What Robocop means in a post-Ferguson world

robocop, 80s, sci-fi, Robocop was a favorite amongst us on the school yard when I was a child during the 1980s. We all spent our class time drawing Robocop’s helmet, his gun, the spiked data jack that came out of his fist. Trying to imitate that cool gun-twirly thing.

But another thing occurred to me watching the film last night. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen the actual rated R cut, since I was a kid when I last saw it and only watched the TV edit.

From a writing standpoint, it’s fascinating. It reminds me of the concise writing/editing style 1980s writers employed (something I think screenwriters are returning to). Little time is spent on exposition, just enough so that we care about Murphy before he’s killed and turned into Robocop. A side note – I forgot about Murphy’s partner, Lewis: sexy and tough. And how about our introduction to her, where she takes out the crook wreaking havoc at the precinct and thwarting other’s attempts to subdue him? We catch a little more of that toughness at the end but I think Lewis could have been explored a little more.

But one thing that occurred me watching the movie last night, that couldn’t have occurred to the film’s writers in 1987: Robocop is ironically almost the perfect answer to our current debate about police shootings. The irony is that in the film, the Robocop program’s director touts the added humanity as its advantage over the ED-209, which shoots a corporate board member during a demonstration. The board member is told to point a gun at the ED-209, and is still shot despite complying with the robot’s request to drop the weapon. If he were black, it might be a perfect analog to the police tactics that are questioned today post-Ferguson.

Robocop, a cyborg with some remaining human parts, is sold as a replacement program to the company’s CEO on the basis that as a cyborg he would still have some human judgement. Robocop wouldn’t have shot the man as ED-209 did, because it has some humanity under the hood.

But taking our current situation into account, it’s the lack of humanity in Robocop that allows him to avoid a problem with current police officers. They have to judge what a suspect might do in order to protect themselves, and they have to battle the fears and emotions that come with doing a very dangerous job. They might mistake some other object, even a toy gun, for a weapon. There’s also the possibility of corruption and racism that might influence their decision to pull the trigger.

Robocop, however, is more humane to his suspects ironically because he is not human; he does not fear his suspects, is completely objective and can dispense justice without prejudice. Self-protection, racism, fear — none of these need to factor into Robocop’s decision because he is a relatively invincible robot (ultimately Boddicker finds a weapon he is not immune to, but that’s only later in the film.) The suspect has the option to surrender and drop the weapon. Robocop can afford to wait for the suspect to actually fire a gun at him before responding with deadly force.

In fact, in several instances he doesn’t. The convenience store robber fires an assault rifle at Robocop; the cyborg simply absorbs the gunfire until he reaches the man, bends the muzzle and sends him crashing into the ice freezer. A would be rapist is dispatched by a well-placed shot to the side of his leg, Robocop managing to aim the shot between the legs of the woman the rapist is holding hostage.

Police in a post-Ferguson age are wearing police cams, recording evidence just as Robocop does. Robocop was also an interesting movie, but it garners a new perspective in a post-Ferguson world.


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