Despite the fact that I enjoy action movies, I think many films these days have too much violence in them. I’m not against violence in cinema, but I think it often lacks a purpose. Seeing a particularly gory gunfight is like witnessing a jump scare in a horror film; it’s often a cheap audiovisual trick to cover up lazy storytelling.
Of course, there are exceptions to that. For example, Robocop.
World-building Through Violence
The opening scene in the original Robocop is one of the most economical and effective introductions I’ve ever seen in a movie. In a matter of minutes, you are introduced to the hellhole that is futuristic Detroit and the uncommonly unassuming cop Alex Murphy. There is almost no time wasted on anything that is not essential to establishing the feel of the setting.
Murphy’s death scene seems more graphic than it actually is thanks to some expertly-done cuts that leaves the audience thinking it’s seen more than it really has. Even so, it doesn’t completely skimp on the gore. For example, the camera is squarely on our hero when Clarence Boddicker blows his hand clear off. That split-second drives home everything we really need to know about the setting of this movie and the plot of the film: this future is a horrible place, Boddicker is a monster among monsters, and Murphy has absolutely no chance to survive without becoming Robocop.
The Use of Gore to Drive Audience Engagement
The entirety of Robocop relies on two things: that viewers will understand and be entertained by the social satire that serves as the backbone of the movie and that they will see the setting as a place that is totally out of control and in need of a being like Robocop. You could try to accomplish the second point in a number of ways, such as by having somebody quote statistics or showing a large-scale violent montage, but statistics don’t breed sympathy and a focus on the personal is more effective than a focus on the big picture when it comes to American audiences. By showing the audience direct and grisly results one murder, rape, or arson victim at a time, the movie is pushing us very effectively toward the conclusion that something needs to be done and that Robocop is necessary.
This level of violence also turns off the more analytical part of our brain that might point out that the social problems that are causing these crimes aren’t going to be stopped by one man in a metal suit. By showing us visceral crimes, the movie is causing us to demand visceral results. What Detroit needs is social reform, but what it gets is a robotic police officer who shoots rapists in the dick…and we as an audience are okay with that.
If you take the violence out of Robocop, you wind up with a setting that isn’t really any worse than what we see in the real world and with a protagonist whose plight we don’t feel for as much. Murphy’s transformation into Robocop is both tragic and necessary; without the Robocop program, he’d just be a lump of cold meat on the floor of a steel mill. If you take the violence out of the movie, the audience is less likely to accept that him becoming a cyborg is definitely the only solution. Furthermore, if you don’t show Murphy getting dismantled by gunfire, the audience doesn’t get a feel for how far gone he is. Robocop then becomes more like Tony Stark’s suit rather than a vessel that holds the shattered remains of Murphy’s body and mind.
The use of gore porn in action films leaves me feeling vaguely disturbed about our direction as a society, while the tendency for horror films to go over the top with gore detracts from the actual scary stuff. But Robocop is a prime example of a movie that manages to use graphic violence in an effective manner. It gets the audience immediately invested in the setting and the character, all without wasting a lot of time on exposition.
Images: Orion Pictures