The 1987 film, RoboCop, was a financial success, grossing over fifty million dollars in its domestic run. It was also well-regarded critically, being listed as one of the best one thousand movies ever made by the New York Times. It is not surprising, then to find the 2014 remake playing in current theatres.
The original film was noted for its degree of violence and for being an oblique criticism of contemporary culture. The remake equals its predecessor on the first characteristic. The cultural critique in the 2014 version is less subtle, much more pointed.
The new version opens with a 2028 “airing” of the Novak Element, featuring a hyped up super-patriotic talking head extolling the use of American robots, manufactured by OmniCorp, in pacifying the streets of a middle-eastern country using high-tech murderous violence. Despite the reality that the “pacification” bloodily backfires, Novak conceals its flaws, and argues for the implementation of robotic control of crime-ridden American cities. His plea is obviously in the service of influencing a current domestic debate over the Dreyfus act, a law prohibiting robots in the United States from killing humans.
Raymond Sellers, the Steve Jobsian CEO of OmniCorp, is inspired to resolve the political problem by constructing a cyborg using a wounded American warrior-hero fused with a robotic body to produce a device with robotic efficiency and human moral sensibilities. Detroit policeman Alex Murphy, terribly and graphically wounded by gangsters, is chosen. Dr. Dennett Norton, a scientist who has been doing work with prosthetics, is seduced by the offer of bottomless grants (and perks) by OmniCorp into undertaking the effort, despite his moral reservation.
Using only Murphy’s lungs, brain, face, vocal apparatus and, gruesomely, Murphy’s right hand, Norton constructs a computer controlled armored robotic body—RoboCop. When Murphy comes to understand what has happened, he pleads to be killed. Norton, arguing that Murphy’s beloved wife and son, as well as the community at large, would be served by Murphy’s heroic rescue of Detroit’s streets from bondage to criminality, persuades him to undertake the effort.
Shortcomings in RoboCop’s design make it necessary to blunt Murphy’s emotions and to short-circuit his control of his prosthetic body, leaving him only the illusion of choosing his actions. Nevertheless, in a series of predictably violent events, Murphy finds criminal corruption that reaches into the political hierarchy, and also discovers OmniCorp’s role in manipulating Norton into deceiving him. His mind manages to overcome computer control of his “body,” and he bloodily revenges himself.
The movie ends with the Dreyfus act protected and Murphy, with a new robot body, awaiting a visit from his wife and son. I had to try hard not to wonder what kind of life together the family would have.
But I liked the film a lot. Its psychological implications run deep.
Many of the current developments in psychoanalytic theory raise questions about the role of instincts in driving behavior, directing our attention away from the focus on sex and aggression that was once central.
In this film one of the salient themes is that of potency. Murphy, at the mercy of mechanical aids, pleads for death, but lives on in a hyper-masculine form that belies his no longer having a penis. The film ends with his newly armored self, equipped with armaments and a badge, awaiting that visit from his wife and son. The device of the expected event both provokes and conceals the question of what kind of husband and father he can be.
The appeal of the extravagantly gory display that characterizes this movie is important as well. It provides a safely unreal, almost pornographic, gratification of the aggressive element that is part of all of us.
But most important may be the film’s applauding the uniqueness of humanity. Its repudiation of the reduction of psychotherapy to pharmacological manipulation.
Its avowal that mind cannot be reduced to matter.
[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]