Detroit Robocop statue: Why Paul Verhoven's tragic hero is the right symbol for the Motor City.

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March 8 2011 3:01 PM

Detroit Needs Robocop

Now more than ever. Why a proposed statue of the tragic hero is a good idea for the Motor City.

Peter Weller as RoboCop. Click image to expand.
Peter Weller as RoboCop

RoboCop is many things to many people. To MT, the accidental city planner who originally proposed erecting a statue of the action hero in a tweet last month, he is "a GREAT ambassador for Detroit." (The tweet was directed at Detroit's mayor Dave Bing.) To the people at the public arts nonprofit Imagination Station, who raised the $50,000 needed to create the statue, he's a potential tourist attraction for the embattled city. To many Detroit residents, activists, and writers, a RoboCop statue is a tragic misuse of effort and resources in a city with nearly 20 percent unemployment.

As someone who has lost numerous hours to debating the merits of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film with fellow sweaty sci-fi cultists, I quickly joined the ranks of those who donated money for the statue. * Now, with the funds raised and at least one potential site (on land owned by Imagination Station) confirmed, MT's humble suggestion is on its way to becoming bizarre reality. This is probably thrilling news for some, depressing news for others, but I'd like to make the case for why the statue should be welcomed. RoboCop (the cop and the movie) is a great ambassador for Detroit. And though a statue to him won't fix the city's problems, it does have something important to say about the place and its plight.

I admit, at first glance, a hard-R shoot-'em-up dripping with Verhoeven's trademark gory excess might be the last 102 minutes of film you'd want people to associate with your municipality. When a populace enshrines a pop-culture icon in metal, it's typically in an effort to tie their city with some positive value. In Minneapolis, a monument to Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards represents a thumbs-up to the progressive politics Mary personified as a woman working her way up in the boys' world of television news. The Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art nods to the city's hardscrabble streets while celebrating the Stallion's triumph over adversity and poverty. But RoboCop's wasteland of crumbling cinderblocks, warped chain-link fences, and skinheads with dilated pupils is unlikely to turn up in even the most avant-garde Detroit tourism ad.

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And, it's true, RoboCop himself is far from a symbol of pure justice. The robot is actually the tragic personal prison of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a decorated Detroit police officer who runs afoul of some trigger-happy tweakers. Murphy's bullet-ridden body is brought back to life as the movie's titular cyborg by Omni Consumer Products, a soulless security firm that has privatized the police, is planning a corporate takeover of the city, and engages in back-alley deals with local gangsters. RoboCop's mission is to eradicate the "cancer" of crime in Motown, but he's also programmed never to arrest or attack the white collar crooks who built him. His mechanical adherence to protocol is thus not a virtue but a liability. A statue of him could fairly be interpreted as a statue to insidious corporate influence.

But behind the film's grim outlook, its insane levels of violence, its not-completely-necessary profanity, RoboCop addresses some of Detroit's most challenging issues, issues that were pressing in 1987 and remain so today.

For starters, Verhoeven's filmis the big-screen's second-best critique of Reaganomics' devastating effects on the economy of southeastern Michigan (after Michael Moore's Roger & Me). As Carrie Rickey writes in an essay for the film's Criterion Collection DVD, the movie "gleefully satirizes The Great Communicator's pet doctrines of free enterprise and privatization." RoboCop is commissioned by OCP as part of a larger plan to bulldoze the crime-infested homes of Old Detroit and make way for Delta City, a "utopia" of glass high-rises "ideal for corporate growth." Never mind the low-income families Delta City will displace, or that a conniving OCP executive is the one providing the criminals with the weapons that have made the area crime-infested—and in need of robo-policing—in the first place. Delta City is originally the brainchild of OCP's idealist chief executive officer, and his intentions seem pure. But he is oblivious to the ways in which his subordinates exploit his project for their own gain. The CEO (referred to dismissively in the film only as "The Old Man") represents the inherent risks of corruption in even the most well-intentioned efforts at urban renewal.

As for Delta City, it is clearly a stand in for the Renaissance Center, a controversial grid of skyscrapers (nearly identical to those in RoboCop) that was undertaken a few years before RoboCop was released and now towers over downtown Detroit. To this day, the concrete walls of the Renaissance Center are viewed by some residents as "a barrier to protect the rich businesses inside from the poverty outside," as the Detroit News put it in a 2001 retrospective on the complex.

The Renaissance Center is just one example of Detroit's long, troubled history of trying to revive its streets. Earlier this year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder proposed tax reforms that threaten five major construction projects in Detroit's older neighborhoods, including the cleanup of a 41-acre contaminated former tire plant.

RoboCop thus shines a light on Detroit's failed attempts to recapture its lost glory. That may not sound like the most inspirational of messages to evoke in a piece of public art. But now consider RoboCop himself, a character who represents triumph over this sad landscape. Toward the end of the film, he recovers his humanity when memories of his modest, pre-robotic life surface and his partner, Lewis (Nancy Allen), appeals to the brain beneath the circuits. Robocop removes his mask, defies his corrupt programming, and seeks vengeance against the crooked millionaires bent on sacrificing the city for their personal gain. At the conclusion of the film, after RoboCop blasts his nemesis out an OCP window, The Old Man asks the cyborg his name. "Murphy," he replies. He may have been conceived as a corporate cog, but he turns out to be a good cop. (As such, a more appropriate statue would admittedly be Peter Weller's human face stretched over a sphere of circuitry and wires, but even the biggest Robocop fans would be unlikely to donate money to see that.)

RoboCop may not represent Detroit's happiest or proudest moments, and while Robocop himself is redeemed in the end, his city is still in rough shape. But he is a fundamentally good citizen trying to better his city while struggling against the larger forces of big business, corruption, and poverty―forces that he is sometimes helpless against, sometimes even an unwitting part of, but ultimately better than. (He's like a character from The Wire, with titanium skin.) RoboCop is thus the perfect symbol for Detroit, reflecting both the city's persistent will to revive itself and the dangers inherent in doing so.

Correction, March 8, 2011: This article originally misspelled Verhoeven. (Return to top.)

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