The Symbology of Robocop’s Helmet

An important thing for any creator to take note of, regardless of genre or format, is the symbology that accompanies a character’s appearance.  This is typically something that is passive and comes from the subtext of the story.

I was discussing the upcoming Robocop remake with some friends and noted the rumor that Joel Kinnaman is going to spend most of the movie with visor up.  The fact that a visor covers Kinnaman’s face in the new movie is telling of just how different it will be compared to the transitions Peter Weller had to go through in playing the character.

Here’s the classic Robocop with pristine black and silver armor.  The only true human feature he possesses is his mouth, though when he speaks, he sounds synthetic.  His movements are hydraulic, light reflects off his body with a bright sheen.

In many ways, he looks more like a new car than a police cyborg.  That’s the point, especially since the story takes place in Detroit.  Robocop is a machine, a product.  Dick Jones tells him as much.

Here’s a good point of comparison.  The pristine Robocop on top during his investigation of being told that he’s dead and a shot from where he confronts Dick Jones at the conclusion of said investigation.  Unable to arrest Jones because of programming directives, Robocop has to fight an ED-209 military robot.  This is the first time where Robocop is clearly at a disadvantage during a fight.  As they fight, Robocop’s helmet is damaged, revealing a human eye behind the helmet.

This only happened because Robocop started to pursue those who murdered Alex Murphy.  He pursues this with a singular focus, a stubbornness that defies his programming without contradicting it.  Of course, anyone cop who finds out they’re already dead would probably go hunting for the murderers.  It’s a natural, human reaction.

In time, Robocop’s helmet is so damaged, he has it removed.  Instead of just a mouth or an eye being visible, Robocop is revealed to have a human face to match his human determination.  After being forced to fight for his life twice, nearly failing both times, Robocop looks less like a pristine machine and more like a man who has fought his way through hell.

There’s still programming in the way of him delivering justice, but he presents facts and evidence, just as any police officer would be forced to.  At this point, he’s gone from being a flawless machine to being a man who attempts to convince others to take the right course of action.  He’s flawed and, for a moment, powerless in the face of the company who built him.

When it’s over, he’s asked what his name is.  Without any synthetic tone, he gives the only answer he can, “Murphy.”  Cue triumphant music.

My point is this: You can look at Robocop’s helmet and see just how machine or human he is.  It’s a basic metaphor that you can see with characters like Darth Vader or Doctor Doom.  You can find it inverted to some degree in The Phantom of the Opera.

The appearance of a character can tell a story.  What character appearances tell the strongest stories for you?

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