Notes on a Prophetic Film: Robocop (1987)


Having seen the 2014 remake before the original Robocop (1987), I was anxious to find out why some reviewers are so adamant that the earlier version is vastly superior. Of course, that is often the case for movie remakes, and I never cease to be amazed when directors take it upon themselves to attempt to improve upon already excellent films, given that they are essentially setting themselves up for critical failure. As for Robocop, I myself find that both the 1987 and the 2014 version are worth watching and have distinct virtues, offering as they do slightly different takes on the militarization and automation of policing currently underway in the real world.

What is remarkable about the original Robocop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is that it portrays as science fiction what has largely come to pass in reality. The Drone Age was well underway by 2014, but in 1987, people weren’t even using the internet, much less signing up to become remote-control assassins under the aegis of the US military. In 2014, robotic technology, mass surveillance and the use of facial recognition programs to pinpoint the location of suspects were also a matter of common knowledge. At the time of the release of the first Robocop, in contrast, such capacities were known about only by those privy to the arcane activities of DARPA’s inner sanctum. And of course readers of science fiction, from which many of the latest and most lethal innovations may ultimately derive, given that there appear to be intelligence community analysts whose job it is to read everything that has ever been published (as in Three Days of the Condor).

The popular success of both versions of Robocop is most likely due to the fact that, on the most obvious level, they are clear-cut examples of the action genre, featuring easily identifiable heroes and villains, and showcasing the typical Manichean quest between good and evil, highly embellished with fighting and killing and bloodshed and car crashes all along the way. In the 1987 version, we are to sympathize with Alex Murphy, the good cop, and his spunky female sidekick, Anne Lewis, because they are obviously good people who want nothing more than to stop crime and track down the perpetrators of past transgressions so that they can be thrown into prison where they so clearly belong. But what makes both of these films much more than typical (and forgettable) action flicks is the presentation in each of a complex network of corruption, which includes not only the lawless lowlife scoundrels out in the streets but also the white collar establishment in cahoots with organized crime. For the philosophically inclined, these films also raise many questions about the moral status of human beings and the nature of personhood.


Thefts and homicides have spiraled out of control in old Detroit, and the city management has decided to privatize and revolutionize the police force, by replacing many human officers with robotic surrogates. Such an idea may have seemed farfetched throughout much of the twentieth century, but that this should eventually come to pass seems today rather predictable for some of the very same reasons that automation is causing the disappearance of many other professions. You can be replaced by a machine is no longer a humorous trope but a literal truth, at least insofar as vocations are concerned. In the relentless quest to cut costs in order to grow profit margins, the most expensive element in corporate networks remains the human factor. What company executive beholden to stockholders wants to foot the bill for health and retirement benefits, sick and maternity leave, and annual vacations, plus satisfy all of the other annoying demands made by human employees? More importantly, why do any of those things, if they can be altogether avoided? You can and will be replaced by a machine. It’s only a matter of time…

Somewhat ironically, developers of artificial intelligence have been working overtime to see to it that many if not most professions (theirs included!) can be better and more efficiently carried out by machines using automated processes. How the people formerly employed in those professions will be able to afford to live remains to be seen. Optimists maintain that with new technologies will come new industries, but it is becoming less and less clear how hordes of delivery persons and bus and taxi drivers (and Uber drivers who became the equivalent of taxi drivers for lack of better opportunities) will find gainful employment in the not-too-distant future, as automatic vehicles take over the streets and drones hover above in the sky. There’s also the poignant story of the employees of the already ailing brick-and-mortar retail sector, who were revealed to be next in line for unemployment by the recent Amazon-Go experiment. Yes, a handful of managers and administrators will always be needed, but where will all the workers go? These sorts of concerns appear to have reinvigorated the “universal basic income” movement, but that’s another story.


In Robocop, order will need somehow to be maintained in Delta City as it is constructed from the scrappy remains of destitute Detroit by a huge influx of workers. With these new residents on their way, the city administrators have turned crime management over to a private company, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), an Amazon-meets-Halliburton-meets-Blackwaterlike entity, which will be supplementing the police force with robots. The plan is touted by its marketers as a stroke of genius, for robots, unlike human beings, never suffer fatigue, succumb to emotions, or waver from their mission (well, except in 2001: A Space Odyssey).


ED209Unfortunately, the very first fully robotic police officer template, the ED-209 enforcement droid, malfunctions during its unveiling demonstration at a board meeting, brutally slaughtering one of the company employees. The CEO waves off the incident as a “glitch”, and one of his underlings avails himself of this propitious opportunity to pitch to the president a different sort of prototype, a cyborg, which he was enlisted to develop as a back-up plan because of the looming delivery deadline ahead.

The cyborg is created from the remains of Officer Murphy, whose body was mutilated beyond repair by a gang of thugs, though his brain was still salvageable. The brain of this human being is reprogrammed and enhanced as a synchable computer before being attached to a robotic body. This cyborg “officer” is conceived by its creators not as a person but as a product. Despite having Murphy’s brain, Robocop is regarded by company executives as a machine to do with as they please. (This point is underscored by the fact that the manager in charge, upon learning that one of Murphy’s arms was saved, orders that it be replaced by a prosthetic limb, so that all of Robocop’s body parts will be fully robotic.) Murphy was pronounced dead, so no one not involved in the project has any idea, at least not initially, that Robocop is anything but a machine.

