Who wins the epic battle between cybernetic entity and hybrid robot cop?
1980s science fiction cyberpunk belonged to robots in the form of two mainstream classics of the genre, James Cameron’s 1984 smash hit The Terminator and Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 darkly comic masterwork Robocop. Though predated somewhat by the androids in Ridley Scott’s back to back science fiction epics Alien and Blade Runner and only a few years earlier by Star Wars, this was the first time in decades that metallic humanoids were the central focus of the film. Though separated by being antagonist and protagonist, both were bleak dystopian futurist thrillers with a keen eye for action, satire, and took place amid the decaying underbelly of industrial factories, skyscrapers and concerned machines impervious to damage…mostly anyway. Then in 1992, Frank Miller made the unspoken war between these two cybernetic icons official with the release of the graphic novel, followed by the videogame versions released in 1993, among the bloodiest ever made for the console system at that time by the way. Since these two have already formally gone toe to toe, The Movie Sleuth presents its next debate on which of these two classic films is better than the other?
|"Worship at the temple of my|
enormous chest. Do it."
The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron has reached that often sought after status only attained by the select few such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and most recently, Ridley Scott: the mogul. They’re as entrenched in filmmaking as they are producing films for other artists and have slowly evolved from little engines that could to full blown major Hollywood players with unchecked clout and oversight over their current output. Like all of the aforementioned elites in Tinseltown, however, their greatest achievements in film are still their initial breakthroughs into the mainstream and no other filmmaker is this truest of than James Cameron and his low budget indie turned box office smash hit, The Terminator. Inarguably the pinnacle of Cameron’s career and arguably its titular action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator is poised at the very top of the '80s cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction and presents a heavy contender against more expensive dystopian futurist classics of the era. While James Cameron was already heavily involved in the film industry including production design for Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror and having directed the low budget Piranha II: The Spawning, it was a fevered nightmare of a machine with red eyes rising up out of fire that would change his life forever and give birth to one of cinema’s greatest villains.
Since The Terminator, James Cameron has gone on to make some of the most expensive and commercially successful films of all time, including Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic, Avatar and the beloved multimillion dollar and pioneering sequel to the film which put Cameron on the map, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Though the dollar bill range would be increased dramatically with Cameron’s forthcoming efforts, his technical use of frenetic editing, gritty handheld camerawork with desaturated blue tinting and a penchant for sophisticated visual effects can all be traced back to The Terminator. You can also trace back many of Cameron’s favorite themes, such as repugnant corporatism, nuclear weapons, and our personal favorite, close ups of people wearing boots walking. When Arnold Schwarzenegger utters the now world famous line ‘I’ll be back’, little did we know neither he nor Cameron weren’t kidding as The Terminator would pave the way for their ongoing respective careers as two of the most formidable filmmaking figures in the world!
When Ken Russell called Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven’s first English language film Robocop “the greatest science fiction film since Metropolis”, he was onto something. Personally, I’d put it closer to Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb myself. Here is what should technically be a hard boiled science fiction thriller that early on announces itself as anything but! The tale of a murdered cop resurrected as a cyborg who slowly regains his humanity in a quest to avenge his own death is familiar to countless fans, but the heart of the film comes much earlier than that. In a spectacularly satirical, gut busting piece of black comedy, an oversized robot called ED-209 is demonstrated before a crowd of executives intent on sending the machine out in the world to police the crime wave sweeping Detroit. The comic absurdity of this scene is a frontal assault on the viewer’s comfort zone and doesn’t so much take you out of the film as it derails where you thought it was headed. Ultraviolent, goofy, absurd and cruel all at once, it’s an ingenious sequence that will be studied for years to come!
|"Do I scare you?"|
Not unlike the opening titles of Dr. Strangelove where phallic looking aircraft refueling is set to romantic music, all bets are off. Anything can and eventually does happen in Robocop. Equally elusive and a testament to the film’s brilliance are the Christ allegories littered throughout the film. During a snarky newsreel of Robocop on the streets, he is approached by a band of children reaching out to touch him, almost in a messianic manner. Robocop’s poor protagonist is quite literally crucified at the hands of shotgun armed criminals, is resurrected, performs miracles, and even walks on water near the end. There’s even a moment when police are trying to bring Robocop down with firearms and he falls to one knee with his arm outstretched, as if he were carrying an invisible cross. While there are still some that will of course read Robocop at face value as an enjoyable rock-em sock-em entertainment, there’s so much subtext and subtlety infused within the film it almost blindsides you and is easy to miss without looking closer. Simply put, Robocop is a timeless masterpiece and represents Paul Verhoeven at his finest hour!
While both are indisputable classics which managed to put both directors James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven on the world cinema map, The Movie Sleuth has to go with Robocop as the far better of the two. With its witty satirical black comedy and social commentary in addition to being a technically proficient science fiction parable about dystopian futures where man can lose his sense of self to mechanics, Robocop more than outshines The Terminator by being the smarter of the two. Both movies aim to entertain with science fiction thrills and depict our modern world in ruin. Unlike The Terminator, however, a relatively serious minded thriller whose humor is purely incidental, Robocop is perfectly happy to turn completely farcical at the drop of a hat and step on a bloody whoopee cushion, whistling in that it’s all a smart nosed goof. The Terminator and Robocop see technology as cloying and smothering our humanity the more and more we grow dependent on it, but at the end of the day, Robocop has a far more positive outlook on that idea. The hero of Robocop might be completely dependent on his mechanized body but in regaining his humanity outgrows the limitations of his nuts and bolts technology. Where technology is out to destroy us in The Terminator, Robocop is out to resurrect us.
-Blake O. Kleiner