Officer Murphy Is Screaming

God and the Problem of Suffering in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop

Note: Haven’t seen the movie Robocop? Or haven’t seen it in a very long time? You really ought to before reading this essay — it’s a great film, and a lot of the stuff here will spoil it for you. Go watch it and then come back. No, it’s okay, this’ll wait.

“Remember that Christianity is a religion grounded in one of the most violent acts of murder: the crucifixion. Otherwise, religion wouldn’t have had any kind of impact.”

— Paul Verhoeven

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Not too long ago I bought the DVD of director Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film Robocop. Back in college there was a cafeteria/student lounge near my block of dorms that had a big screen TV and seemed to always be showing either Robocop or Lethal Weapon II, so I may have watched Robocop or parts of it more than a dozen times, appreciating it solely on an action-movie level.

And really, on what other level is there to appreciate a movie like Robocop? It’s a slick, flashy comic book of a film about a revenge-driven cyborg — how seriously can you take that? It was also an amazingly violent film (they had to send it back to the MPAA for review eight times) in an age of violent films, which should make it even less likely to have any redeeming features, right?

But by the time I bought the DVD I was more than a decade out of college, and I’d had the opportunity to watch a few more of Verhoeven’s films. Maybe the most interesting (to me, at any rate) was Starship Troopers, about a future army battling alien monsters. Like Robocop, it was instantly branded cheap entertainment. The things people remember about it are the action sequences, Denise Richards in a tight uniform, and a co-ed shower scene.

At some point while I was watching Troopers, however, it struck me that it might just be the most brilliant explication of fascism ever done in a movie. It’s all there: the paranoia and hatred of the inhuman “other,” the obsession with all things military, the subjugation of the individual in the service of the greater cause, and most importantly, the war that never, ever ends, because the war is the pretext for control. These ideas hadn’t been packed into some tiny art-house movie; they had — amazingly — been delivered to a mainstream audience camouflaged as a big, bright summer popcorn movie

That would be a different essay, though. I’m talking about Robocop here, and my sitting down to watch it after more than a decade with it lying fallow somewhere in my unconscious. But thanks to Starship Troopers, I was looking at it a little harder.

All the things you want from a good, science-fiction action movie in the Terminator-mode — just a symphony of blood and metal.

The DVD, as I watched, pushed all the same buttons it had back in the day. Still the same jolt when Robocop busts into the cocaine processing plant and guns down the bad guys; the same revulsion when one of the main villain’s henchmen gets melted by toxic waste; the same satisfaction when the evil executive gets his comeuppance at the end. All the things you want from a good, science-fiction action movie in the Terminator-mode — just a symphony of blood and metal.

In fact, at first my new responses to the film were all in seeing what some of the original actors had gone on to do. Peter Weller and Nancy Allen’s stars may have waned, but hey, there’s the guy who plays Romano on E.R.! There’s the guy who was Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks! And I can’t tell you how glad I am that Kurtwood Smith (who played Clarence Boddicker, baddest man in Old Detroit) has found himself a new career in comedy as the dad on That ‘70s Show.

The other thing that struck me is how very, very brutal the film is. Maybe I was just insensitive back in my college days, but the kind of violence found in Robocop is not your standard action-movie stuff. You look, for example, at another ‘80s action movie famed for its over-the-top ultraviolence: Commando. In that movie the hero gets shot a few times, sure. But it’s Arnold Schwartzeneggar. It’s just window dressing, atmosphere, not real pain to him at all. He shrugs it off and gets back to killing people. It doesn’t impair him in any way, and he’s certainly not going to die from a little thing like getting shot.

Officer Alex Murphy, on the other hand, gets gunned down only 10-15 minutes into Robocop. It’s the movie’s most wrenching scene, with six guys blasting away at him with shotguns all at the same time. The moment is, literally, overkill. It seems to just go on and on, with clouds of gunsmoke rising as chunks of Murphy’s flesh get spattered in all directions. (The filmmakers, by the way, had to use a life-sized puppet of Peter Weller in the scene, and once again weren’t allowed to show all the carnage they wanted to.)

Murphy screams as he’s being murdered, and he doesn’t stop screaming until Clarence Boddicker finishes him off with a single bullet to the brain.

Officer Murphy — in the few minutes of screen time he gets before being blown away — has been trying to live up to some sort of an action-hero standard; his son is a fan of the in-movie TV show T.J. Laser, so Murphy has been practicing his cool moves, like twirling his gun. He even gets to give an action hero one-liner: “Dead or alive, you are coming with me.” But there’s no way to stay cool, to be the Arnold-esque stoic hero while his body and his life are so cruelly taken from him. Murphy screams as he’s being murdered, and he doesn’t stop screaming until Clarence Boddicker finishes him off with a single bullet to the brain.

