal of the exploits of the new robotic policeman, and Robocop becomes an instant celebrity. Morton is made a vice president of OCP and seems to be riding high, but then Robocop begins to experience dreams of his former life and his human personality, supposedly extinguished, begins to re-emerge, making him harder to control. This especially becomes the case when, in a computerized search of Boddicker’s criminal activity, he uncovers the record of Murphy’s murder. Robocop then goes to Murphy’s old home, but discovers it now abandoned, the family moved away; walking through the house he begins to experience flashbacks of his former life.

Robocop then sets his sights on Boddicker and his gang. Meanwhile, Morton is living it up with women and drugs, until Boddicker, working on orders from Jones, bursts into his home and shoots him in the kneecaps, then shows him a gloating farewell video of Jones before blowing him and his home up with a grenade. Soon afterward, Robocop bursts into a drug factory where Boddicker and some of his gang members are negotiating to buy cocaine for distribution in the city. In a spectacular shootout (modeled on the shootouts in the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone), Robocop shoots up the factory, killing many of the workers there, including the boss. He arrests Boddicker (whom he refrains from killing only because of his Third Directive, to uphold the law), despite the latter’s arrogant insistence that he works directly for Jones and is thus immune from police interference. It becomes clear at this point that the crime wave in Old Detroit has in fact been instigated by Jones and OCP (probably without the knowledge of the Old Man), both to justify the leveling of the old city and to produce an excuse try out their robotized police officers, opening the way for huge defense contracts. Robocop records Boddicker’s statement, then takes him to precinct headquarters, where he drops him off, identifying him as a cop killer.

Robocop then goes after Jones, who he now realizes is the real mastermind of the crime spree in Old Detroit. He confronts Jones in his posh office at OCP, only to discover that he is unable to arrest him because his secret fourth directive (programmed at the insistence of Jones himself) prevents him from taking such action against a senior officer of OCP. Paralyzed, Robocop is then confronted by the revamped ED-209, which launches a barrage of weaponry at him but is soon disabled when it tumbles down a stairway in an attempt to follow the more nimble Robocop down.

Having won that battle, Robocop prepares to leave the building, only to find himself confronted by a large contingent of police, who have been ordered to destroy him. He is badly damaged in the ensuing melée, but escapes with the help of Lewis, who also helps him to hide out and to repair himself. She then helps him to begin to recover his memories of being Alex Murphy. Meanwhile, Jones has gotten Boddicker out of jail and ordered him to kill Robocop in order to prevent him from revealing Boddicker’s connection to Jones, offering Boddicker, in compensation, the vice concession for the two million workers who will be employed in constructing Delta City.

Upset with their treatment by OCP, the Detroit police go out on strike, leading to chaos in the streets. Boddicker and his gang go after Murphy, armed with advanced weapons acquired for them by Jones through OCP’s extensive connections with the military. Both Murphy and Lewis are wounded in a subsequent shootout at the blighted site of the old steel mill, but Boddicker and his gang are all killed. Murphy is ready to go after Jones, despite his fourth directive. He bursts into the OCP boardroom and presents the evidence of Jones’s crimes. In response, the Old Man fires Jones, which means that he is no longer an officer of OCP and no longer protected by the directive. Murphy blasts Jones with a hail of bullets, sending him crashing through the window and plummeting to the ground far below. As Murphy begins to leave, the Old Man asks him his name. “Murphy,” he says, indicating that he has recovered his sense of his human identity.


            Robocop actually received two Academy Award nominations (for best sound and best film editing), though it seems, at least on a quick, superficial examination, to be little more than a pulp SF thriller. On the other hand, its director, Paul Verhoeven, had established a reputation as the director of quirky, complex, hard-to-categorize films during his work in Holland before coming to the U.S. to do Robocop as his first American feature. Thus, one might expect to find more substance in the film than first appearances might indicate—and one would not be disappointed. Robocop combines science fiction with the cop-action genre and mixes taut thriller elements with moments of hilarious (if dark) comedy to produce a complex hybridity that helps it to join films such as Blade Runner and The Terminator as key examples of postmodernism in science fiction film. Moreover, its satirical engagement with any number of social and political issues relevant to its late–Reagan era context make it one of the most topicalSF films in the history of American cinema.

