The 1987 film RoboCop is the ultra-graphic representation of a cyborg police officer in a dystopian “Old Detroit.” The police force of Old Detroit is controlled by Omni Consumer Products who’ve contracted to run the police department.
We are introduced to Old Detroit as crime ridden, with police officers loosing a war with criminals in the city. While campy and somewhat ridiculous in it’s portrayal of police tactics and weapons handling, RoboCop reveals a number of problems facing the modern police officer.
Dick Jones represents the institutional blight upon policing. He and the other corporate characters remind the viewer that, at the end of the day, police services are a product that is consumed by the public. Using these corporate actors the movie foreshadows a dark future for modern policing. With that ominous tone, Jones introduces ED-209, the Enforcement Droid.
When Jones unveils ED-209 at a board meeting, things don’t go as planned. ED-209’s menace is obvious with it’s robot voice and weaponry. During the demonstration portion of the meeting ED-209 malfunctions and engages an executive in the meeting with it’s autocannons. The executive, Mr Kinney, is reduced to a bloody heap not even worth an attempt at first aid.
ED-209 is a physical manifestation of the inhumanity of bureaucracy and policy. The Enforcement Droid doesn’t feel remorse after it obliterates the executive, just as it doesn’t know the difference between an exercise and real enforcement. ED-209 just follows programming, even when that programming is bad.
It is clear after Kinney’s death that to Jones people are just assets to be consumed in his quest for power.
Alex Murphy is the fresh face at the Metro West Police Precinct. Murphy represents the rookie cop, not that he’s presented as a rookie in the film. When we are introduced to Murphy we find him dressed in civilian clothes, just moving precincts from Metro South.
Metro West establishes itself as the most violent precinct in the city. Officer Manson quips as Murphy goes to get dressed “Welcome to hell.”
Murphy is motivated to catch criminals. Eventually Murphy and his partner Lewis catch up with crime boss Clarence Boddicker and his gang after some type of bank heist. The underfunded, undermanned department is unable to supply backup, and Murphy determines to apprehend the crew despite being out manned and out gunned. Murphy and Lewis follow the gang to an abandoned steel mill. Murphy is eventually surrounded and killed.
Crime boss, Clarence Boddicker, represents not only the problem of crime in society, but something more that we find out later. He kills at will and is responsible for the deaths of many police officers. When Murphy attempts to apprehend Boddicker, Clarence tortures him shooting him repeatedly and finally finishes him off with a shot to the head.
Murphy’s death at the hands of criminals provides OCP with the opportunity they need to build RoboCop. Murphy’s death also represents the change that occurs in police officers as they deal with the realities of the job. Shaped by trauma, the fresh faced rookie goes away, and the veteran emerges.
When OCP builds RoboCop they use Murphy’s skills and body as a foundation to mount the tools to be an effective law enforcer. RoboCop’s visor prevents the audience from seeing his face, just as the uniform makes officer less unique. When RoboCop is integrated into the police department he is for the most part dehumanized.
RoboCop is intimidating, expertly wielding his pistol with inhuman precision. He manhandles thugs with ease and shrugs off gunfire. RoboCop is a stunningly effective crime fighter, but he doesn’t remember who he is or where he came from. This symbolically represents a police officers actual accession to competency as an officer. While officers become better crime fighters, the experiences they are subjected to change them. The experience of a police officer separates him from the uninitiated. Not only are officers changed by the job they are changed in a real and irreversible manner.
RoboCop’s titanium fiber composite armor symbolically represents the emotional armor a police officer dons to deal with the sad realities of police work.
The Prime Directives
RoboCop is programmed with four primary values. These values are reminiscent of departmental slogans, however they are meaningful and to the point, which is something slogans often miss.
1. Serve the public trust.
2. Protect the innocent.
3. Uphold the law.
The fourth directive is classified and unknown even to RoboCop himself.
A Pawn on a Chessboard
As RoboCop proceeds with his duties, he starts to remember glimpses of the past. RoboCop begins to go after the Boddicker gang. After a number of violent confrontations, RoboCop apprehends Boddicker. Clarence tells RoboCop that he also works for OCP, specifically Dick Jones.
When RoboCop attempts to arrest Jones he discovers the secret directive. RoboCop is incapable of arresting OCP leadership. This is reminiscent of an officers absence of authority to investigate corrupt politician and leaders. Because RoboCop has become awakened to the conspiracy, Jones sics ED-209 on RoboCop. ED-209’s return aligns with ED-209’s representation of bureaucracy, no doubt any officer attempting to expose corruption in leadership would be bombarded with creative policy violations and likely terminated for insubordination.
After a brief fight, RoboCop is left seriously damaged and ED-209 gets stuck on the stairs. Jones has contacted the police and RoboCop is confronted by a large police barricade.
The SWAT Team prepares to open fire, citing orders to destroy RoboCop. The patrol elements of the barricade refuse to participate. The SWAT Team opens fire, somewhere in here I’m sure there’s a Blue Falcon joke.
Lewis rescues RoboCop as he falls between levels in the parking garage where the confrontation occurs.
Destroyed by the job, abandoned and betrayed by the administration RoboCop has only one ally his true friend Anne Lewis. Anne has always known who RoboCop really is.
Lewis brings RoboCop to the industrial site where Murphy died. Symbolically revisiting the trauma that created RoboCop. Lewis produces a cordless powered screwdriver and begins working on RoboCop. Anne removes RoboCop’s visor exposing Murphy’s face.
Lewis and Murphy discuss all of the loss he incurred to become Robocop.
Murphy laments the loss of his family and humanity which he can feel but not remember.
The Return of Murphy
Murphy’s targeting and tracking are misaligned. Lewis helps Murphy recover his aim. This symbolically represents the improved clarity with which Murphy perceives the world. The two prepare for the hard work of taking down Boddicker and Jones.
Boddicker’s gang tracks Murphy to the steel mill. After bloody battle Lewis and Murphy emerge victorious. Murphy returns to OCP where he triumphantly dispatches ED-209 with a man portable cannon. Confrontation looms as Murphy enters the OCP boardmeeting. Murphy dramatically shows them all the evidence that Jones is engaged in corruption and murder.
Jones takes OCP’s owner, “The Old Man” hostage. In an apparent act of desperation The Old Man shouts “Dick you’re fired!”
Murphy fires a number of bursts into Jones, knocking him out of one of the skyscraper’s upper windows. Jones falls to his death. The Old Man complements the shooting and inquires of his rescuer’s name. The reply: “Murphy” as the hero regains his humanity to end the film.
What to make of this?
When analyzing this film the man vs machine trope is present. Certainly RoboCop demonstrates his ability to fight crime beyond that of a normal police officer. Beyond that we only see RoboCop reach his full potential as a hero when he regains his humanity and becomes Murphy again.
It is Murphy’s humanity that makes him a good police officer even after he’s transformed into RoboCop. There is a stark difference between him and ED-209. RoboCop shows compassion albeit subdued. He serves the interests of justice, doggedly pursuing Boddicker and his gang of violent sociopaths, which ultimately leads him to the actual crime boss, Dick Jones.
RoboCop is a film that is openly critical of the Criminal Justice system. It truly highlights the struggle of the average police officer; dealing with criminals and beholden to policy makers who have conflicts of interest and are vying for power without legitimate skin in the game.