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Pygmalia: Robocop (1987 & 2014)

Robocop

It’s a two-movie column this month at Pygmalia! In a fit of madness I watched the 2014 Robocop remake and realized it could sort of be considered a Pygmalion story, which led me to re-watch the original Robocop, which is much better… even if it’s less of a Pygmalion story. Let’s see if I can straighten out my thoughts into something coherent below…

Robocop (1987) and Robocop (2014)

Robocop is the story of… uh, if you haven’t seen it, probably you still know it’s about “Robocop,” who is part robot, part cop. (Or “part robot, part man, all cop,” according to the poster). Anyways, how much of Murphy is man or robot cop is debatable—and debated—in the original and the remake. In both, the eponymous Robocop, Alex Murphy (the cop part of Robocop), is injured in the line of duty, terribly, and then is reconstructed into a really scary machine man—ostensibly to better protect the city streets of Detroit, but really, there’s more going on than that. 

In Robocop 1987, Robocop is the pawn of Bob Morton, AKA Agent Rosenfeld of later Twin Peaks semi-fame (he was also the voice of the villain in Mulan. The more you know!). Morton works for OCP, a shady tech firm who develops weapons for the Army, which has also been signed to privately revitalize the overworked and underfunded Detroit P.D. When the movie begins, it doesn’t seem like OCP has really put any actual money (or weapons) into the hands of cops; instead, they developed genuinely scary robot monsters called ED-209s in the hopes that they’ll clean up the streets better than the cops.

Robocop 1987But, when a demonstration of the ED-209s goes terribly wrong, Morton steps in, to elevate himself and to get one over on his enemy, Dick Jones, who is in charge of the ED program. Morton gets the Robocop initiative greenlit, takes Murphy, who is gunned down in the line of duty, and involuntarily turns him into Robocop without anyone knowing. He believes the Robocop programming will erase Murphy’s personality entirely (also he was kind of maybe dead in the original), but this proves not to be the case. Man triumphs over machine, Robocop solves his own murder, and goes on to be a good cop with free will. Sort of. The movie is way more cynical than that, actually, but those are the bare bones.

In Robocop 2014, there is of course way more… stuff, in that way of sincere 21st century remakes. There’s stuff and things and discussions and tense conversations and debates and pointed unsubtle critiques (Robcop 2014 is a movie about how DRONES ARE BAD, and never does it pause in reminding you that drones are bad. Literally the first scene puts an ED-209 in the Middle East somewhere, where it promptly guns down a frightened, innocent child). In this Robocop, Michael Keaton plays Steve “Mark Zuckerberg” Jobs, ahem, I’m sorry, “Raymond Sellars” (SELL get it, because he’s a capitali… never mind) who jogs around in a black sweatshirt, being a cool guy, as he does stuff like… lobbying the government to relax its “no drones on homeland soil” rule! Outsourcing Robocop’s robo-stuff to factories in (probably?) China! Demanding a scientist mess with Robocop’s brainmeats in order to get around the anti-drone law! Lying to a crying wife! Employing Rorschach from Watchmen! And so on.

There’s a lot to discuss with both Robocop films, but naturally we’ll be focusing on the “making of a man” angle today (instead of—regrettably—my Backlash rage over them replacing Officer Anne Lewis with a crying wife in the remake. GRR.) Full disclosure: Pygmalion is not directly invoked in either Robocop film, even though both deal with tangential Pygmalion biz, in that they are definitely about remaking a someone into someone else, for stated purposes. But—at least in the original—Robocop is more a consideration of cyberpunk anxieties about the gross-ass techno-future than a meditation on the nature of who we are, and if who we are can be melded and molded. In the remake… well…

In the original, Robocop’s Murphy side “wakes” after a dream triggers his memory of being murdered by the dad from That 70s Show. His humanity is restored through sheer will, and the hubris of his enemies, who never thought it possible that man would triumph over machine. In spite of the movie’s overall cynicism, Robocop goes on to serve and protect Detroit, even if he’s still maybe the pawn of OCP at the end.

In the remake, instead of a fast-paced “and now he’s Robocop” sequence, there is a tedious interlude after Murphy is exploded by a car bomb, wherein SELLars and his doctors, led by Gary Oldman, get consent from Murphy’s wife to turn Murphy into Robocop (but because Robocop was never made in this version of the future, they can’t just say “We’re going to turn him into Robocop” and instead exposit at length). They promise her he’ll be himself, that he’ll retain what makes him him, and she tearfully signs over his remains. Then they ship him to a Chinese factory and get to work.

Unlike in the original, Murphy wakes up as Murphy. He has his memories and his sense of identity. He’s rightfully upset about his new Robocop body, and asks to be killed rather than live that way, but is denied because eeeeevil and also dollars were spent and SELLars obviously has a lot at stake in making the program a success and blah blah blah.

