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RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven) 1987

    I never know quite how to approach a Paul Verhoeven movie, but I certainly don’t take the moral high road of some critics that reject his films outright as exploitative trash. I found plenty to like even in his perpetually lambasted, and criminally misunderstood Showgirls. There’s usually a level of satire present in his work: the question is usually whether or not we’re supposed to be laughing at what’s on screen. RoboCop, his first American feature, doesn’t vary much from his body of work in that respect. It’s an exceptionally gory and violent film (especially in the X rated cut), but somehow the more violence that the director shows, the less real it becomes. When its characters are pulverized to this degree, they stop functioning as characters, and become some sort of cartoon. The movie plays closer to a comic book than anything, although it seems to be a comic book that is read by someone who’s old enough to realize its inadequacies and contradictions, yet enjoy it anyway. If almost every scene didn’t work, I would be tempted to call it overblown. Because it’s so obvious that nothing is really real here (though it’s always played with a straight face – except for a few intrusive mock-commercials), the director is freed to send up legitimate social concerns, or at least those that existed in the mid-eighties (gentrification, commercialization, etc…). Somehow though, RoboCop avoids becoming kitschy irony, and that keeps it from feeling cynical.

    The personality-deprived actors that Verhoeven chooses (Peter Weller and Nancy Allen, among others) don’t seem to have enough presence to interfere with the director’s vision. RoboCop’s nightmarish, crime-ridden future is one where the American Dream is a farce. To be employed by mass corporations is to sell yourself, your family life, and even the rights to your body. Once Murphy (Weller), the rookie cop starts working, we don’t see his family except in flashbacks. When he finally returns home, they’ve already moved out. His transfiguration into RoboCop removes all personality from him, but makes him a much more efficient worker. Murphy’s post-resurrection quest for vengeance and justice feels a bit futile since he’s already stuck in a body that isn’t his. If he stops the corporation that put him there, he’ll still go on, fighting their crusade because of his hard wiring. Because of the relative pointlessness of his fight, the film’s gung-ho attitude seems downright sarcastic. The audience that cheers RoboCop as he goes about his vendetta is forced to cheer lawless and brutal vigilantism. Like all of Verhoeven’s work, the genre trappings in RoboCop are simply an excuse to place the audience in a position where the director can use moral dilemmas and graphic material to make them squirm.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman