ALIENS Vs ROBOCOP – The Battle to Decide the Best Movie Ever Made
It began as a joke, casual online rivalry, but it turned quickly into being deadly serious. The battle to decide the Best Movie Ever Made began in earnest on the Ginger Nuts of Horror with Kit Power and T. Wood choosing a side and presenting their case. Now, each writer will offer a rebuttal, as to why their opponent has chosen unwisely.
Essay Two – The Case Against ROBOCOP
By T. Wood
I’ve already covered why I believe ALIENS is the Best Movie Ever Made, and I’ll take that fight to my grave, so now I’m going to tell you exactly why ROBOCOP has no right to raise even a cybernetic hand to such a lofty title.
I want to begin by acknowledging that Mr. Power’s initial essay offers an interesting perspective, but much like the ED-209 shooting its entire wealth of ammunition in one misplaced attack, it feels like he has also run out of rounds very early into his argument.
ROBOCOP is (apparently) a brutal, social satire of the Reagan era, which relies on the crutch of over-the-top violence in place of actual story and plot. It’s not a bad movie, but if you want to argue that it is satirical, you need to know what that means. Satire uses humour, irony and exaggeration to ridicule and expose with the intent to shame individuals or corporations into bettering themselves. This is exactly where ROBOCOP fails. By melding man with machine in an attempt to create a more efficient method of law enforcement, it suggests that this is the very solution that these aforementioned companies need.
Consider the line Murphy uses as he attempts to arrest Emil – “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” ROBOCOP paints a bleak, dystopian future, somehow still rooted in yuppy-era ideals, where there will be no redemption or rehabilitation if you fall into a life of crime. Never mind if that life that has become the only choice for you in a society marred by financial mismanagement and rejected by city officials. If you’re a “bad guy” and you don’t do exactly as you’re told by the “good guys”, you’re dead. The level of extreme ultra-violence and surveillance used by Murphy himself is excused under the guise of him being the “right” person to be in control of it.
The police are seen as heroes who will go against the Big Brother corporations and are separate from the capitalism machine, which in 2021 quite frankly, we know is bullshit. In ROBOCOP the police act only in the best interests of the elite, separating the lower classes into “good” and “bad” individuals, with the use of extreme force deemed both appropriate and necessary. They are complicit in assisting with the gentrification of “crime-riddled” Detroit, and the cleansing of its city streets. Not least of which, Murphy is perfectly happy to destroy any amount of public or private property while in pursuit of his target with total disregard for others’ safety. Remember that gas station and its attendant?
Despite regaining memories of who he used to be, there is no resolution or positivity for Murphy. He is left with the depressing knowledge that his entire worth is based on his ability to take out criminals and act as a vicious cog in a corporate machine. The real message of ROBOCOP does not poke fun at or criticise ‘80s capitalist politics, but rather it suggests that peacekeeping in the future will be maintained through the use of superior firepower, so you’d best make sure you’re on the right side.
As for superior firepower, I’d like to go back to the ED-209 for a moment – do we really need to talk about those abysmal “special effects?” My kids have done better stop-motion than was used in this movie, and if you’re going to introduce a scary, weaponised robot, you better make sure it is actually scary. Think about how terrifying that boardroom scene could have been if they’d just made a bigger model. Or used more convincing green-screen techniques, especially when it’s chasing Murphy down the stairs. Don’t even get me started on a robot having a temper tantrum and squealing like a stuck pig when it takes a tumble.
Murphy as RoboCop looks cool. He looks tough, in control and strong-minded. By extension, he makes the police look cool. Where then, I ask, is the satire? Where is the humour? Can we honestly laugh at the apparent absurdity of a character that – cybernetic meddling aside – has become a bitter reality? If you want a better, more clever movie that manages to critique and denounce the militarisation of society, Verhoeven’s later offering, STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997) is a much better, solid pick.
Where is the hope? Where is the betterment? Sure, the victim gets to enact revenge on the bad guys who destroyed him, but his reward is simply to keep on beating bad guys. The increasingly terrible, dismally-bland sequels proved this point. Even Peter Weller himself had the good sense to walk away. The legacy of ROBOCOP is less of a successful franchise and more of a futuristic, stylised dead horse, flogged until the money and interest ran out.
ROBOCOP is a one-note movie that doesn’t always even play that note very well. There are a lot of things it could be. It could be an intense look at economic decline and civil unrest, exploring how our society has become desensitised to bloodshed and war. It might be a ultra-violent Christian allegory of the Resurrection story, as told through the lens of science-fiction. Or it could, quite simply, be a questionable way of glorifying law enforcement and transhumanism.
Mr. Power seems to think that the reality is far more clever and nuanced, and apparently everyone involved in the 1987 Oscars decision-making process would agree, but I don’t. If we are asking if it deserves the title of Best Movie Ever Made, we cannot ignore where it falls over. And like a sad little ED-209, toppled and enraged, it never manages to get back on its feet.
Why Aliens Isn’t The Greatest Movie Ever Made (Because It’s Not RoboCop
by Kit Power
Let’s start by acknowledging that we’re deciding which movie out of Aliens and RoboCop is the greatest movie ever made. I would argue at this point Aliens faces a hurdle that’s all but disqualifying just on its own grounds; namely, Aliens isn’t even the best movie in its own franchise.
