Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 action/sci-fi classic RoboCop is not just a hilarious satirical masterclass, a special-effects showcase replete with religious symbolism (RoboCop is Jesus!), or one of the best action films ever made. It absolutely is all of these things, but it’s also a study on identity and what it means to be human, and what better way to explore such a complex subject than in a film that features a shoot-out in a cocaine factory?
To explore how RoboCop does this it’s beneficial to consider phenomenology. Phenomenology is the philosophical study of how the human experience and consciousness is shaped by phenomena (any existing thing, “something that exists and can be seen, felt, tasted, etc” (Cambridge dictionary definition)). How does this apply to film, and especially, how does it apply to RoboCop? There are many avenues of phenomenological exploration in film:
“the emphasis can either lie on the film-as-intentional-object or the viewer-as-experiencing-subject. Moreover, one can distinguish various degrees of generality and specificity: from a general description of the experience of film as such (Harald Stadler, Vivian Sobchack) to an investigation of very specific aspects that we experience when watching films. Think of the lived body experience of senses like touch (Laura Marks, Jennifer Barker) or smell (Vivian Sobchack), the spatial experience of video images (Steve Lipkin) or depth in film (Trevor Elkington), the temporal experience of documentary films (Malin Wahlberg) or slow cinema (Jakob Boer), the collective experience of the cinema auditorium (Julian Hanich) or the aesthetic experience of film worlds (Daniel Yacavone).” (Ferenc-Flatz & Hanich, What Is Film Phenomenology?)
German philosopher Edmund Husserl describes phenomenology as “the reflective study of the essence of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.” (Smith 2007), and if we consider the “first-person point of view” to be that of the camera, we can see how it can be imagined that a film is something that actively perceives phenomena, as well as consider the viewer’s experience of what the camera shows them, and how it is presented. In The Film and the New Psychology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about how films are constructed in a precise way which elicits a particular response from the viewer, a rhythmic amalgamation of sound and image, “the ensemble tells us something very precise which is neither a thought nor a reminder of sentiments we have felt in our own lives.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964 pg. 56). In the most simple terms, film can make us feel.
But what does this have to do with RoboCop? We can compare two scenes to get an idea of the different ways film can make us feel, both in emotionally (laughter, sadness, anger, etc) and physically (discomfort, pain, etc). In both the ED-209 boardroom scene and Murphy (Peter Weller)’s death at the hands of Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and friends we witness the gruesome and bloody murder of a man, but the audience response to each is entirely different. In the boardroom, newly designed enforcement droid ED-209 malfunctions while being demonstrated and shoots an executive named Kinney to death. The tragedy is brushed off as a “glitch”, and the atmosphere in the room is one of annoyance due to money lost in developing a malfunctioning product rather than horror at the needless loss of human life, with the violence being so excessive that it ventures into the cartoonish. The audience doesn’t feel any tragedy or horror, only a satirical jab at corporate America, entirely down to what we are shown and the tone that is set by how it is shown to us. When we watch Murphy’s death scene, we come away with an entirely different feeling. It’s uncomfortable, it’s horrifying, and there’s a much greater feeling of pain and tragedy. What we see, what we hear and the way see and hear it creates an entirely different tone, and creates an entirely different feeling. When Clarence brings Murphy to his knees by striking him with his shotgun, there’s a close-up of the impact and an accompanying meaty thud to drive home the force for the audience. Clarence toys with Murphy, taking his time and revelling in his torture of him, the camera lingering as Clarence slowly aims his shotgun at different parts of Murphy’s body, the stoic yet faintly fearful eyes of Murphy contrasted with the joyful malice etched in Clarence’s face. When the shotgun blast obliterates Murphy’s hand there is a short shot of the impact, enough to see the devastation, before quickly cutting to Clarence and friends’ reaction of laughter. The criminals take glee in the violence they perpetrate against Murphy, and it serves to emphasise the cruelty and malice of the event. Much more time is devoted to Murphy’s experience of this violence compared to Kinney in the boardroom scene. We see Murphy cradle the ruined stump of his hand as he staggers in pain around the room before hearing his anguished screams when the rest of the criminals unleash volley after volley of shotgun blasts into him. The violence here, while still graphic and abundant, is much less excessive and gore-filled than Kinney’s obliteration, keeping the horror grounded in reality. We also see the shock and horror in Murphy’s partner Lewis (Nancy Allen)’s face as she witnesses the assault, unable to help. The difference in the depiction of and reaction to the violence in each of these scenes creates two entirely different feelings for the viewer, and when Clarence shoots Murphy in the head at the end of the sequence, “killing” him, the camera focuses on Murphy’s lifeless face and glassed over eyes, and it’s at this point that the film begins to explore what it means to be human.