Robocop can also be read in a number of mythic and allegorical ways that go beyond specific political contexts. For example, Murphy, like so many other characters in SF film, can clearly be read as a Christ figure. After all, he dies and is resurrected, while he clearly serves as a savior for the people of Detroit, defending them from the secular power of OCP, which becomes a sort of latter-day Roman Empire. Meanwhile, director Verhoeven has suggested that he himself saw the film as a sort of “Paradise Lost” with Murphy’s loss of his human self (and his seemingly idyllic family life) taking on universal dimensions. Whether or not one sees Robocop as a “Paradise Lost” film, it is clear that itcan be read as a sort of identity search film in which Murphy’s struggle to recover his selfhood can be read as a allegorization of the general difficulty of finding and maintaining a stable identity amid the constant, dehumanizing flux of life under late capitalism.

Of course, this latter interpretation becomes less universal and more particular as soon as one realizes that the tribulations of the self explored in Robocop are specific to life under late capitalism and even more specific to working-class life in Detroit and other embattled bastions of working-class America, as more and more Rust-Belt jobs are either lost to automation or shifted overseas. Thus, even allegorical interpretations of the film ultimately tend toward topicality. Indeed, the overt topicality of Robocop is announced early on, as the film begins with one of the several broadcasts of the television news program Media Break that are included in the film. For one thing, the Media Break broadcasts satirize television news programming itself, as bright, attractive anchors report all events (no matter how serious or complex) with the same seriousness and superficiality. This satire was enhanced by the casting of well-known Entertainment Tonight co-host Leeza Gibbons as one of the co-anchors (along with longtime television news anchor, consumer news reporter, and sports commentator Mario Machado), indicating the conversion of television news into pop-cultural entertainment, a trend that has only becoming stronger in the decades following the release of the film. But these news broadcasts also provide the film itself with a quick and convenient method for introducing topical issues into the film. In this opening broadcast, the anchors report on a presidential news conference being held aboard the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform,” which adds an immediate futuristic SF touch to the film. Unfortunately, a power failure has caused a loss of artificial gravity on the platform, setting the President and his staff comically afloat, much to the obvious amusement of the newscasters, who present the event as light entertainment.

While this report helps to establish Robocop as a work of science fiction, it also satirizes the contemporary media of the 1980s. Indeed, except for a couple of SF touches the film could easily have been set in the 1980s. For example, apart from Robocop and the ED-209 unit, there is very little in the way of advanced technology presented in the film. Partly, this was a matter of budget. Thus, the film dispenses with futuristic vehicles and costuming (which can be quite expensive to produce), opting simply to go with production line automobiles and clothing from the 1980s. A great deal was also saved by filming in real city locations, rather than using expensive sets and simulations, though the film was shot in Dallas, rather than Detroit, to give it a slightly more futuristic look. Still, Robocop looks pretty much like it is set in the mid-to-late 1980s, which might make its futuristic robots seem a bit out of place, but which is not really a shortcoming and does not particularly interfere with the flow of the action. In fact, the look of the film is in many ways a positive advantage. By minimizing the amount of science fiction hardware on the screen, the film is able to maintain its focus on the human story of Murphy, including the pathos of the loss of his past life and the triumph of his redemptive recovery of his individual identity.

In addition, the contemporary look of Robocop reinforces its satirical engagement with so many issues from the 1980s. Much of the satire of Robocop is quite clearly aimed at the Reagan administration, including its portrayal of the Old Man, head of Omni Consumer Products, as a sort of Reaganesque executive officer, affable, aging, bumbling, and a bit out of touch. Meanwhile, the film’s highly critical treatment of OCP and its nefarious operations can be taken not only as a commentary on the lack of humanity in American corporate culture but also on the Reagan administration’s support of that corporate culture—and for their lack of support for America’s urban centers. Indeed, Robocop probably addresses the issue of urban decay more directly and effectively than any other American SF film—though rundown future cities have become a staple of SF film since Blade Runner. It is not for nothing that Robocop eschews the typical futuristic SF urban landscape (most commonly set in Los Angeles) for a decidedly rundown Detroit, a city whose social and economic problems were emblematic of the woes of American cities in the 1980s and that have perhaps become even more so in the twenty-first century.