It’s weird, but in a movie where the dialogue is laughable and the acting seems deliberately overblown, the pain and suffering are the only things that seem real. In fact, they seem more than real when placed against the background of a cheesy sci-fi action movie. It’s kind of like seeing the anvil fall on Daffy Duck, only to have a matted clump of broken bones and bloody feathers be the result. Similarly, anyone who has endured the movie I Spit on Your Grave will tell you that it’s mostly unbelievable dreck — except for the rape sequences which are, I think for the same reason, disturbingly authentic.

The pain and suffering in Robocop are not the garnish they are in so many action movies and TV shows, they are the main course. The nature of suffering — and what it means for humankind — is what the film is all about.

I believe God exists in Robocop, or at least a god-figure.

Let’s skip the first and most obvious question — Why is there suffering in the first place? — and jump to the second — Isn’t anyone going to do anything about it? Who has both the power and the will to relieve the suffering of humanity (for Robocop read: the citizens of Old Detroit)? Where, in short, is God?

Take a small metaphoric leap with me now. I believe God exists in Robocop, or at least a god-figure. He looks very much like you expect God to look: he is an elderly white man with snowy white hair, immaculately dressed, who lives far away up in the clouds. He’s The Old Man, the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Omni Consumer Products, and he is always convening his board of directors in the conference room at the top of his impossibly tall office building. At the start of the film, OCP has a contract to run the Detroit police department, and is starting a new building project called Delta City that will replace the decaying Old Detroit with a gleaming utopia.

There’s just one problem, and The Old Man states it succinctly: “Old Detroit has a cancer. The cancer is crime.” Before Delta City can go up (that is, before paradise can be realized on earth) crime — as personified in Clarence Boddicker and his crew — must be brought under control.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that “crime” is only suffering on a different scale. After all, the criminals The Old Man wants to eliminate are the agents of Murphy’s suffering, and to call them a “cancer” on the body of the city seems very apt. As crime is to the city, as cancer is to a body, so the problem of suffering is a general one all the way up the scale of existence, from the personal to the social to (as we shall see in the final scene) the cosmic.

But while The Old Man genuinely wants to do some good for the people suffering down below, and while he obviously has the wealth and power to effect change, he is stymied by a problem inherent in the system: the flesh. At the start of the film, Detroit police are threatening to strike; they’re outnumbered, outgunned, and getting killed on an almost daily basis. Officer Murphy’s execution is just the latest in a long string of cop-killings, and the DPD is ready to throw in the towel and give up the streets to the criminals. The flesh is willing, but the flesh is weak ... fallible, vulnerable, mortal.

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The solution, according to OCP Executive Vice President Dick Jones (The Old Man’s right hand and to my thinking the film’s obvious Satan figure) is a cop that can’t be hurt — a cop that doesn’t have to eat or sleep or feel. With a flourish Jones introduces ED-209, a gigantic urban pacification robot, to the OCP board.

Unfortunately, ED-209 is stupid and clumsy. It can’t navigate doorways or staircases — and more critically it can’t distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. In a staged demonstration ED blows away a hapless junior executive, even after he tries to surrender. ED may not have the vulnerabilities of the flesh, but it lacks the flesh’s subtlety, its nuance. And it also lacks some deeper understanding inherent in the flesh: It lacks the knowledge of good and evil.

That doesn’t matter to Dick Jones of course, he’s just looking for a military sale. But it matters to The Old Man, who genuinely wants to get some traction on this suffering thing. Luckily, there’s a back-up plan in place: a hybrid of metal and man that will hopefully combine the invulnerability and the firepower of the machine with the flexibility and understanding of the flesh. All they have to do is “wait for some poor schmuck to volunteer.”

Do I even have to bring up the Jesus thing?

Re-enter Officer Murphy, resurrected as the cyborg Robocop. Do I even have to bring up the Jesus thing? Most of his body has been replaced by steel and servos, and most of his memory has been wiped and replaced with programming. And for a while we’re back in conventional action-movie mode, with Robocop kicking ass and taking names in predictable superheroic style. He’s so unstoppable, and so very unemotional, you might almost forget there are chunks of person under all the armor.

Then Robocop begins having bad dreams. Apparently, the pull of the flesh is stronger than death, and the memories of his suffering begin to intrude on his new existence. Dreams, his old partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), and a chance encounter with one of Officer Murphy’s killers lead Robocop back to the house he owned when he was human, and to the memories — actually more feelings than memories — of his wife, his child, and the entire life he had taken from him. Once again he begins to suffer, and — funny thing — the more he suffers, the richer and more complicated his emotions become.

This, I think, is the great point of the movie (I hesitate to use the word “moral”): that suffering is the basis for all emotion; that our capacity for suffering is in some way the bedrock of our humanity.

From this point on in the film, the arc of Robocop’s emotional development correlates directly to the suffering he bears. (Do I have to bring up the Jesus thing again?) The pain from his lost life culminates in the rage he shows in his final capture of Clarence Boddicker (a neat scene where Robocop keeps smashing Clarence through plate-glass windows while reading him his rights.)

