Tuesday 29 November 2011

Films you haven't seen: Robocop

I've never seen Robocop. Well, I hadn't until last night, when the powers that be on Channel 5 decided to try and give me an idea for my blog. They're all regretting that now.

Robocop is one of those films, very much of the zeitgeist of the 1980s. It's duly become so much more than a film: a cultural reference point, videogames, toys - the whole schmeer. But I'd never seen it. This is always dangerous for films like that. You're already so aware of it that there's a danger the film won't live up to it or that it will appear to be a parody of itself.

SATIRE. Now there's a thing. There's a word which I've always seen applied to Robocop. I was sort of expecting a coruscating commentary on the issue of police brutality and the rule of law. However, that simply wasn't there. The satire exists instead in the outer cosmos of the film - the news reports, the glimpse of how big business influences society. At the centre of the film Robocop, I would have argued, is philosophy. I think that Robocop could well have been written by Alan Turing.

All the elements are there! Can robots dream? Can technology acquire a consciousness or a conscience? Are virtues and morals programmable, self-evident in nature or must they be acquired experientially? These are some high-grade degree-level philosophical posers.

Perhaps the ultimate satirical element to the film - and maybe one which was unintentional - is that for all of the near-future science fiction shenanigans, the whole narrative lurches awkwardly towards conforming to traditional generic codes. Of course Robocop has a female partner, she provides both a love interest and a cop buddy. Towards the end, unmasked and looking like Richard O'Brien's head attached to a Dyson, Robocop is anything but Robo. It begs the question, dare anyone risk a completely mechanical protagonist? When even Johnny Five manages to acquire sufficient soul to campaign for suffrage in spite of being made out of Meccano, you have to wonder.

Still, for all of its PHILOSOPHICAL SHORTCOMINGS, I found Robocop to be a highly enjoyable film. I particularly enjoyed the wonderfully exaggerated and graphic scenes of violence and death throughout - another of the films satirical elements that really work. The irresistible convergence of Hired Goon and Massive Tank of Toxic Waste was particularly magnificent. Such a shame he died (exploded) - he was only two days away from retirement (starring in his own B-movie franchise).

That's the strength of films like Robocop, and why we need more like them. It works on numerous levels. On the one hand it had me reaching for my university notes and reading lists to re-address the thorny issue of the Mind-Body problem. But before things got too Cartesian on my ass, someone got massively killed. In a cocaine factory. A factory! These exist. Even Gilbert Ryle would have gotten caught up in it, and old Gilb was a hard man to please. Especially after he crashed his car into all that toxic waste. Why can't there be more films which present significant ontological discourse with a side dish of grenades and PAIN?

Are modern action films dumbing down? None of this would have happened if Baruch Spinoza had written The A-Team.

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