That’s a problem, because the title we’re fighting for here isn’t ‘greatest movie ever made (apart from Alien, obviously)’. And that’s symptomatic of a wider issue; Aliens is absolutely A Good Time… but let’s face it, there’s a lot of movies obviously better than it, at least one of which is actually set in the same universe.
I have to also take issue with a factual inaccuracy in T’s first essay; Aliens was made in 1986, with RoboCop debuting in 1987. Given the long gestation periods associated with movie production, it’s therefore incorrect to assert that Aliens ‘wrote the blueprint for successful science-fiction action/horror’ and without it ‘there would be no RoboCop’. Drafts of RoboCop were circulating since 1981, and filming began in ‘86. RoboCop would absolutely have happened, with or without Aliens. Not to harp on this point, but the assertion also ignores the existence of The Thing (1982) and The Terminator (1984); both sci-fi action horror movies that predate Aliens by years (and also both better movies than Aliens).
None of this is to say that Aliens isn’t A Good Time. It absolutely is. I love a good sci-fi action movie, and Aliens is 100% that. But, you know, that’s kind of all it is. Ripley is definitely a brilliant, groundbreaking character, a no-nonsense kick-ass female lead… but so she was in Alien (a better movie) and so, eventually, was Sarah Conner in The Terminator (also a better movie) and, especially, T2 (which, in what is becoming something of a theme, is also a better movie). You want military sci-fi action in space? Might I suggest Starship Troopers, a film that will give you all the bug-blasting you could ever want, similar levels of gender representation, with the added bonus of also being a satire and commentary on militarism at the same time, (and, as a result of that, a significantly better movie)? Or, sticking with Paul Verhoven movies, Total Recall?
Also, T correctly identifies the real villain of Aliens isn’t the killer xenomorphs, but the corporation seeking to exploit that creature for commercial ends, and Carter Burke’s utterly amoral ‘profit uber alles’ approach to crisis management. But, you know, RoboCop does that too, and does it far, far better. OCP functions exactly like a neoliberal conglomerate multinational corporation does (or for that matter, a fascist dictatorship; ah, but I repeat myself): competing, rival executives leading up divisions working in internal competition with each other, some with ties to criminal street gangs as well as the cops, and all with an eye to ‘working towards’ what they imagine the goals of the benevolent father figure leader to be. I mean, it’s not exactly subtle, but it is rich, layered, dense, intelligent, and delivered in such a way that it’s all there to be read (with a level of efficiency in the writing that is jaw-dropping, incidentally), without, crucially, slowing the story down for a single second.
Like, all of that is there, in RoboCop, in a single 5-minute scene near the start of the movie that also introduces ED209 and features one of the greatest/most hilarious on-screen deaths ever.
In comparison, the commentary in Aliens is pretty thin gruel; it gestures at the broad themes, sure, but it doesn’t really interrogate it, or get under the hood – it really just serves as a way of having an agent provocateur in the team, which in turn drives the action forward. I mean to say, it’s in the movie, but it’s not really what the movie is about.
‘Fair enough,’ you may say, ‘but isn’t that criticising Aliens for what it isn’t rather than what it is?’ And the answer is, yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing, and in this essay, that’s not just a legitimate thing to do but a necessary one. We’re talking about the greatest movie ever made, here; so if one pick is missing elements the other has, that’s a problem.
And I think this single example really illustrates my entire thesis statement on the two movies, which is this: there’s literally nothing Aliens does – action sequences, body horror, effects shots, commentary on corporate culture – that RoboCop doesn’t do as well or better. I will grant the exception of Ripley, who is one of my heroes, but I will say that, one admittedly unforgivably bad scene aside, Nancy Allen’s Officer Lewis is a pretty tough fucking cookie in her own right, and certianly lightyears ahead of most non-Cameron movies portrayals of women in the ’80s.
Think about the insanely brilliant prosthetics of Murphy’s face welded to metal, a physical effect so perfectly rendered it confounds the senses, rendering the impossible possible before your eyes; or the brilliant combination of sound and animatronic design that went into the leg holster and ED209, or for that matter, melting toxic waste dude. There isn’t an effect shot in Aliens that can top those moments, and that same issue applies to all the significant beats of both movies.
Aliens reaches some great heights. But in every single case, that same height in RoboCop is higher, richer, smarter; and RoboCop does many additional things (highlighted in my previous essay) that Aliens doesn’t, indeed couldn’t attempt.
Because it’s not in the film’s vocabulary. Because such daring, such bravery and insight, simply didn’t exist in the minds of the people who created it, and therefore do not exist in the movie. Because they can’t.
Because Aliens isn’t the greatest movie ever made.
T. Wood is a gender-fluid hyperactive squirrel-cat hybrid with the attention span of a bumblebee on a caffeine drip. Sometimes they write stuff and it doesn’t completely suck. Has an unhealthy obsession with notebooks and gel pens. Weasel tamer.
Find them on Twitter @meringutang
Or at their website: tabathawood.com
In his increasingly inaccurately labelled spare time, he podcasts – on his own show, Watching Robocop With Kit Power, What The Hell Is Wrong With Us? with George Lea, and a Patreon exclusive show on the Sherlock Holmes canon with the legendary Jack Graham. For weekly early access to his fiction, non-fiction, and podcasting work, visit www.patreon.com/kitpower .