Cyborg Manifestoby Kavish Chetty / 07.02.2014
American action cinema is devilled by bad politics. RoboCop opens up on a psychosis-tilted satire of American exceptionalism, and its diabolical deliverer is none other than Samuel L. Jackson. Taking the role of Patrick Novak – right-wing and ultra-jingoistic host of 2028 current-issues programme The Novak Element – he brings us up to date on the earth-scale developments in geopolitical warfare. In this curious vision of the future, American flesh-and-blood troops are no longer on the frontline in their “civilising missions” in the middle-East and elsewhere. That occupation now belongs to hulking mech-warriors and other artificial proxies. Whilst their blithe offshore conflicts are now fully-automated, the United States itself has managed to resist this mechanisation of state security. It appears that the hallows of the American senate, unlike the rest of our savage earth, find issues like free-will, the ethics of the trigger, and other such moral quandaries too embattled to sign off on the billion-dollar drone patrol industry. Novak, the voice from his purple lips rising to the highest altitudes of political fervour, champions the necessity of the U.S. to go the robotic route.
But the American public will not surrender their law enforcement to the merely robotic. They prefer their barbarism with a human face. Enter: Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a young and ambitious cop of the Detroit Police Department, who has most of his limbs detached, and the surfaces of his body scorched, in a car-bomb assault. OmniCorp, the grand multinational conglomerate which stands to make a considerable fortune off the production of cyborg police, decides to salvage what they can of his charred remnants – and essentially graft his face and right hand to a drone anatomy. Let’s be clear on what this operation involves: Murphy has pretty much lost all the organic material of his body and his brain has been reprogrammed with thousands of terabytes worth of criminal records, CCTV footage, and quick-reflex apps making him, in theory, an impartial and brutal administrator of justice. It’s a little perplexing therefore, that his bereft wife (Abbie Cornish) starts complaining that she’s not seeing enough of her husband after he’s recruited onto the force. What husband, exactly? Short of a screw-on electronic dildo accessory, she’s going to be spending the rest of her life in enforced celibacy, spooning a cold-steel action figure who’s rapidly losing any of the mortal senses of being human.
That’s a bit of a cock-centric ontological account of a husband, so here are the other reasons he’s slipped beyond mortal salvaging: OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his semi-ethical military technician Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) end up overriding most of the “free will” possibilities of Murphy to make his combat and efficiency match that of their fully automated infantry, in the process condemning his consciousness to a psychological fascism, prey to their pre-programmed logics. The real tension of the film comes at the moment – after the deliriously-choreographed training sequences of Robocop coldly and calculatedly murdering a whole skirmish-worth of practice drones – when Murphy begins to revolt within his own cyborg body, fighting off the programming and asserting his destiny within the limits of his re-engineering. Promptly, he goes sleuthing after the corrupt cops and black-market weapons distributors who landed him in this predicament in the first place.
RoboCop is blockbuster action in the typical vein. It flexes and spasms at just the right moments to release its carnage and its tension. Its futuristic designs are well-appointed, Robocop quickly losing the traditional silver amour in favour of a sleeker, metallic black get-up with thin crimson eye-piece slashed across the visor (pro-tip for anyone who comes up against a robocop in a possible dystopian future: aim for the mouth, blast them lips off his face). The resignation, as ever, is that it quickly swaps out all its philosophical potential – anxieties about what constitutes a “human”, which I blithely passed over earlier; the ethics of mechanised trigger-happy security systems; the problems of responsibility and free will – in favour of a fairly standard vengeance thriller, where such inquiries are conducted through pistol-shots and motorcycle-chases, electroshock firearms and explosions. The producers have certainly pumped in enough in the way of budget to keep things from becoming visually banal, but ultimately, the film becomes another lifeless action film, pre-programmed to the commandments of its genre, much like the fate of its protagonist. Where he rebels against the script, however, RoboCop follows it through to its anticipated conclusion.