Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop: Identity and Revenge in 'RoboCop' (1987)
RoboCop (1987), directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is often analyzed in connection with its more overtly political themes. Peter Bradshaw, for example, writing for The Guardian in 2022, highlighted the film's satire and condemnation of Reagan-era America in his review of the newly-released director’s cut of the film. In writing for Sight and Sound, Sean French, called the film “a flamboyant indictment of American society.” Indeed, these themes are evident. However, how identity is defined on the individual level and related to the physical bodies we inhabit are at the core of much of RoboCop’s message.
Peter Wellers plays Alex Murphy, a dedicated police officer in Detroit, now controlled by the powerful Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation. Following a fatal shootout with gangsters working with OCP, Murphy's remains are transformed into a high-tech cyborg, creatively dubbed “RoboCop.” Initially devoid of his former memories and identity, RoboCop gradually regains some of his humanity, prompted by a dream and a visit to his old home. As RoboCop's past life comes into focus, he seeks retribution against the criminals who killed him and the corrupt executives who engineered his transformation. The film concludes with RoboCop reclaiming his true identity as Murphy.
It is not exactly clear what RoboCop is. Is he Alex Murphy? Is he a machine making use of Murphy’s dead body? Murphy’s mind may have survived, but when he becomes RoboCop he is programmed with a series of directives that he must obey, including ones that prevent him from stopping the OCP’s illegal actions. As RoboCop unveils his past and attempts to reclaim his identity, we see him physically alter his robotic body. Among other alterations, he removes his mask to make his entire face visible, visually shedding the machine to humanize him. But his directives—programmed into his mind—never go away. At the film’s end, he can only defeat Dick Jones, the ‘evil’ OCP executive, because doing so is sanctioned by the Old Man, OCP’s CEO; we never truly see RoboCop break free from OCP's control over him. Nevertheless, by the film’s end, RoboCop is once again called “Murphy,” as the film views the man’s identity as being restored regardless of the power OCP retains over the vessel of his mind. Murphy’s regaining of his memories and his taking ownership of his own body are deemed as the necessary components to his self re-actualization
Why does Murphy not need to be released from OCP’s control of him to regain his identity? Did Murphy not have his freedom before? Perhaps not. As a Detroit police officer, Murphy worked for OCP. When he is turned into RoboCop, it is mentioned that Murphy “signed the release form when he joined the force.” Therefore OCP would be justified in doing whatever it wants to Murphy’s body. So if Murphy had no real freedom in his life, to begin with, and if RoboCop wants to reclaim his identity as Murphy, he cannot gain a freedom he did not have. He will continue to serve as a slave to OCP (the word ‘robot,’ interestingly enough, comes from the Czech robota, literally meaning ‘serf labor’) just as Murphy was essentially a slave to that corporation during his first life. What human agency did he have to lose in the first place?
In the dystopian world of RoboCop, and perhaps our current world, identity cannot be tied to our free will, desires, or freedom because these are privileges we do not always enjoy. Instead, the retention of our memories and our control over our physical bodies are primarily what we use to define and express our identity. Director Paul Verhoeven has often explored sexual violence in his films and the idea of the “rape-revenge” story. Women getting revenge on their rapists are elements of his films Flesh and Blood (1985), Basic Instinct (1992), and Showgirls (1995), among others. His recent film Elle (2016) is entirely about such a subject. While in RoboCop Murphy does not experience explicit sexual assault, his experience can be read as a rape-revenge allegory. Murphy’s body is violated without his consent, and once he can recover, he sets out to systematically kill the very people who violated him. In this vein, Murphy’s signing of the release form is treated as some form of prior consent that OCP and society assume that RoboCop gave. Robocop is about punishing the people who maliciously infringe on one’s corporeal security.
Further exploring this reading, just as the beatings of abusers in Showgirls are presented as necessary, cathartic restitutions that must be completed for the protagonist to leave Las Vegas, RoboCop’s killing of his attacker is similarly presented as a narratively mandated action that must be completed to allow RoboCop to finally return to being Murphy. These violent acts of revenge are presented as a ritual, a social cleansing necessary to complete RoboCop’s transformation into Alex Murphy. RoboCop’s elimination of each of these men is coldly efficient and excessively violent. Although, absent from RoboCop is the sexualization of violence that is common in traditional rape-revenge films. There is no castration or similar sadistic revenge taken in an ironic turning-of-tables on the perpetrators. Instead, the film uses the language of more traditional masculine hyperviolence, associated with action films of the era. One gangster is melted to death by toxic waste, another is stabbed in the throat, and we see blood spurting out of his carotid artery, and many more are thrown through windows and fall to their deaths from skyscrapers. RoboCop almost entirely removes the gendered aspects of the rape-revenge trope, placing the entire story inside the “man’s world” of corporate leadership and law enforcement. RoboCop takes the rape-revenge fantasy and draws distinct lines through all the gray areas. No longer are the perpetrators well-respected, powerful men who use their positions to take advantage of the female victim, but instead, innately evil criminals who brutalize not a woman but a male law enforcement officer. The crime is no longer explicitly sexual but instead simple violence. Does doing so make it easier for audiences to indulge in revenge fantasy?
On the other hand, does doing so save the film from being labeled as “exploitation,” like so many traditional rape-revenge films are? We often view genres and tropes through very limited lenses. RoboCop uses many of the staples of a rape-revenge film, but then again, it distills them and brings them into a more mainstream sensibility, although much gets lost in that process.
Benjamin Fishbein is a freshman in the College planning to major in History.