Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month continues today with a film about a robotic police officer. I wonder what it could be?

Film: RoboCop (1987)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct), perhaps the nastiest, most cynical director of the modern age. Screenplay by Edward Neumeir (who later “adapted” Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for Verhoeven) and Michael Miner, both of whom would probably rather be remembered for this collaboration than their sophomore pairing, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Suitably epic soundtrack by Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian) and impressive special effects by Rob Bottin (The Thing). Acting by Peter Weller (Naked Lunch, Buckaroo Bonzai) Nancy Allen (Carrie, Dressed to Kill), Kurtwood Smith (the dad from That 70s Show causing the same sort of alarming OMG-it’s-that-guy reaction that Paul Riser evokes in Aliens), Ronny Cox (Total Recall), Robert DoQui (Coffy, Nashville), and Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Miguel Ferrer (Special Agent Albert Rosenfeld), and Dan O’Herlihy (Andrew Packard) as scumbags of various stripes.

Quote: “Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening.”

Alternate quote: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

First viewing by Molly: Last week.

First viewing by Jesse: In the fourth grade, at this kid Nathan Fisher’s house.

Most recent viewing by both: Last week.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Very little. I remember it being on the TV at my friend Amanda’s house (Amanda had not one but two older brothers and parents who didn’t give a crap if their kids watched R- or X-rated movies) and being vaguely intrigued. I remember inquiring of one of these aforementioned older brothers, “is RoboCop human inside the suit?” and the answer being “No, he is a robot.” Being a mere child, I did not realize that robots, too, could have feelings and experience angst (thank god the internet was created to teach us such lessons—link NSFW, but worth your time if you like robots and ruffly underpants), and thus figured I would not care about RoboCop’s fate. How wrong I was.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. I remember being totally unprepared for the wanton violence, and, of course, totally impressed by it. The toxic waste scene freaked me out more than just about anything else from my childhood—I’d seen The Toxic Avenger, so I knew these things were plausible.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to watching: Uneasy. I don’t really like Paul Verhoeven’s movies in general. I mean—the ending of Starship Troopers, where a haz-mat besuitted scientist gives an unsolicited gynecological exam to an alien still troubles me (around the 3:30 mark), and Verhoeven also directed the only movie I genuinely wish I could un-see: Flesh and Blood. Even Ladyhawke had some moments I didn’t loathe—not so with Flesh and Blood, which made me actively wish I had never been born so I would not have then grown up into a person who was watching Flesh and Blood. Christ. BUT N-E-WAYZ Paul Verhoeven also directed Total Recall, which is pretty awesome, and Jesse assured me that RoboCop was more in the TR mold than F&B. . . even though he also mentioned that it was “a movie that would probably make me hate everything.” With that sort of endorsement, what could go wrong?

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Wary. Verhoeven’s mean-spirited, bleak view of humanity has depressed Molly before, and though the pleasure I take in Molly’s reactions to some of these turkeys may appear to be sadistic, I don’t actually like making her unhappy—at least not in the way that Paul Verhoeven makes her unhappy. For one thing, it’s hard to tell if he’s misogynistic or simply nihilistic to the point of hating everyone regardless of their gender. His tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator while simultaneously mocking said denominator for being so low and common is something that puts as many people off as it wins over, and though I enjoy a good-natured torture session along the lines of a Yor: The Hunter from the Future or a Beastmaster I’m not so keen on making her genuinely miserable with the screenings I select.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Man, was I ever surprised by RoboCop! It’s really good! Who knew, besides everybody but me?

Jesse’s review pretty much encapsulates my feelings on the film, but I have to say, I was impressed for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I was amazed by the ridiculous amount of violence of the film—wowza. I mean, I’ve seen enough movies to know something bad was going to happen to the dude who trained the gun on the ED-209, but I was surprised by the sheer number of bullets pumped into that poor bastard. Same goes for the scene where the dad from That 70s Show and his assorted thugs kill Murphy—that shotgun blast to the hand was pretty agonizing to watch, as was the rest of that scene. And oh god oh god where the ginger-bearded bad guy drives a truck into a silo of toxic waste and survives long enough to melt and wheeze in a completely nauseating manner. . . I am going to stop thinking about that right now.