As Murphy’s lifeless body is wheeled through a hospital corridor we witness the pronouncement of his death through Murphy’s POV. The tubes and harsh lights visible in the shot accompanied with the closeness of the men attempting to resuscitate Murphy create a claustrophobic and dire atmosphere. When the medical staff use the defibrillator on Murphy, we hear the jolt of electricity and cut to Murphy, eyes glazed and wide open, jolting along with it. The marriage of what we hear and what we see here magnifies the impact of it, creating an impression that the viewer can almost feel the shock themselves. Inserted in this sequence is a shot of Murphy’s wife and son standing outside his home, waving goodbye and smiling, and the camera pulls back from them at a rapid pace signifying the death of what makes Murphy human; his memories, emotions and personality. The medical staff verify Murphy’s death, the screen fades to black, a moment of stillness, and then the film seems to boot up like a computer, the POV now noticeably different. There seems to be an overlay with scan-lines and green text, like a computer system. It is through this difference that the change from Murphy to RoboCop is evident. We see engineers testing his vision, hearing, and other capabilities and see these functions represented graphically on screen such as soundwaves modulating what he is hearing, and a textual representation of the “program” that is being used, e.g. “Voice/Stress”. All of this serves to emphasise the now mechanical nature of our protagonist and his change from Murphy to RoboCop, but also allows the audience to feel the life in these interactions as we experience them in the same way that RoboCop would, all from his POV, which somewhat paradoxically makes him seem somewhat more alive and present for the audience, rather than just the object or property that Omni Consumer Products now views him as.
The film continues in this way, with various scenes establishing RoboCop as different from the usual police officer, with shots of his robotic and unnatural way of walking and accompanying mechanical sounds of his limbs and joints moving, the shooting range scene showing the difference in his weaponry and capabilities, and a series of scenes showing RoboCop thwarting crimes in his own, somewhat impersonal style. At this stage of the film, it seems RoboCop has lost his humanity with even his voice seeming more robotic in pitch, tone and delivery. He seems not much more than a machine designed to fight crime, only stopping to recharge in a specially constructed chair and consume a nutrient paste (‘It tastes like baby food!’). Even at this stage however traces of Murphy still remain, such as the signature spin of his pistol before holstering it, in some of the phrases he uses and in his style of driving, but these seem buried deep in whatever subconscious that still remains in the brain contained within RoboCop. His old partner on the force Lewis (Nancy Allen) recognises these behaviours and comes to believe Murphy is still alive through RoboCop.
RoboCop begins to experiences memories of his previous life as Murphy, including something of a nightmare replaying his death at the hands of Clarence & co, and becomes fully aware of his previous life as Murphy after an encounter at a petrol station with Emil (Paul McCrane), who was one of the thugs involved in Murphy’s murder. RoboCop comes across Emil in the midst of an armed robbery and proclaims ‘Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.’ in much the same manner as Murphy did when he came across Emil and friends in the steel mill before his murder. Emil reacts in shock exclaiming ‘We killed you!’, before causing a fire and explosion at the petrol station. We see RoboCop react to Emil, frozen by the revelation, and feel his shock and burgeoning understanding. This is played against the replay of Emil’s exclamation through RoboCop’s memory, which plays to the audience through POV in a mechanical way with the overlay of scanlines and a “playback” caption. RoboCop subdues and arrests Emil, then finds information on Emil’s associates and suspected crimes through the police database, accessed mechanically with a spike built into his hand.
