This movie did not consciously cast itself in biblical terms. But, as a practicing believer watching it, I couldn’t help but think of the first couple of chapters of the Book of Job. And, for that matter, the first couple of chapters of Genesis.
In the movie, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinneman) is a Detroit police detective in the near future, who’s getting ready to bust a drug cartel. What he doesn’t know is that his superiors over at the station house are protecting this particular kingpin because he’s paying them. They try to distract Detective Murphy, and deflect and re-route his efforts to other areas, but he won’t be deterred. So the “dirty cops” do the dastardly thing they feel they have to: they put a bomb under the car of Detective Murphy. End of problem.
Except that meanwhile, there’s a security company called OmniCorp that’s not only developed well-armed behemoth four-legged robots to patrol the streets (they look curiously like the At-Ats in the “Star Wars” series), they’ve also developed human-sized robots that can scan people’s eyeballs for identification purposes, body-scan them for weapons and even monitor internal heart rate and blood pressure for “high anxiety” (read: suspicious character). Yes, the year is 2028, and we now live in a fascist police state. Where Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) is the pitchman and Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the head of OmniCorp, are dedicated to making us all safer. Of course the humans involved are not only subject to corruption, they also yearn for freedom and resent all the intrusions on their privacy. Some of them will even take up arms and fight the machines, even self-sacrificially, if for no other reason than to assert their individuality.
In the first couple of chapters of Job, as Satan, the Adversary, converses with God about the “blameless and upright” Job, a bargain is struck where bad things are allowed to happen to him as a sort of test. (Ya’ll can debate the theology later.) In “Robocop,” Alex Murphy, a happily married man with a loving wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), and a young son, is nearly destroyed by the car bomb. At OmniCorp, their top scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is willing to “fix him up” using mechanical parts (except for the heart and lungs – even the brain is “modified”). The grieving Clara agrees to this, but when Alex finally wakes up he is not at all pleased with the prospect of continuing life as a robot. He still has feelings for his family, but it seems that, too, can be manipulated by Dr. Norton. The practicing believer wonders if God “fiddled” with creation, making the human progressively more capable of free will, for instance – but with that sense of independence also came the potential for rebellion, right?
At first, RoboCop is the lawman’s dream: practically invulnerable, he penetrates gangs with impunity and mows all the bad guys down like some kind of video game (and that’s the level of emotional impact it has on the viewer). But there’s trouble in paradise: the snake has insinuated himself, it would seem, by tempting others to think they could be like God. RoboCop himself struggles with his remaining humanity, including the giant step of thinking about someone else above himself. Can he overcome his “programming” enough to love? To be somehow “his own man”?
Those not interested in sci-fi films might dismiss this as yet another superhero smash-‘em-up, but there’s more depth here. There are some fine secondary performances and some compelling human elements, as well as the underlying issue of “security” versus “personal freedom”; oh, and the action scenes are pretty slick, too.
Now, anyone ready to debate the origin and development of evil?
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.