I was also impressed by how merciless and accurate the depiction of a privatized future America was, too. Interestingly enough, Jesse and I watched this the night of the overwhelmingly depressing mid-term elections, as America was voting tea baggers and other sundry assholes into office. Though it feels ridiculous to even type the words, I’mma say it: RoboCop hit a little too close to home for me that night. The fact that an overwrought parable like RoboCop (fucking RoboCop, man) made me so uneasy is both a testament to the state of America in 2010 as well as the overall quality screenwriting and directing of the film.

It’s obvious that the team that brought RoboCop to fruition love their dystopian novels about the dangers of capitalism and what treating people as commodities does to the world, and were intelligent enough to update the old warhorse of Brave New World into relevance. The early shout-out to Henry Ford Hospital pleased me immensely, but then later when a Lee Iacocca Elementary School is referenced. . . that’s brilliant. It’s those little flourishes—as well as updating the shiny bright nobody-has-feelings-but-at-least-they-have-bread-and-circuses of BNW into the more reasonable if ickier future of environmental pollution, lowered standards of living for disposable segments of the population, and general public despair and dilapidation as the rich get richer—that make RoboCop a much better film than Verhoeven’s Total Recall, which I felt had a smart movie lurking somewhere inside of it. Alas, with Arnold in the lead, couldn’t really rise above anything more than him shooting Sharon Stone and saying “considaaah this a divorce” or whatever the fuck happens in that moment. RoboCop, by contrast, is much smarter, much more pointed in its critiques, much better.

In the end, RoboCop is a really weird movie, and watching it for the first time at age 29 is a pretty weird experience, too. I do wonder what I would have thought of it had I seen it at a significantly younger age. I don’t think I would have been able to handle it as a child at all. . . I mean, I had nightmares for quite literally weeks after watching the tequila- and monster-fueled rape scene in Poltergeist II. In high school I probably would’ve resisted the core message of the film due to my objectivist leanings at the time (or re-framed it into a parable about how Man’s Greatness Shines Through and blamed the corruptness of the individual corporate bad guys instead of capitalism as a system). In college I. . . I dunno. Might have become enraged, as that was my default mode? Probably. But as a seasoned adult (or something) I must say: RoboCop is a damn fine movie.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Hey, very nice! And by very nice I mean incredibly dark and nihilistic and devoid of any sort of catharsis, but by Verhoeven standards this is positively charming. I pretty much agree with Molly’s take on his work in general and this film in particular, although I’m perhaps less turned off by the filmmaker’s unrelenting pessimism.

Verhoeven may be subtle as sledgehammer, but he’s also archly subversive, and certain scenes carry far more weight and gravitas than one would expect from an action movie about a robotic police officer. When RoboCop/Murphy and his partner Lewis are all kinds of fucked up following the penultimate shoot-out and lie bleeding to death in a lake of polluted sludge, Robo reassures Lewis that OCP, the corrupt corporation responsible for the events of the film, “will fix everything. They fix everything.” Murphy may have rediscovered his humanity but he’s still a literal tool of OCP, and though all the Hollywood villains are dispatched by the time the credits roll nothing has really changed—the status quo has been protected, and OCP can continue with business as usual.

For being a movie about a moralistic cyborg cop cleaning up corruption, RoboCop studiously avoids buying into the chest-thumping and flag-waving of most 80s action movies. On the contrary, part of what makes it such a fascinating film is how Verhoeven rejects these conventions of the genre and instead fashions a cautionary tale of the dangers of unfettered capitalism—the privatization of the public sector is nothing short of catastrophic in Verhoeven’s universe, and has led to tv addiction, public apathy, desensitization to violence, environmental collapse, and general misery for the majority of the population. That Verhoeven’s film satirizing America’s desensitization to violence was so bloody its initial cut was rated X plays into what we were talking about earlier regarding the director’s tendency to simultaneously give the audience what they want even as he mocks them for enjoying it. He may be a nasty man with a mean sense of humor and utter contempt for humanity, but at least he’s interesting.

High Points: All the weird Korean commercials it spawned. The effects, which hold up incredibly well and kick the shit out of most CGI nonsense. That such a nihilistic “hey, fuck you dumb Americans” movie spawned a stereotypically American kid-friendly franchise complete with toned-down sequels, action figures, video games, comic books, and cartoons. The mingling of ultra-violence with blacker-than-the-chambers-of-a-dead-nun’s-heart humor, such as this early scene:

Final Verdict: Pretty awesome.

Next Time: We continue Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with Total Recall.