The Almost Human-ity of RoboCop: Pondering the Future of Law Enforcement

In a few short weeks — February 12, to be exact — MGM, Columbia Pictures, and Strike Entertainment will be releasing the reboot of RoboCop in theaters. While I’m by no means completely juiced into the tapestry of sci-fi movie fandom, I feel as though the film’s preliminary buzz at this point is best described as lukewarm. Still, I’ve found my own curiosity growing increasingly as the release date nears given some personal observations gleaned from many subsequent viewings of the original 1987 film. How much will the 2014 version model the 1987 edition? Could it actually, dare I say, meet or surpass the original in cult following? So far, the immediate changes between the 2014 and the 1987 versions appear largely cosmetic (i.e., new guns, sleek motorcycle vs. clunky police cruiser, new armor with not-so-subtle Iron Man/techno Snake-Eyes stylings).

But, I wonder if RoboCop 2014 will tap into the underlying theme that I’ve found paramount among ingredients that made the original 1987 feature so iconic.

What made RoboCop such a watershed motion picture in 1987 stemmed beyond the blockbuster special effects of the legendary Rob Bottin, the mid-summer media hype and merchandising surrounding its initial release. Equally important was the film’s (possibly unintentional) sociocultural commentary on how justice might be defined and administered when structural forces break down in densely populated urban landscapes like those embodied in “Old Detroit.” Against its gritty, dystopian backdrop riddled with poverty and civil disorder — and where the administration of vital social institutions are entrusted wholesale to largely faceless, monolithic corporations — the original RoboCop posed a fairly complex question still worth considering over a quarter century later: what is to become of law enforcement in a civil society when that society stops being… well… civil?

Basically, the answer comes in the form of Omni Consumer Products’ (OCP) RoboCop Law Enforcement Cyborg. In a city that is decisively decaying and seemingly hopeless for a turnaround without quick, forceful action, OCP’s product is quickly dispatched into the urban jungle to bring law to the lawless. There’s a Mad Max-quality to the city that the titular cyborg is birthed into, but interestingly there’s no nameless, faceless plague or atomic disaster to point the finger of blame for this bleak landscape; rather, the blame appears to be simply us. Choked into destitution by what appears to have been a litany of indulgences not uncommon in the ’80s, and the decades immediately preceding the era, RoboCop presented the idea that the future would be one where large mega-corporations like OCP would be the only entities capable of righting the wrongs caused by generations of naughtiness.

And they’d do so by initiating an extreme solution to the violence and crime spawned in the aftermath.

For the 11-year old sci-fi geek that I was when first viewing the film, it was a heavy dose of “This is how bad things could REALLY get if we’re not careful.” For the criminologist I would eventually become, it was an early introduction to one perspective on how formal methods of social control might be handled if the external forces that influence such methods are sufficiently corrupted.

However, worth closer inspection for the sci-fi geek/criminologist in all of us is the philosophical waltz embedded within RoboCop between how much of good police work requires genuine empathy and human intuitiveness versus emotional restraint and rote adherence to the letter of the law. Specifically, when the issue at hand is the effort to police a seemingly unruly society like Old Detroit, is the best solution one that excises human police officers altogether in favor of mechanized versions? Or is there a better alternative? I honestly do not know if the movie was written with the intent for audiences to seriously ponder this dilemma, but what is clear is that for Officer Alex Murphy — as portrayed by Peter Weller, a tragically mutilated, nearly lifeless police officer that would eventually be transformed into RoboCop — nearly half the film is spent trying to reconcile his OCP-engineered programming and unfamiliar (albeit, completely bad-ass) mechanical body with scant remnants of emotional awareness and sensitivity connected to a former humanity all but completely lost to him.

And in the midst of all this, he’s still endeavoring to be a cop.

Without revealing too much for those who’ve never seen RoboCop and might want to, the struggle Murphy experiences as both man and machine in carrying out his programming — to 1.) serve the public trust, 2.) protect the innocent, and 3.) uphold the law (Directive #4 classified) — is probably best described as only slightly resolved, and only after a whole lot of bloody guts are spilled (yes, RoboCop is a damn bloody movie, even by today’s hyper-violent standards). Moreover, at the conclusion of the 1987 film, I contend the underlying question still left unaddressed (and not nearly expanded upon in the travesty of sequels spawned from this sci-fi classic) is the same that I opened this piece with: What is to become of law enforcement in an uncivil society? For that matter, how much good police work in the future should be driven by dogged adherence to law enforcement protocols (such that a robot could literally do the job, and arguably more efficiently than a human) versus the application of a more organic approach where humanity and robotic efficiency merge? In response, I submit for consideration Almost Human, Fox Television’s new (I think it still counts as new) primetime series that addresses this very question in virtually every episode thus far.

Set in 2048, roughly 20 years further into the future from the setting of RoboCop 2014 (that’s 2028 for those doing the math) and starring Karl Urban and Michael Ealy, Almost Human is your fairly formulaic buddy-cop drama I would liken to “Starsky and Hutch meets I, Robot.” Or perhaps Knight Rider if KITT were a light-skinned brotha with lingering emotional baggage rooted into his programming (which I think KITT actually had; the baggage I mean, not the skin tone). Additionally, it’s easy to see the material treading some ground all-to-familiar to proud Star Trek whores like so many of us trolling this blog, as DORIAN’s path of increasing self-discovery and awareness of his own “humanity” is not unlike the path traveled by TNG’s Data or Seven of 9 and the EMH Program/Doctor (both from Voyager). But what is making Almost Human uniquely engaging thus far is its willingness to accentuate front-and-center exactly what sort of sneaked up on viewers like myself watching RoboCop in 1987: the place of human rationality, instinct, and emotion in futuristic imaginings of law enforcement where the context is a world largely dominated by automated conventions and a highly complex, widespread crime phenomenon.