The Detroit setting is appropriate partly because the city was so closely associated with the automobile industry, the decline of which (especially relative to the Japanese automobile industry) was the central example of the decline of American manufacturing as a whole during the 1980s. Given the iconic status of the American automobile as the worldwide symbol of American capitalism, the decline of the automobile industry has particularly profound implications. Moreover, the Detroit automobile industry is emblematic of an entire phase of capitalist production, typically (and tellingly) labeled by economists as “Fordist” (after Detroit automobile magnate Henry Ford). The decline of Detroit thus potentially signals the decline of Fordism as a whole. Indeed, the important theorist of postmodernism David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell Publishers, 1990), has argued that a shift from a Fordist mode of production to a mode he refers to as “flexible accumulation” was central to the historical movement toward the era of postmodernism. One could argue, then, that Robocop, with its central emphasis on the decline of Detroit, also announces the coming of postmodernism—or at least announces an awareness that something fundamental to the texture of life and art seems to have shifted in the years between the end of World War II and the coming of the Reagan administration.

Robocop does little directly to suggest that the Reagan administration was to blame for the troubles of American cities like Detroit in the 1980s, though it does drop in numerous indirect references to the Reagan administration that attentive viewers might see as clues pointing to the culpability of that administration. For example, the Detroit police strike not only calls attention to contemporary concerns over the issue of strikes by essential public workers but to the hard line taken by the Reagan administration in relation to such strikes, most famously in the August 1981 air-traffic-controllers’ strike, to which Reagan responded by firing all of the controllers involved. This event, symptomatic of the general anti-labor stance of the Reagan administration, was also one of the defining events of that administration. Robocop’s sympathetic presentation of the plight of the Detroit police can thus be taken as a subtle and indirect critique of the heavy-handed attitudes of the Reagan administration, which failed to address the root causes that led groups such as the air-traffic controllers to strike in the first place.

As might be expected in a science fiction film, the most overt references to the Reagan administration are to the Star Wars program, which is featured not only in the opening Media Break broadcast but in a later one, as well. In this second, more ominous, report, viewers are told of a failed test of the new orbiting platform, referred to in this report as the Strategic Defense Platform (in an obvious reference to the official name of the Star Wars program, the Strategic Defense Initiative). In the test, a laser cannon has misfired, scorching 10,000 acres of wooded residential land near Santa Barbara and killing 113 people, including two former presidents who have retired there. These two presidents are not named in the film, but they are surely Richard Nixon (who did indeed retire to the Santa Barbara area) and Reagan himself (who spent a great deal of time while in office at the Rancho del Cielo—which came to be known as the Western White House—about 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara). The film thus offers a sort of comic fantasy fulfillment (for liberals) in which Reagan is hoist on his own technological petard, taking Nixon with him.

That the two reports on the Star Wars system both refer to malfunctions of one sort or another contribute to the overall dystopian tone of Robocop, just as the anxieties of the Detroit policemen at being replaced by robots echo a general fear among the American working class that automation might someday lead to the loss of their jobs. On the other hand, this motif is somewhat more complex than a simple fear of being replaced by machines. Robocop is, after all, a human who essentially becomes a machine, then struggles to regain his humanity, a fact that blurs the boundary between human and machine and suggests a more fundamental fear of actually being turned into a machine as part of the general regulation, routinization, and automation of life under capitalism.

A similar concern was voiced by Karl Marx as part of his critique of capitalism as early as the mid-nineteenth century. On the other hand, Marx also saw a very positive side to automation, which he hoped might release human beings from the drudgery of repetitive tasks, while creating a general level of affluence that would free up individuals to explore their full human potential. A very similar faith in the potential of technology is voiced in a great deal of American science fiction, perhaps most notably in the Star Trek sequence of television series and films. Robocop itself is far from unequivocal in its warnings of the dangers of technology, at times showing some of this same technological optimism. After all, Murphy, in the final analysis, remains Murphy despite the high-tech hardware that has replaced his physical body.

