On ‘RoboCop’ and Telling a Story Well
by Mark Wilson
Needless to say, spoiler alert.
The first RoboCop—as violent a movie as ever was made by Paul Verhoeven (or anyone else, for that matter)—was a great movie. It was great because it didn’t hold your hand and trusted that you could follow along without being told what was going on. In other words, you’re a grown-up, so here’s a grown-up story told in a grown-up way. Some of the best literature out there is “the best” because it invites your interpretation (for example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) instead of telling you what’s going on.
In the new trailer for the RoboCop remake starring Joel Kinnaman, the scientist character (Gary Oldman) warns of the new cybernetic cop, “The human element will always be present.” This is the kind of hand-holding that makes movies bad. That little bit of dialogue is supposed to clue you into what’s to come; i.e., the new RoboCop machine will have a 21st-century crisis as what’s left of his humanity tries to assert itself over his computer programming. But we didn’t need to be warned.
In the original RoboCop, we sat back and watched the movie unravel. Here is how Verhoeven, with a great script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, showed us a story instead of telling us a story.
We watched as RoboCop was born of a multinational corporation’s limitless greed as it attempts to build a law enforcement robot that it can sell to both the police and the military and also find a profit center in “spare parts for the next twenty-five years.” We watched as Alex Murphy was brutally killed. Yes, he technically died (as becomes clear when Johnson points out, while The Suits are debating whether to keep a perfectly functioning human arm, “He’s legally dead. We can pretty much do what we want.” The response from Miguel Ferrer: “Lose the arm”). In the remake, Murphy is still alive, but basically wheelchair-bound. That’s not as compelling (especially for the critics out there who want to make a Frankenstein comparison).
Then we watched as RoboCop’s latent humanity slowly came to the surface. First when his old partner, Nancy Allen, confronts him in a hallway and proclaims, “Murphy, it’s you!” Then, he drives back to his old house, only to find it abandoned and up for sale. Finally, he confronts the people who killed him. And they manage to recognize him, too. (“You’re dead! We killed you!” yells the bristly doctor from ER after RoboCop delivers one of his signature phrases: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”)
The story really comes to life through the directorial choices. In spite of Showgirls, Verhoeven knows exactly what he’s doing. The character RoboCop is revealed slowly: first, all we see are the heads-up display POV shots as he’s being built. There’s a vague reflection of RoboCop in a mirrored surface during this part. Then, when he’s finished, he’s brought into the police station, but can be seen only behind frosted glass. Finally, we get the full reveal when he’s led into the cage where he rests and ingests the “rudimentary paste” that keeps his organic parts alive (“Tastes like baby food!” Johnson gleefully exclaims).
Verhoeven isn’t done yet. RoboCop is deconstructed back into a person as quickly as he was constructed into a robot. When he’s betrayed by his maker—OCP and the nefarious Dick Jones (in shoes that no one but Ronny Cox could ever fill)—he’s attacked by his own police force. His visor is broken and we see a human eye inside the helmet. What? There’s more than just the chin? His humanity is slowly returning, revealed bit by bit just as his robot-ness was revealed bit by bit. And the audience is intrigued. Just how much “person” is there in that outfit?
Finally, before the last confrontation between the dad from That ‘70s Show, the dad from Twin Peaks, and the bristly doctor who gets crushed by a helicopter on ER (which, by the way, is a way better fate there than the one he suffers at the end of this movie), RoboCop takes off his helmet. He puts the drill in one side of his head, then the other. The bolts holding his helmet on come out. He tells Nancy Allen—his voice now devoid of the robotic reverberation it had when he first started stopping crime—“You may not like what you’re going to see.” It’s a moment of tension not unlike the tension the parents faced in W.W. Jacobs’ short story The Monkey’s Paw: Oh, god, what grotesquerie lies behind the door? Do I need to look away?
And then—boom!—cut to a close-up of what’s left of Alex Murphy’s humanity. He’s got a human face, for sure. But it’s encased in a robot’s head. He wears a sad expression, or maybe it’s just a blank expression. Do RoboCops have feelings? He refers to Alex Murphy in the third person and the past tense (“Murphy had a wife, a son, what happened to them?”), as though that identity belongs to a dead person.
But the pièce de résistance comes at the very, very end. RoboCop has just killed Dick Jones, the evil corporate executive who had been in cahoots with the criminals all along. He’s saved the president of the company, The Old Man, from being killed by Jones. The Old Man fixes his tie and says, as though a cyborg foils a hostage attempt every day in this building, “Nice shooting, son. What’s your name?” RoboCop does a quarter turn back to the camera and says, “Murphy.”
That’s how you tell the story of a human who becomes a robot and slowly regains his humanity. The original RoboCop is excellent precisely because it’s not heavy-handed. No one is out there doing plot explication to let the audience know “This is about regaining lost humanity in an age of technology! This is about the military-industrial complex! This is a metaphor for corporations taking our humanity away!” This film is a representation of the old writer’s adage show me, don’t tell me.
This lack of finesse is what disturbs me about the new RoboCop. Admittedly, it is only 2 1/2 minutes, but throughout the trailer, I get a sense that we’re being told what’s happening instead of being shown what’s happening. And the expert hands that took us on Murphy’s journey from human to robot and back to human is absent; Joel Kinnaman looks like a normal guy wearing motorcycle gear. The original RoboCop was designed to look like a robot, not like a person. That was intentional. He’s not The Six Million Dollar Man; he’s basically a metal shell with a small amount of human inside. And that human, by the way, is jealously guarded until the final act, when the shock of seeing Peter Weller’s face again—albeit encased in that metal shell—puts the audience on notice that he’s no longer RoboCop, but “Murphy.”
Or maybe I’m an old man ranting about hating new things. If this new RoboCop is good, I will be pleased. If it’s not, then I will be sad.