So far, the chords struck in both Almost Human and RoboCop on this account are profoundly different. RoboCop was largely grounded in the perspective that an automaton could carry out law enforcement duties in such a setting sans human traits or human involvement (OCP’s RoboCop program never factored in the use of partners, automated or otherwise). On the other hand, Almost Human flies directly in the opposite direction. For all his superior intellect and physical attributes, DORIAN (Ealy) constantly seeks interaction with Kennex (Urban) in order to function properly as cop. Frankly, DORIAN is emotionally needy and that neediness is hardwired into his digital DNA via the Synthetic Soul program designed to make him human-like. Dismissively labeled as one of the “crazy ones,” DORIAN’s fits of emotional unpredictability and candor ironically make him more human, while his partner Kennex’s almost-constant abrasiveness and cynical demeanor paint him as more the “automaton” stuck in one perpetual “asshole” mode of function.

I have to believe this was no accident when the characters were first conceived and written, but it’s nonetheless entertaining thus far.

However, to my larger point, the incorporation of Synthetic Soul into DORIAN and other DRN units like him demands a certain fluidity and constancy in dialogue and interaction with partnered human officers that seems more logical in a 21st century vision of law enforcement where society has degraded so. For 1987’s Murphy/RoboCop, the “programming” per se that was Murphy’s own human instincts and sensitivities — the very attributes that made him such a good human cop in the first place — were initially suppressed in the RoboCop sequencing. The manner in which Murphy’s humanity comes raging back against the original OCP programming underscores a subtle point that it was probably a mistake to try and make law enforcement solutions like RoboCop less human in the first place. Rather than minimizing the human element, the goal when incorporating such advanced technology into the law enforcement landscape should be to strive towards innovations that integrate more seamlessly with natural human functionality a la DORIAN.

Note that Murphy comes to rely upon the aid of his former partner Lewis only after he’s nearly FUBAR in the film, but upon doing so clearly becomes more capable of adapting to the circumstances placed in front of him and ultimately overcoming the sizable obstacles impeding him from delivering justice to the true villains in the film. In a best case scenario, RoboCop 2014 will take a page from its predecessor and Almost Human and hang on to its humanity.

Yes, high-end digital special effects do a late winter action blockbuster make. But, in setting a similarly compelling tapestry of a badly broken society where crime is at its worst, I can only hope that 2014’s RoboCop boldly strikes a similar statement that the best laid solutions in such extreme circumstances are those that recognize crime solutions function at their best when they compliment human ingenuity and perseverance — not replace them.

5 thoughts on “The Almost Human-ity of RoboCop: Pondering the Future of Law Enforcement

  1. This is a great article. The new Robocop will obviously surpass the visual style of the original, but the themes of the film are its biggest challenge. The movie will be again set in a fictional Detroit. Since the original film the real city has now filed for bankruptcy and become an example of the urban and social degradation that many have warned about – although whatever efforts were made top stop its decline never seemed important. It seems America was overall content on abandoning the city.

    If the Motor City fell to decline one can’t help but wonder exactly how technology really serves society. Is it a consumer-minded cycle of passing trends, ready to leave behind those who can’t afford it or can’t adapt? Technology is supposed to help us build and maintain society. We shouldn’t let our dependence on it define our humanity. The dystopic future always brings into question how we let advanced technology bring out the ugly sides.

    1. Thanks BernieB. The crazy thing is there is phenomenal research out there supporting the notion that major cities like the real Detroit have tremendous capacity to overcome economic blight when citizens rally around each other and basically work towards a more unified sense of community. And there’s nothing specifically technological about it — people simply working together and acknowledging the benefits of doing so can mean a lot towards reducing crime. Particularly in the community-oriented policing literature, the general sentiment is that good police work and crime reduction is largely a matter of synergy between formal institutions of social control (i.e., the criminal justice system) and informal control measures resting in the hands of John Q. Public.

      One thing for sure is that wholesale, one-stop efforts like marching ED-209s or RoboCop units out into the streets is never going to address the underlying factors that led to epidemic levels of crime in the first place. Especially with street-level crime…..low-level pickpockets, prostitutes, and drug dealers didn’t directly usher in the tanking of the auto industry or the housing market in Detroit. And so, unless there is a version of RoboCop or some similar product that is capable of reversing the individualism and extreme wealth stratification that underscores American society, such measures will likely never bring about lasting solutions to crime and other problems crippling the both the real and Hollywood versions of the Motor City.

  2. This this movie doesn’t look anti-corporation, it’s pg-13, Murphy doesn’t even move like a machine, and CGI just doesn’t look real….it’s a cheaper way to provide special effects. I’ll pass on this sh**.

    1. I must admit to harboring similar sentiments. Thematically, the clips being released from the film are beginning to make me think the human struggle within the Murphy character won’t be so much of an afterthought, but rather a significant piece of the film. But you may be right that the “look and feel” of the film will be hampered too much by it’s pursuit of a broad audience (thus, the PG-13 rating) and pretty much a video game quality to the film resulting from the CGI.

      One of the more interesting aspects of RoboCop 1987 was that the setting was visually uncomfortable. There was a junkyard aesthetic consistent throughout the entire film EXCEPT in the places where OCP business was taking place, and it all led to a certain believability that Old Detroit would be the kind of screwed-up place where a solution like RoboCop would make sense. Who knows…..but thanks for commenting!

Comments are closed.