Editor’s Note: Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of RoboCop (1987). Feel free to share your memories of this film in the comments section below.
The summer of 1987 was a scorcher, but Americans hardly seemed to notice. There had been so much deadly winter weather earlier in the year, nor’easters and blizzards and a freakish April snowstorm in the Appalachians, that the country seemed almost glad of the heat when it came. Sure, the New York Times had reported that the 1980s were on their way to becoming the hottest decade on record, and thousands had died in Greece in a terrifying heat wave, but no one in the U.S. seemed to take much notice.
RoboCop, a dark political and cultural satire and director Paul Verhoeven’s first American film, was released in the middle of a summer no one knew was a harbinger of things to come. Filled with arid, empty urban landscapes covered in dust and rust and decay, the disintegrating Detroit of the film, thirty years on, less resembles a grim wasteland of obsolescence than the direct result of a drastic change in the weather. No one was talking about global warming at the time — that would come a year later when a second hot, record-setting summer finally grabbed America’s attention — but RoboCop, its scenes filmed in the sizzling Texas sun and in the blast furnace of an abandoned factory in Pittsburgh, sure as hell had heat on its mind.
There’s more to RoboCop’s desolate landscapes and now-beloved satirical commercials for the gas-guzzling 6000 SUX than commentary on the environment, of course. RoboCop is an old-fashioned American Western deep in its bones, a tale of violence and retribution, the journey of a lone gunslinger through a land that is rapidly becoming unrecognizable. This time, the gunslinger is a mostly dead Detroit police officer named Murphy (Peter Weller), whose body, or at least some of it, was saved to be used as the prototype for an experimental law enforcement cyborg unit. The only problem — and it is indeed a problem — is that Murphy’s mind was accidentally saved as well. Soon he’s dreaming of his own death and out to slaughter everyone responsible for the loss of a past he can no longer remember.
It’s the knowledge of his fully human past that starts the half-human RoboCop on his descent into hell, a descent portrayed so literally that when he finally recovers a photo of his young son, it’s half burnt and the boy is dressed as Old Nick himself, pitchfork and all. But Murphy was already in hell before his unceremonious demise at the hands of Clarence Boddicker (a magnificent Kurtwood Smith); in fact, precisely 56 seconds elapse between Murphy arriving at his new precinct and his colleague Manson saying, without a hint of irony, “Welcome to hell.”
The urban underworld of Detroit isn’t just an infernal wasteland, it’s often just straight up on fire. There are no children and no animals, not even pigeons or rats, just corporate art featuring black birds and vague mammalian shapes with long, sharp horns. More trees are seen painted in murals in drug dens than in the city proper, and people, if they gather at all, only do so to riot or to watch people die.
There’s a great little moment during the scene where RoboCop finally realizes that he existed in some form before becoming a cyborg. Emil (Paul McCrane), one of Boddicker’s henchmen, is hassling a Shell station attendant who’s just trying to study for an upcoming geometry exam. Emil taunts the guy for wanting to learn, yet moments later accidentally informs Murphy of his past. And what is the end result of all this knowledge flying around? A spectacular gasoline explosion, enormous clouds of orange-red flame shooting into the night, the kind of practical effect you just don’t get in movies anymore. When the gas station goes up, look closely at the Shell sign behind RoboCop: the “S” has been rigged to blow up, leaving behind HELL in big, red, two-foot-tall letters.
It’s not subtle, but nothing in RoboCop is. Verhoeven has said that RoboCop is the resurrection of a modern-day “American Jesus,” and maybe he is, at least to Verhoeven, though one could argue that the fantastic economy of storytelling here works precisely because it allows for so many interpretations, even the slightly wackier ones. RoboCop is most definitely a nod to American pop and pulp culture with its cheerful borrowing of plenty of B horror and sci-fi, everything from Night of the Comet (1984) to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) to The Dunwich Horror (1970), which uses a similar SHELL/HELL visual pun, and probably wasn’t even the first to do so.
Regardless of whether RoboCop is the messiah or an abomination of science or a chilling portent of things to come, what’s certain is that the film documents this human-machine hybrid’s descent into the worst kind of hell: the acceptance of the unacceptable. His death, rebirth, and quest for knowledge followed by thirst for revenge is Murphy’s own personal hell within the greater nightmare of Detroit, just one city in the midst of an entire world choking on war, disease and destruction.
And in the center of these rings of madness is a an unquestioned resignation to the monstrous things that have been done to humans by other humans. This is most obvious in the fact that no one is really surprised that Murphy has been turned into a cyborg, not even his former partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), who figures out who RoboCop really is within two minutes of first seeing him. Murphy himself never says a thing about what has been done to his body, not even when he removes 10-inch screws from his skull; how much more screwed can a person even be?
Much is made of what RoboCop successfully predicted by way of corporatism and corruption, but what it really, truly understood was our infinite capacity to destroy and dehumanize, and yet still be so weak as to accept hell on earth as inevitable. By the gruesome finale, robo-Murphy is smiling, satisfied with a job well done, ready to go live his life as the best nightmare-plagued, head-screwed cyborg cop he can possibly be. He’s accepted what should be unacceptable, and that’s his happy ending. And here, three decades after the release of this grim dystopian satire, it’s our happy ending, too.