In this sense, Robocop is a relatively conventional, conservative, and uninventive film. Much like the cyberpunk science fiction with which it shared the late 1980s, it posits a strict separation between mind and body, a separation that is itself in the best dualistic tradition of the Enlightenment. Murphy is still the same person, we are told, regardless of the fact that his entire body, below the neck, has been replaced by machinery. By extension, this motif reassures us that we can still remain who we are, regardless of how much our lives are changed by the onset of new technologies. Further, if Robocop embodies a fear of being replaced by technology or even turned into a machine, Murphy’s transformation into Robocop also represents a fantasy of empowerment. Equipped with his new high-tech body, Murphy becomes almost invulnerable, ultimately maintaining his identity while meting out just revenge on all of those who have wronged him in the past. Viewers can thus identity with the figure of Robocop, while at the same time imagining that they, too, might be able to avenge themselves on their enemies. In particular, Robocop’s ability to walk into a corporate boardroom and blow away the company’s most evil executive surely resonated with a number of working-class fantasies of the 1980s, allowing workers of America’s declining industries to imagine revenge against the heartless corporations that were gradually depriving them of their jobs and their lives.

The ambivalence of Robocop toward technology can perhaps best be seen in the contrast between Robocop and ED-209. The latter, which is all machine, is ostensibly the more powerful of the two, but it tends to malfunction (with sometimes dire results) and, even when it works well, it is no match for the quick-witted tactics of Robocop, whose human brain seems capable of a level of creativity not available to the pure machine. The message here seems to be fairly clear: technology can be a good thing, but it works best when it maintains a human face and when it is kept under control as a tool to be used for the benefit of human beings, rather than simply as an attempt to advance technology for the sake of advancing technology (or furthering corporate profits). Of course, one can also read into the confrontation between ED-209 and Robocop a clear comment on filmmaking, especially SF film making. ED-209 thus represents the purely effects-driven SF film that is produced largely as a demonstration of the capabilities of the latest special effects technology. Robocop then becomes an emblem of science fiction filmmaking that employs some of the latest effects technology, but maintains a strong human element at its core. The human story of Murphy, including the pathos of the loss of his past life and the triumph of his recovery of his identiy, remains very much at the heart of this film.

The malfunctioning ED-209 serves as a vehicle for social commentary in other ways as well. When it is first introduced, Jones announces that it is currently programmed for “urban pacification,” a term that was widely used to describe certain U.S. strategies during the war in Vietnam, a link that is reinforced by Jones’s immediate suggestion that the most important applications for ED-209 will probably be military. Still further, ED-209, in the scene in which it is introduced, is controlled by a scientist by the name of Dr. McNamara (Jerry Haynes), in an obvious reference to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the failed U.S. strategy in Vietnam. ED-209 thus becomes a symbol for the same kind of technological arrogance that led the United States to become involved in Vietnam in the first place, confident that superior firepower would inevitably lead to victory, human elements notwithstanding. By extension, the film suggests that more contemporary developments, such as the Star Wars program, were driven by a similar arrogance, enabling a belief that the U.S. could be rendered impervious to attack by the sheer power of its technology. That this technology malfunctions more often than not in the film can thus be taken not as a rejection of technology itself but as a critique of this kind of arrogance.

Robocop, through its representation of the predatory OCP,is also specifically critical of the American tendency to invest more in the development of military technologies, designed to destroy, rather than technologies that are meant to improve the quality of human life. This critique is clear in the satirical focus on the Star Wars program and on the intention of OCP to market its robotic policemen as military killing machines. On the other hand, the characterization of OCP as willing to do anything and everything in the quest for larger corporate profits seems aimed more at capitalism than militarism. Meanwhile, that OCP seeks profits in “service” industries such as health care and law enforcement, but does so in a ruthlessly self-serving fashion, with no regard for actually serving the public, can be taken as a rejoinder to the Reagan administration’s privatization policies, suggesting that certain crucial public services should not be left up to profit-seeking corporations.

