RoboCop: An American Jesus
Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is best known as the director of science fiction (Total Recall, Starship Troopers) and sexual exploitation (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) films, but it’s his evaluation of his first successful American project that comes into question. When speaking to MTV four years ago, Verhoeven compared his RoboCop as a modern telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, complete with robotic resurrection at the hands of disciples.
When the “RoboCop” remake was first discussed in 2010, Verhoeven said to MTV “How you do [a remake] now, you’d have to go into all of the digital world, and I’m not sure that would improve the soul of the movie, you know? The point of RoboCop, of course, it is a Christ story. It is about a guy who gets crucified in the first 50 minutes, and then is resurrected in the next 50 minutes, and then is like the supercop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure as he walks over water at the end. Walking over water was in the steel factory in Pittsburgh, and there was water there, and I put something just underneath the water so he could walk over the water and say that wonderful line, “I am not arresting you anymore.” Meaning, I’m going to shoot you. And that is of course the American Jesus.”
Gizmodo’s Geoff Manaugh recently published an interesting essay on the “machine-messiah” and how we can translate Verhoeven’s vision in more explicit detail. I agree with most of his analysis, but take issue with the “scientist-disciples” believing he will save them. Were the scientist’s disciples to the cyborg or to the corporation that created him? I believe the scientists who built RoboCop were self-centered individuals, the perfect model for 1980’s greed and corruption. They had no love or admiration for RoboCop as the disciples had for Jesus.
Robocop’s three primary directives can also be seen as relative to Jesus time on earth:
1. Serve the public trust
2. Protect the innocent
3. Uphold the law
The unknown 4th directive, cannot arrest or terminate an OCP employee, could be construed as a retelling of the Passion without the torture.
But post-cyborg construction, Officer Murphy memories and emotions are wiped, erasing all parts of humanity. The trace’s that can be found are fleeting, thereby throwing into to question the Jesus comparison. In the recent remake and the original novelization, Officer Murphy has more emotion than his 1987 predecessor, leading one to conclude that the human nature of RoboCop was left out to appease sci-fi audiences.
Paul Verhoeven was born in 1938 Holland and lived in The Hague, the Nazi’s Dutch base during World War II, during his formative years. In his own words, he witnessed images of violence including burning bodies and constant danger, influencing his graphically intense American movies starting with RoboCop in 1987.
RoboCop was written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, inspired by the “cop chasing robots” film “Blade Runner.” Verhoeven has says on the Criterion Edition of “RoboCop” that after reading the script, he discarded it in disgust, only to be later convinced by his wife that there was more substance in the project.
The writers (and also creators) stated that RoboCop was inspired by British comic book hero Judge Dredd and the Marvel Comics superhero Rom. The comic Rom appears in the 1987 film a couple of times as a tribute to one of the inspirations for RoboCop. Considered by some as a fascist movie, producer Jon Davidson referred to the film’s message as “fascism for liberals,” a politically liberal film done in the most violent way.
“RoboCop” came out in the late 1980’s when the decline of the American manufacturing industry was in full swing. The film takes place in Detroit, the center of America’s industry. These elements were used as the main backdrop for the futuristic rust-belt that Verhoeven craftily placed his Christian symbolism throughout.
RoboCop was the figure of Christ to the director, at the same time a representation of the decline of morality and rise of the machine to the writers. A perfect storm of creativity that delivered a powerful sci-fi film that resonates to this day. Detective Murphy’s horrible death was for Verhoeven Christ’s crucifixion and his rise as a technological marvel is the director’s portrayal to Jesus’ rise from the dead. Verhoeven even went as far to show RoboCop walk on water, albeit an optical illusion of actually having his feet ankle deep.
Verhoeven himself is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a controversial group of 150 scholars and laymen, whose main objective is to reconstruct the emergence of Jesus’ traditions during the first 200 years immediately after the crucifixion. Verhoeven is also the only non-theologian of the group and it believed he joined sometime in the early 1980’s after leaving The Netherlands. The director became an author a few years ago with the publication of “Jesus of Nazareth” based on paper he wrote for the seminar.
The film is a great example of how two or more artists with completely different ideas can deliver a deeply symbolic movie wrapped around glossy special effects for a B-movie genre. The original RoboCop deserves reevaluation as how one filmmaker can reconstruct a cyborg superhero into a deeply spiritual adventure.