Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi experiments are routinely revisited by fans all over the world, with films such as Total Recall and Hollow Man maintaining a steady cult following over the years. However, none of Verhoeven’s subsequent projects have surpassed the brilliance and the sociopolitical scope of his 1987 masterpiece RoboCop.
While it’s easy to pigeonhole action flicks based on genre frameworks, RoboCop has survived the test of time because it transcends those limitations. It feels as urgent to modern viewers as it died to audiences when it came out 35 years ago, offering a gripping cyborg thriller while also delivering an incisive commentary on the formation of police states.
Set in a futuristic Detroit where crime and corruption dictate the societal conventions, the film focuses on the journey of a recently transferred police officer named Murphy (Peter Weller) whose body is mutilated by a gang of criminals who are backed by powerful figures. Thanks to the progress of technology, he is resurrected as the titular cyborg policeman who is the ultimate combatant against crime in Detroit.
For those who watched RoboCop when they were children, it might have come across as a loud and dumb, all-guns-blazing flick but Verhoeven’s films are always intelligent. He exaggerates the on-screen violence to such an extent that everything becomes hilarious, especially that special scene where a “smart” robot perforates a company executive.
From a battle droid struggling with a flight of stairs to tackling environmental themes shown through a criminal melting in toxic waste, RoboCop has everything. In an interview, Verhoeven even claimed that the film is a Biblical allegory where a cyborg policeman is the future embodiment of an American Jesus.
Verhoeven explained: “I started to look at the movie in those terms – and I’m not a Christian. It was one of the reasons I have RoboCop walking over water when he kills Clarence Boddicker, the bad guy, at the end. I felt he was like the American Jesus – whereas Boddicker is evil personified. We even gave Boddicker glasses so he looked a bit like Heinrich Himmler – to indicate that he is ultra-evil.”
Like other ’80s classics such as Blade Runner, RoboCop also grapples with post-humanism while anticipating a future where the physical union of technology and humanity is inevitable. The bio-engineered transformation of Murphy into RoboCop invokes the age-old philosophical paradox of the Ship of Theseus – urging the audience to figure out whether there was a human underneath all that shiny metal.
Through the story of a robot who dreams and has memories, Verhoeven navigates the wasteland of a morally and politically corrupt America. Combining solemn moments of apprehension about the future of our civilisation with satirical vignettes which tear apart the maniacal American fantasies, this film is essential cyberpunk art.
RoboCop is a damning indictment of America’s obsession with techno-fascism and a police force that is religiously militarised. Given the current discourse surrounding police brutality and authoritarian control in the US, it is tragic to state that Verhoeven’s masterpiece is more relevant than it has ever been.