I walked out of the theater and one of my first thoughts was this: In the original Robocop, Detroit was nearly post-apocalyptic. In the 2014 version, when actual Detroit is actually post-apocalyptic, fictitious-future Detroit has crime, but is otherwise a rather pleasant city. Strange thing, that.
All references to Robocop from henceforth will refer to the 2014 version, unless otherwise specified.
Robocop is what we get when a person who wasn’t raised in the United States looks at the U.S. and tells us what he sees. To say that its critique of the U.S. is thinly veiled would be untrue. It’s not veiled at all. The critique is blatant, even heavy-handed at times. And, one could make an argument that in order to get a message across to a generation that enjoys reality TV, such heavy-handedness is necessary. Of course, that’s not the argument I’ll make.
Instead, I want to focus on something I missed entirely in my first watching… or rather, something I thought less significant in my first viewing, but have since reevaluated.
In philosophy there is an idea of a slippery slope. The idea is that there are things that we can do that appear to be safe but lead us in a direction that strongly tends toward a place we don’t want to go.
For example, let’s say we’re at war. We need information. Bob has information, but he doesn’t want to give it to us. We’re killing people very day, and we’ll probably eventually kill Bob. So, what difference does it make if we use pain (read: torture) to motivate Bob to give us the information we need. It’s a small, seemingly innocuous step. The problem is, in that small step, what we’ve done is continue along the path of devaluing human life. From then on, we’ll continue to take small steps that further degrade human life. We might start euthanizing people who are undesirable to society for one reason or another, the extremely sick for instance. Next we take the very young with extreme disabilities, then to the elderly, etc.
That’s the slippery slope. The end is absurd. The beginning at first seems quite natural.
In Robocop, we see Alex Murphy, a good police officer, who is in critical condition after an attempt on his life. He has a solid moral constitution and mental stamina. He’s given the chance to have a semblance of his life back through the use of a nearly total artificial body.
The purpose, however, of rebuilding Murphy isn’t to save a life, but to create a super-solder with a conscience. It’s a small, natural step. It seems perfectly fine. But, during training it becomes clear that Murphy’s conscience gets in the way of his soldering. So, they turn it off. He looks like a man. He even thinks he’s a man. But, the truth is that he’s a machine.
After he’s mechanized, after the choice has been made to dehumanize Murphy, guess what. In the eyes of those who made the choice, he’s no longer human, no longer entitled to the rights of a human, no longer allowed to see his family, eventually no longer allowed to live. It’s a series of small choices that lead to an end that, from the outside is clearly absurd.
This is the strength of Robocop, as made by a non-native U.S. citizen. It’s made stronger by the fact that the director, José Padilha is from Brazil, where police murders and torturing were so common place that they had a word for the victims: The Disappeared. It’s n wonder, then that Padilha takes a dim view of the placed promised to be free turning into a police state.
When we first see Robocop acting mercilessly against criminals, we law-abiding citizens in the elite minority rejoice. Less crime is good, after all. And then we start to see police actually living this out, in Los Angeles’s Rampart experiment. In Ferguson, in New York, in Los Angeles. In practice and now institutionalized, the slippery slope is real, it’s happening in the United States and Padilha makes us look at it, personified, characterized to the level of absurdity, which is the natural end of all slippery slopes, when viewed from the summit.