Spoiler warning: In order to treat the gory Director’s Cut of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), I reveal some important plot twists and turns. Don’t read, if you intend to watch the movie for the first time.
As the remake of Robocop hits the cinemas, I thought I’d watch again the original, i.e. the gory Director’s Cut that has only been released recently. I use dialectics to analyse Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s mockery of capitalist society. And although dialectics have been developed by German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, and most prominently refined and applied by German economist, sociologist, philosopher and what have you Karl Marx, Verhoeven’s critique remains ultimately a liberal one. No revolution, please!
Robocop as synthesis
A short blog post can do no justice to the dialectical method. My use of it thus represents a tiny part of its applicability. Dialectics is a theoretical tool to capture some of the complexities of human existence. It aims to expose the inner contradictions of concepts. Importantly, it has nothing to do whatsoever with the Yin-Yang hocuspocus. The linchpin of dialectics is the trinity of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. This trinity is apparent from the very beginning, because, for example, the very figure of Robocop could be seen as a synthesis.
Alex Murphy is a highly integer Detroit cop and represents the thesis. The antithesis is the main villain Clarence Boddicker. He runs for the money and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about human life, be it that of a stranger or his own gang members. The catalyst that brings about the synthesis is the societal structure both operate in: Boddicker and his gang mutilate and kill Murphy when he and his partner Anne Lewis infiltrate their den. Since the Detroit police department is run by the private über-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) it has also the rights to Murphy’s corpse. In search for profit and as outcome of a power struggle between two of OCP’s executives, Murphy is reconstructed as Robocop. Without the violent and capitalistic social environment he just would have been just laid to rest; without people like Boddicker Robocop would not have come into existence, and without people like Murphy would not be seen as a deviation from acceptable behaviour.
What’s interesting is that Verhoeven expands the concept of the cyborg. Unlike The Terminator (1984) Verhoeven allows Robocop to have emotions, although, in a disturbingly ingenious twist – Robocop doesn’t know that these things inside him emotions. I interpret this as an allegory on Karl Marx’s Historical Materialism: the individual is shaped by exogenous, material circumstances, like corporate interest, but doesn’t really understand that this is the case. What happens seems just as history unfolding naturally. In such an environment agency is rather limited.
Violence as art
The movie itself flows like a brutal comic strip. The very first killing takes place in OCP’s boardroom by a prototype cyborg suffering from a glitch is quite graphic. This blood spill, however, opens the possibility of interpreting the movie as radical critique of corporate capitalism (film studios!!) and Verhoeven’s disgust for it. Interestingly, Verhoeven cares to explain why this outburst of violence has been necessary. It is juxtaposed with a discussion between Richard Jones, the executive in charge of the cyborg project, and the chairman of the board (referred to only as ‘the old man’), who exhibit a cannibalistic cynicism that is even more brutal than heavy rounds piercing one of their own.
Meanwhile, Alex Murphy and his partner, Anne Lewis, go after the Boddicker gang and manage to infiltrate their den. Unfortunately for Murphy, things go wrong and he gets humiliated, mutilated, and technically killed. This scene focusses heavily on fun the villains have doing the deed. It thus mocks the audience’s voyeurism and sadistic drive to connect violence and entertainment. Verhoeven, I think, succeeds here most congenial in using violence as medium of social critique, and as art form – something Tarantino is often praised for, but, frankly, I seldom succeeds.
The full circle and liberal turn
The movie starts out quite straightforward in the form of a typical superhero comic: bad villains, good cops, and terrified civilians. Yet, at around one hour into the movie the plot turns in an interesting way: Boddicker kills Robert Morton, the young CEO whose Robocop project kicked out his rivals’ one. Shortly afterwards it is revealed that he did so on behalf of that CEO. In his office they later talk candidly about the business of crime, and how it can be advanced, once construction of OCP’s mega-project, the construction of a new city from scratch, gets under way.
I am not sure whether Verhoeven weaved this turn in as an element of surprise, but I think that is not the point. He shows in any case how intensely crime and the economic system are interwoven. They are in a way one and the same thing. I saw this quite clear because it is so obvious here in Santiago, but is basically the same in any city. Selling drugs, for example, provides an income for many who’d otherwise live miserably in the street; it give youngsters a perspective, responsibility and the admiration of peers that comes with material gain – especially in a materialist society trained to idolize possession. Drugs, furthermore, provide for good weekend trips with which substantial (wealthy enough) parts of society can make themselves feel better and push aside the psychological injuries they sustain. Resulting crime drives up drives up the prices in other suburbs, since everyone who is able to would move to a better place and, most importantly, the fear of social descent that would be reflected in a forced move to such suburbs, keeps those prices afloat. The fear for crime provides further employment and income for security guards, receptionists (usually unskilled people, who otherwise would deal drugs or die in the street), cops, lawyers real estate developers and banks who extend mortgages. Not to mention the media, who turn street crime into entertainment and by framing it in high moral ways, make others feel better about their own misery. Again Marx comes to the fore: the wealth at one pole of society is matched by the misery at the other. Wealth and poverty as thesis and anti-thesis, synthesize into capitalist society. Such matters can be discerned in the rather short 10-15 minutes after Morton is killed.
Towards the finale Verhoeven takes a left-liberal turn and so shows that his movie is a Marxist critique in disguise only. Robocop and Lewis finish off Boddicker and his gang in an abandoned industrial site – a prophetic allegory of Detroit’s present status as industrial wasteland? Robocop then drives directly to OCP headquarters and storms into a board meeting. He finishes of Jones, who, as is clear by now, served as connection between crime and capitalism, took the chairman of the board hostage. ‘The old man’ thanks Robocop approvingly. The man-machine then walks away like a cowboy rides into the sunset in a western.
In this short scene Verhoeven finally admits that he never meant to question they socio-economic system. If Robocop were meant to be a revolutionary movie, Verhoeven would have allowed the cyborg to kill the entire board – at least! Yet, the old man approves of Robocop’s methods and the cop, on the other hand, let’s the board do whatever they do. Verhoeven moves from a revolutionary premise to a left-liberal critique, which Part II turns into an even harsher liberal-conservatism.
Conclusively, I would nevertheless maintain, that Verhoeven’s in Robocop applies masterfully the dialectical method to show how violence and the profit motive synthesize into corporate capitalism.
I recommend watching!