Though Robocop ultimately identifies corrupt individuals such as Jones, Morton, and Boddicker as the agents of villainy, one can easily infer from the film that they become the villains they are as a result of the corporate environment in which they function, an environment that rewards ambition and backstabbing and leaves little room for cooperation or altruism. That the drug-dealer Boddicker essentially works for OCP is no accident, either. After all, the corporate environment at OCP is essentially the same as the criminal environment of Boddicker’s gang, and Robocop is quite clear in its identification of capitalism as a form of legalized robbery. Thus, in one of the film’s most pointed moments of political commentary, we see two of Boddicker’s henchmen discussing the gang’s business. When one explains that they are robbing banks in order to get capital to finance their drug dealing operation, the other asks why they even bother to try to make money buying and selling drugs when they can just steal it. The other answers succinctly: “No better way to steal money than free enterprise.”

Robocop’s portrayal of the baleful condition of downtown Detroit is made all the more striking by the stark contrast, within the same city, of the poverty and squalor of the city’s streets with the gleaming luxury of the OCP headquarters. Further, this contrast suggests that a major reason for the poverty of the people of Detroit is that the resources of the city have been sucked up by the corporation, draining the city of its very life and making its people poorer and poorer, while the company grows richer and richer. And, finally, despite the Old Man’s claim that the company hopes to “give something back” (echoing the Reagan administration’s vision that increased corporate wealth would somehow trickle down to the general population), it is quite clear that OCP as an organization is entirely unconcerned with the suffering its activities are causing among the people of Detroit.

The company’s lack of regard for human life is signaled most openly in its willingness to convert Murphy into a machine, at the same time sacrificing his humanity, while making him into a commodity, a product designed to be marketed for profit. This same tendency is announced at the beginning of the film, in the commercial for mechanical hearts (from the “Family Heart Center”) that interrupts the first Media Break broadcast. For one thing, the very presence of a commercial reminds us that Media Break is designed not to serve the needs of the public, but to make money. For another, that human hearts in this dystopian future can be routinely replaced by mechanical ones that are marketed like any other commodity foreshadows the mechanization of Murphy by suggesting the penetration of capitalist business practices into every aspect of human life, including the human body itself.

The media of this future world—like the media of our own world—are saturated with commercials. In the course of the film, for example, we observe a commercial for the latest high-end automobile, the SUX-6000, reminding us of the way in which automobiles have long functioned as the central emblem of American consumerism, while also calling attention to the centrality of the automobile industry to the economic fortunes of Detroit. At the same time, the name of this product (the vehicle apparently sucks) reminds us of the tendency of the American automobile industry to be more interested in flashy marketing than in manufacturing quality products. Meanwhile, the later commercial for the utterly tasteless “Nuke ‘Em” nuclear war game indicates the willingness of American corporations to manufacture, market, and sell any product that they believe will make them money, regardless of the values (in this case acceptance of nuclear war as a source of fun) it might promote.

The constant flow of commercials in this future world—as in our own—serves not merely to further the marketing of specific products but to promote the general acceptance of consumerism as a way of life. The same can be said for the programming that this advertising finances. Indeed, other than the fluffy news program Media Break, the main television programming that we see in the film consists of a few brief snippets of a program apparently entitled I’ll Buy That for a Dollar. The nature of this program is not entirely clear. All we know is that at certain key moments, a mustachioed and bespectacled host mugs into the camera and leeringly proclaims “I’ll buy that for a dollar”—generally while flanked by two scantily clad beauties. The vague implication is that the dollar in question would be used to purchase the sexual favors of these two women, but the more general suggestion is that, in this society, anything desirable can be purchased for cash. Of course, this program also lampoons the silliness and venality of real-world television programming in the 1980s (especially the game shows that serve so clearly as enactments of the consumerist fantasies of the society at large), thus suggesting that this same universal drive toward commodification holds sway in our own contemporary American society.

Again, this satire is most specifically aimed at Reaganite America, but its diagnoses of the ills of American society remain relevant enough in the early twenty-first century. Indeed, the effectiveness of such satirical moments goes a long way toward explaining the ongoing appeal of Robocop and the continuing sense that this is a special film that stands apart from run-of-the-mill science fiction fare. Ultimately, however, the core of this film is the story of Murphy’s struggle to retain his sense of his individual human identity despite all the corporate and technological forces that seem determined to turn him into a machine. In this sense, he becomes the perfect hero for the postmodern age, in which a similar struggle to maintain a coherent identity is perhaps the central human experience.