This leads RoboCop to visiting the address listed for Murphy, his old home, and this sequence definitively blurs the lines between Murphy and RoboCop through its use of POV and choice of shots to convey memory and flashback. As RoboCop walks through the now empty and for-sale house Murphy lived in with his wife and son not so long ago, there are various flashbacks, and it is how these flashbacks are presented that effects the impression the audience gets about who is remembering. What is most important is that first, RoboCop surveys the scene in the usual POV style we have come to associate with him; with overlay scanlines and green text as if on a computer screen. There is a burst of static and the scene changes to signify that this is now a memory of Murphy. The POV during the memories is devoid of the signifiers we have come to associate with RoboCop, the scanlines and green text are now gone. This is important because we have already been shown how RoboCop remembers things, he literally plays them back in his head using his operating system, but when RoboCop’s memories begin to manifest in the house this is all gone, it’s organic and much more natural than mechanical. This signifies we are seeing Murphy’s memory, and that Murphy is slowly becoming a greater part of RoboCop. If Murphy’s memories are RoboCop’s memories too, then it stands to reason that Murphy and RoboCop are one and the same.
All of this leads to a quest for justice for RoboCop, seeking to punish those who were responsible for Murphy’s death. This results in the aforementioned shoot-out in a cocaine factory where Clarence is arrested and puts RoboCop on the trail of Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), a senior executive at OCP responsible for much of the ills and crime inflicted on the people of Detroit, and in confronting Jones, RoboCop (and the audience) is served a stark reminder of his mechanical nature and the restraints that represents. When RoboCop attempts to place Jones under arrest, a hitherto classified directive in RoboCop’s programming makes itself known, stating RoboCop is unable to arrest any senior OCP staff, and attempting to violate it sends RoboCop’s systems haywire. We see this through RoboCop’s POV, the word’s “Product Violation” flashing in green text on the screen and bursts of static affecting the video feed of RoboCop’s vision as Jones explains ‘We can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?’. Another OCP ‘product’ ED-209 is called in to finish RoboCop off, but RoboCop manages to escape, heavily damaged, and is rescued and taken to an abandoned steel mill by Lewis to recover.
It’s at the steel mill that we first see RoboCop without his helmet, and the construction of the shot where we first see how he looks reveals multiple layers. The shot focuses on Lewis holding up a sheet of metal as a mirror for RoboCop which we can see his reflection in, and also shows the back of RoboCop’s head and part of his shoulder, slightly out of focus on the far left of the frame. So here we are seeing Lewis’s sombre but muted first impression of her old partner’s new look alongside RoboCop’s himself seeing it for the first time, as well as seeing what human elements remain of RoboCop ourselves as an audience. The distorted reflection itself helps to highlight the blurring of the lines between man and machine, and reflects the doubt and struggle RoboCop is himself having about his identity as Murphy.
RoboCop chooses to leave his helmet off for the remainder of the film, and it is in this manner that he bursts in to the OCP board-room in the final scene of the film to once again confront Dick Jones. He lays out Jones’ charges in front of OCP chairman the Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy) and explains he is unable to act against an OCP executive due to his programming. RoboCop presents his proof using the data-spike in his hand to playback a video of Jones admitting to the murder of another executive, and Jones reacts by taking the Old Man hostage at gun point and making demands. All the while, there are shots of RoboCop’s POV throughout the sequence, with “Directive 4” flashing in green text to highlight the mechanical restriction against his free will to act. Jones is fired by the Old Man and we see the green text disappear, RoboCop thanks the Old Man and, in true RoboCop fashion, riddles Jones full of holes and sends him through the high-rise window to fall to his death. The film ends as the Old Man asks for RoboCop’s name, who replies ‘Murphy’ with a smile and the film cuts to credits.
This is why I love RoboCop. Not only for it’s glorious action set-pieces, suitably slimy and irredeemable villains, dark sense of humour or hilarious satirical elements, but also because it is, rather unbelievably, a potent and stirring philosophical study on identity and what makes us human. The film shows us Murphy, then shows us RoboCop, and finally shows us how the two are one. The fact that it explores all this us while also featuring a shoot-out in a cocaine factory, a Toxic-Waste Man, a robot falling down the stairs and about two tonnes of broken glass is just a bonus.