Robocop1987posterAnother glitch arises with this new prototype, however, for Murphy’s brain was not wiped clean of all memories. He awakens abruptly from a dream in which he has accessed images of the scoundrels who viciously attacked him and left him for dead. Murphy goes rogue and sets out for revenge, which is really a quest for justice in this Manichean tale, since he has been wronged and the scoundrels are indeed guilty of heinous crimes. Along the way, Robocop/Officer Murphy discovers that not all of the apparently “good guys” involved in law enforcement are good guys. Dick Jones, the CEO of OCP, is in fact protecting Murphy’s own murderer, Clarence Boddicker, who is the leader of a sprawling underworld criminal gang responsible for the deaths of many Detroit police officers.


The Drone Angle

There is no point in relaying the bloody details of this hyperviolent film, which includes all of the standard fare sought by amateurs of the action movie genre, including fight scenes, crash scenes, explosions, shoot-outs, etc. I would like, instead, to point out two features pertinent to the Drone Age which may not have seemed salient to most viewers, whether they watched the film upon its release (long before the dawning of the Drone Age) or more recently.

First off, the idea that criminals should be executed rather than captured and made to stand trial for their alleged infractions is simply assumed in scenes such as the bust up of a large illicit drug laboratory. Murphy is on a personal quest to hunt down Clarence Boddicker and his crew, but along the way, he slaughters countless individuals who happen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The assumption, of course, is that all of the people being executed by Murphy are “bad guys”. It is worth pointing out, however, that, because Robocop Murphy is not vulnerable to harm from any of the criminals wielding ordinary firearms, it is never an act of self-defense when he fires directly upon them with the express intention of killing them. These people cannot actually harm him, yet he executes them nonetheless.

This manifestation of what I call “lethal creep” is interesting to see in a film from 1987, for it presaged what is happening in the Drone Age on “battlefields” designated as such by those who run the drone program outside areas of active hostilities. People located thousands of miles away and who have no capacity whatsoever to harm the personnel targeting them are being slaughtered under the assumption that they are guilty of whatever a group of analysts have concluded through secretive deliberations that they may have done or, more preposterously, are possibly planning to do.

Thousands of other young, mostly Muslim, men outside areas of active hostilities have also been killed by the US government with absolute impunity for their apparent association with—or proximity to—persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. The danger of such an idea, that suspicious persons and their associates, all of whom are incapable of harming their eventual killers, should be annihilated nonetheless, because it is thought by someone somewhere that the world will be better without them, leaves the question of who may live and who deserves to die entirely to the discretion of those managing the remote-control killers. Under cover of State Secrets Privilege, all “nominations” to kill lists are carried out behind closed doors.


In Robocop, the viewer knows that Boddicker’s gang of degenerates have already murdered many people and can be expected to murder many more, if they are not stopped. But the assumption in killing, not only those gang members, but also everyone else present at the drug laboratory (many of whom are probably not murderers), is that homicide is a perfectly reasonable way to prevent future crime. The Robocop police officer is wiping out all of these suspects not because they pose any immediate danger to anyone, least of all to him—built as he is of Kevlar-coated titanium—but simply because he can. We Kill Because We Can.

The parallel to the drone strike case is worth making a bit more explicit. When hellfire missiles miss their intended targets, killing innocent civilians instead of the persons suspected of complicity in terrorism (sometimes past, but usually future), the deaths are written off as “collateral damage”. In regular combat warfare, the deaths of innocent people are said to be regrettable but unavoidable, given present military exigencies. In the case of drone warfare outside areas of active hostilities, where force protection is not at issue, the same logic is nonetheless assumed to hold: that this “collateral damage” is unavoidable. But just as Officer Murphy is not killing in literal self-defense adversaries armed only with regular guns, there is no analogous military necessity at the time of drone strike deaths outside areas of active hostilities, for there are no soldiers on the ground requiring protection by the drone. This slippery slope of redefining assassination as targeted killing in order to permit “collateral damage” outside areas of active hostilities has made the US killing machine far more lethal than it would have been, were the use of military force restricted to regular war contexts.

Remarkably, Robocop succeeds in conveying a second, and equally frightening danger inherent to the drone program. For the inevitable presence of corrupt elements in the establishment (given human nature) itself implies that these tools of summary execution, whether drones or droids, can be used to rout out not only persons likely to commit murder in the future, but also those who pose a very different kind of danger, and only to those in power. Whistleblowers working within these systems can be facilely eliminated using this technology, given its associated culture of secrecy and lack of transparency and due process, as can outsiders who dare to pose questions about what those in power are doing.

The lethal turn occasioned by the Drone Age, the quest to kill as many suspects as possible in order to prove to lawmakers and the populace that they are being kept safe, will eventually come back to haunt citizens, at least any who dare to pose uncomfortable questions or to expose graft within their own society’s government. None of this bodes well for the future of democracy, and Robocop (1987) is prophetic for having pointed out the potential for such abuses.