Related Films

Robocop draws in obvious ways upon predecessors such as Blade Runner and The Terminator—not to mention the Japanese 8 Man, which became a live-action film in 1992, but which aired as a cartoon on American television as early as the 1960s. Robocop itself exerted a strong influence on the proliferation of robot/android/cyborg films that were so crucial to American film in the 1990s. Such films include Cyborg (1989), The Guyver (1991), Nemesis (1993), Death Machine (1994), and Solo (1996). Meanwhile, Verhoeven’s own Total Recall, an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle from 1990, is a highly interesting film that recalls Robocop in a number of ways, including the casting of Ronnie Cox as the central villain, an exploitative capitalist on Mars who controls the colonists there through his monopoly on the very air they breathe.Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid loses his life somewhat in the same manner as Murphy when he discovers that his entire life has been fabricated, his memories implanted in his brain, his beautiful wife a secret agent planted to keep an eye on him.

The most obvious influence of Robocop, however, was on its own two (increasingly campy) sequels of the 1990s. Robocop 2 (1990, directed by Irvin Kershner) picks up directly where the original Robocop ended. With the city of Detroit in arrears on its payments to OCP, the corporation (still led by the Old Man, who seems significantly tougher and meaner in this film) seeks to foreclose on the entire city. In the meantime, they continue to work to develop a more advanced Robocop model, leading to their development of Robocop 2, who is given the brain of a drug dealer/cult leader (1990). Not surprisingly, this Robocop is evil, leading to a cataclysmic battle with the original Robocop, still played by Weller. In this sense, the film anticipates the battle between the T-800 and T-1000 models in Terminator 2 (1991). The good Robocop ultimately wins, of course, though OCP escapes relatively unscathed, managing to blame the damage done by Robocop 2 on the psychologist who had been in charge of its programming. Robocop 2 includes much of the same sorts of satire as the original Robocop, but it is a relatively lackluster film that never quite captures the unique energy of the first film.

In Robocop 3 (1993, directed by Fred Dekker), OCP (now referred to in graffiti as “Oppressive Capitalist Pigs”) is again up to no good, pressing its plans for Delta City by employing a paramilitary force (referred to as Rehabilitation Troops) to evict the residents of Old Detroit so they can tear it down. However, in an added twist, OCP has now been taken over by the larger (and possibly even more evil) Japanese conglomerate, Kanemitsu. Meanwhile, the residents of Detroit have organized their own guerrilla force to battle against the corporate takeover of their city. Predictably, Robocop (now played by Robert Burke) ends up siding with the rebels, especially after Anne Lewis (still played by Nancy Allen) is shot down and killed by the Rehabilitation Troops. Eventually, tired of their treatment by corporate management, the regular Detroit police join the rebels as well. This basic scenario seems promising and even offers the prospect of one of the few genuinely radical political films in American cinema. Unfortunately, this prospect doesn’t really play out. For one thing, the Rehab troops get out of control, and the film ultimately becomes more antimilitary than anticapitalist. For another, the film ultimately descends into silliness, with Robocop (now able to fly thanks to an add-on jet pack) battling both the Rehabs and a group of Japanese android ninjas built by Kanemitsu. The good guys win (of course), OCP stock plummets, and the Robocop film series comes to a merciful end, though a short-lived television series (with the anticapitalist politics significantly watered down) did appear in 1994. The franchise then continued with a TV miniseries (Robocop: Prime Directives)in 2000, set ten years after the original film, when Delta City has become a reality, but has nearly bankrupted OCP.

Finally, the 2014 remake of Robocop, directed by the BrazilianJosé Padilha, features Joel Kinnamon in the lead role. While it was a modest commercial success (taking in over $240 million in worldwide box-receipts against an operating budget of $100 million), the remake was not greeted with enthusiasm by critics. It does feature action sequences that are improved over those of the original, but these often have the texture of a videogame, and the remake lacks the satirical energy of the original film.


[1] This discussion is adapted from my chapter on The Terminator in my book Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Praeger, 2006).