Drawing upon the framing and composition of the Western shoot-out, the expressionist use of light and shadows in film noir and evoking the spectacle of giant-monster B-movies, this image from Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) tells its story in a clear and familiar visual language. The ground-level camera position creates the illusion that Robocop dwarfs everything before him – the street punks, the damsel in distress, the litter-strewn and crime ridden location – emphasising his enormous, almost God-like status and moral superiority. Or more accurately, it is a projection of Robocop cast from the headlights of his patrol vehicle that tower above the urban decay of Old Detroit. In a city where the bad cops are on the take and the good cops are on strike, Robocop must fight his battle practically single-handed. His projection of strength and integrity is everything.
Robocop is the hero of Paul Verhoeven’s near-future ultra-violent satire on out-of-control capitalism, mass consumer culture and Right-wing vigilante films such as Death Wish (1974). The image is taken from Robocop’s first night patrolling the streets of Old Detroit, as he fights crime head-on, leaving a trial of dead muggers and castrated rapists in his wake. But unlike Paul Kersey, (Charles Bronson’s iconic vigilante in Death Wish), Robocop soon sets his sights higher than low-level street criminals. Following the flow of drugs and dirty money quickly leads Robocop to face his makers, the corporate elite that control America’s privatised and highly profitable prisons, military and police force.
So whilst this image shows Robocop in conflict with street crime, it is the billboard declaring THE FUTURE HAS A SILVER LINING which represents the greater threat to the innocent citizens he was built to protect. The tagline advertises Delta City, a vast construction project to build the city of the future upon the ruins of Old Detroit. For the film’s audience, this has already been intrinsically linked to corruption and violence after the newly unveiled model of Delta City was doused with blood and body parts as a boardroom presentation on crime control went spectacularly wrong. We soon discover that the silver lining has already been divided up amongst the crime bosses looking to make a financial killing in drugs and prostitution for the construction workers. In the hands of the corporations, the future is already rotten to the core.
And yet, offering citizens of Old Detroit hope is Robocop; Verhoeven’s vision of an American Christ – righteous, heavily armed and back from the dead to kick arse. At its core is the reanimated remains of Alex Murphy, good cop and loving father/husband, killed in the line of duty and resurrected as a crime-fighting cyborg. Robocop is bigger than Delta City, his silver lining is his bullet-proof titanium shell and his future is to protect society’s most vulnerable by projecting a vast shadow across urban crime, whether it’s being committed in the poorest neighbourhoods, or in the boardrooms of the most powerful corporations.