Because yeah, SELLars really needs a victory with the Robocop program, it’s crucial to his company’s success. Pygmalion is extremely invested, financially and otherwise, in his Galatea. Thus when things don’t go so well—when Murphy is not able to out-perform OCP’s more man-like drones, called EM-208s, the decision is made to override his human brain’s capacity for violence with fancy drone programming when he’s on the hunt, making him, effectively, a drone in those situations. Of course, this is troubling to all characters who aren’t 100% evil. Murphy isn’t told, and they’re essentially about to launch a drone on US soil, in spite of the regulations. They discuss it, at length, but of course the ethics are no big deal to SELLars: he bluntly says that Robocop is not a man whose mind has been consumed by drone programming, which would be illegal—no, Robocop is “a machine that thinks he’s Alex Murphy, and in my book, that’s legal.”

For a time, this works. Murphy is now out-performing the EM-208s. But when they upload every crime into his mind, he freaks out, and they have to dope him into a state of near-unconsciousness. His personality disappears, and he becomes Robocop at the start of the original Robocop, except more obviously controlled by corporate interests.

Robocop 2014Obviously the idea of free will is discussed more specifically in the new Robocop (which both works and doesn’t, like a lot of this film). In the original Robocop, the viewer is left with a sense of disquiet over who Robocop really is—is he Murphy, or is he Robocop? When Murphy emerges, it’s a relief: he was in there the whole time. In the new Robocop, there is never any doubt that Murphy remains. He is himself for most of the film, and when that is taken from him, it is a tragedy. Murphy’s brain is literally on display—it is poked at, prodded, altered, enhanced, and most of all, discussed. We see it all, there is never any doubt. Like I said, it both works and doesn’t. It works because you are allowed to take part in the horror of Murphy’s personality being annihilated. It doesn’t work because the movie is lecturing you, which is really just unfun during an action movie. THIS IS SO WRONG, the movie tells you, waggling its robofinger at you. DID YOU KNOW IT IS WRONG TO ROB A MAN OF HIS HUMANITY FOR PROFIT? THOSE WHO SACRIFICE LIBERTY FOR SECURTY DESERVE NEITHER!

Yeah. We get it. We saw Robocop!

The new Robocop is a mess, and overall pretty terrible, but I really did enjoy the film’s attempted engagement with identity—the idea of changing and altering someone for someone else’s sinister law enforcement (and ultimately, profit-based) purposes. It felt fresher than much of the movie, in part because these kinds of stories rarely feature men as the subject. Unfortunately, that stuff is gets a bit buried under the weight of roughly 9000000 plot threads, so it doesn’t ever get to take center stage. The movie, after all, deals with: Drones, unchecked/unregulated capitalism, news entertainment, cop corruption, family stuff/kid stuff, the Middle East, ethics in robotics, ethics in journalism, China, “good cops” vs. “bad cops,” bromance, the list goes on. It’s hard for the movie to focus on any one thing for more than 30 seconds, but this exchange, between Jennifer Ehle (??? girl what are you doing) and Dr. Gary Oldman AKA Norton, as they watch Robocop efficiently gun down EM-208s, really caught my attention:

Liz Kline: Dr. Norton, how is he doing this?

Dr. Norton: His software is faster. His hardware is stronger. He’s a better machine.

Kline: But you said humans hesitate.

Norton: Only when they’re making decisions.

Kline: He’s not making decisions?

Norton: Yes and no. In his everyday life, man rules over the machine. Alex makes his own decisions. Now, when he engages in battle, the visor comes down and the software takes over. Then the machine does everything. Alex is a passenger, just along for the ride.

Kline: But if the machine is in control, then how is Murphy accountable? Who’s pulling the trigger?

Norton: Well, when the machine fights, the system releases signals into Alex’s brain making him think he’s doing what our computers are actually doing. I mean, Alex believes right now he is in control. But he’s not. It’s the illusion of free will.

Is SELLars the Pygmalion figure here, or is Norton? In the end, it’s difficult to say. Norton is a weasel and a cad, but ultimately he isn’t pure evil like SELLars. Morton helps Murphy escape when SELLars decides to terminate him, even after agreeing to mess with his brain so much. Both he and SELLars both invested in their creation, and feel a sense of ownership over him, and experience both dismay/delight when Murphy reacts in unexpected ways. It’s as much Frankenstein as it is Pygmalion, and their three-way tension is also more interesting than most of the rest of the film.

As for Murphy, well, Galateas experience unintended consequences over the course of being remade. Last month, our Galatea did not expect to be despised when she came to consciousness, nor did she expect her existence to drive her creator to suicide. Eva, of The Bride, did not expect that her successes would frustrate her creator into violence. Eliza Doolittle does not realize that changing her speech will change her life. And Murphy, just as involuntary a subject as the classical Galatea, does not realize that when he agrees to go along with the whole Robocop thing, instead of running away or begging for death, that his identity will be stolen from him to make a better product. In fact, he and his family are specifically assured that won’t happen. When he wins his humanity/agency back—in part by killing SELLars (a heroic triumph denied to Robocop in the original, because it is a more interesting film)—he is still denied a full return to “himself” but the film doesn’t really do anything with that, probably because again, interesting. 

There’s not much to get excited about in the Robocop remake, which went for the PG-13 rating and so replaces the actual, visceral, wonderful violence of the original Rated X Robocop with a high body count and some slick effects. But, the intriguing engagement with the idea of will, teasing it out, letting Murphy be Murphy, taking him away piece by piece, was actually pretty interesting. Too bad the rest of the movie is such a mess. Yikes.

Next Month: Heart of a Dog

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