While pleading for his life, Boddicker gives up Dick Jones, who has been pulling his strings all along. Boddicker’s hope is that since Jones runs OCP and OCP runs the cops, Robocop will let him go. Robocop does spare his life, but not because of some corporate hierarchy; when Boddicker reminds him that he’s a cop, it becomes clear from the look on his face (and it’s really amazing the range Peter Weller reaches from underneath that mask) that being a cop isn’t just something he’s programmed to do, it’s something that matters to him.

So off Robocop goes to storm the gates of heaven and arrest Dick Jones/Satan. There he gets a quick one-two-three punch. One: he’s had a directive added to his programming that causes him to shut down whenever he tries to arrest an officer of OCP and — surprise surprise — the shutdown procedure looks awfully painful. Two: Dick has a spare ED-209 on hand to kick the crap out of Robocop when he’s down (this ED is easy enough to escape from though — Robocop just goes down a flight of stairs). Three: what looks like the entire Detroit police department is in the building’s parking garage to try to destroy Robocop when he comes out.

The look of bewilderment on Robocop’s face is priceless. His suffering brought him to a new level of identification with his fellow police officers, and when they open fire on him (and yes, some of the good ones refuse to do so) it’s clear that that identification has allowed him to reach a whole new level of suffering. It’s a vicious cycle. When the cops open up, the withering hail of gunfire is so much like the one that killed Officer Murphy in the first place that the audience is actually moved to pity for a cyborg. Well, I was, in any case.

Robocop escapes with the help of his old partner, Lewis, and hides out at an abandoned factory. He spends some time brooding and reflecting, and finally decides to face his future not as a robot, but as a man. Robocop removes his helmet — it’s a fantastic moment in the movie — and shows the world his face once again.

Of course the bad guys — Boddicker and the surviving members of his crew — show up for the showdown, this time packing anti-tank weapons. Much carnage ensues (including that one guy getting melted by the toxic waste I mentioned) before Robocop and Boddicker at last square off: With Robocop trapped in a pile of debris, with Lewis lying shot in a puddle of mud, with all of his men variously shot, blown-up, or melted, Boddicker takes a pointed bar of steel and pierces Robocop’s metal side. (Do I have to mention Jesus one more time? Yeah, sure I do.)

Blood oozes from the wound: once again the sufferings, the evil of the world, have managed to get through all the armor and touch what little remains of Robocop’s flesh. There’s no way to hide from it ... from any of it ... for any of us. No matter how little that is human is left to us, the world will seek it out to torment, and make us more human thereby.

No matter how little that is human is left to us, the world will seek it out to torment, and make us more human thereby.

Oh, and then Robocop stabs Boddicker in the neck and the blood goes pfisss-pfiss-pfisssssssssssss. It’s cathartic.

Last scene of the film: Robocop — covered in Boddicker’s blood, covered in his own blood — heads back to OCP, goes up the elevator, walks right into the boardroom, and declares, “Dick Jones is wanted for murder. My program will not allow me to arrest an officer of this company.” The difference between now and the first time he tried it? God. The Old Man is there — along with Jones and the rest of the board — holding court. And when The Old Man looks at Robocop he doesn’t see a mad cyborg, doesn’t see a company product, doesn’t see a machine. He sees a cop doing his duty and asks, naturally enough, “These are serious charges, what is your evidence?”

Luckily Robocop is a cyborg and can play back anything he remembers. He displays Jones’ gloating confession to the entire room. Jones freaks out, grabs a gun, takes The Old Man hostage, and demands a chopper. They always want a chopper ...

The Old Man, still quick in a crisis, fires Dick Jones on the spot. Free to act, Robocop shoots Jones enough times to propel him back through the window. He falls (Milton, anyone?), cast out of heaven at last.

The Old Man straightens his tie, turns to Robocop and says, “Mighty fine shootin’ son. What’s your name?”

Robocop turns back just as he’s leaving and says, “Murphy.”

So what does it all mean then?

Well, I don’t think it means that God is a good-natured moron whose plans keep getting hijacked by His underlings, although you could certainly read the film that way.

I think it means that suffering is some integral part of the human condition. Evil, the active, intelligent infliction of suffering on others, is something that has to be opposed at every turn. And the suffering of others needs to always be met with compassion. But suffering in and of itself — the fact of its existence — is not a bad thing. It’s a completely necessary thing. We’re bound to our flesh for as long as we live in this world. It’s the only way to get around. It’s the only way to touch, and anything sensitive enough to touch with is sensitive enough to be hurt. And it’s from living in the world, from touching and being touched by the world — no matter what pains we may expose ourselves to or ultimately suffer — that make us individual and human.

Note: By the way, don’t go renting any of the other Robocop movies. RII has a couple of interesting ideas, but pisses them all away. The rest are a buncha crap. Other good Paul Verhoeven films include The 4th Man and Total Recall, but you can forget Hollow Man and Basic Instinct. Be sure to rent Showgirls some night for a laugh.

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