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April 30, 2014 4:12 PM   Subscribe

RoboCop (1987) Is an Almost Perfectly Symmetrical Film [via]
posted by figurant (35 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

So is Full Metal Jacket
posted by thelonius at 4:19 PM on April 30

Interesting! I'm so used to thinking of films (at least, relatively-conventional action films like this) in terms of the traditional 3 (slash 5) act structure or the heroic progression, that this was a little jarring at first. But although a few of them seem like a bit of a stretch, quite a few seem strong enough to make a good case.

Then again, sometimes it can be just as much of a stretch to fit films into the heroic/3-act structure as well. Criticism!
posted by Drexen at 4:38 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]

Related: Alex Murphy's death scene interpreted as dance.
posted by mediocre at 4:42 PM on April 30 [3 favorites]

That's cool. When I first saw symmetrical I thought it was going to be shot compositions, like Wes Anderson.

But it's important to note these films *also* fit into three-act structure. In the case of Robocop the end of his journey is in one sense where he began (as a human), but he's still going on a journey and facing and finally overcoming obstacles to get there.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:47 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

Actually I think the structure of Full Metal Jacket is not what he means by symmetry. Never mind.
posted by thelonius at 4:48 PM on April 30

ADAPTATION is also an interesting case, since there's a very clear pivot at the midpoint (when they're in the hotel room spying on Orlean). At that point it changes from Charlie's movie ("nothing much happens") to Donald's movie (drugs and fighting and learning and growing in the end).

I haven't carefully analyzed it, but I'm going to guess there's a lot of parallel scenes.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:54 PM on April 30

I've suspected all along that Robocop is a true ancient scriptural record. I will immediately post this to my Robocop apologetics message board.
posted by The World Famous at 4:55 PM on April 30 [10 favorites]

Say, don't you play the guitar?
Fiddle. It makes a big difference, you know.

posted by Wolfdog at 4:56 PM on April 30 [12 favorites]

So is any film if you pause it at the midpoint and then play it backwards.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:57 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

I'm curious about structural symmetry in other films. Off the top of my head: lots of Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining), lots of Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive), Hitchcock (Vertigo)? 12 Monkeys?
posted by naju at 5:40 PM on April 30

It's probably the sort of thing that film students can discuss for hours on end, and the rest of us have no clue about.
posted by naju at 5:44 PM on April 30

RoboCop (1987) Is an Almost Perfectly Symmetrical Film

Omit needless words.

But seriously, I read this yesterday and it was delightful. Also the comparisons on the same site of the Robocop movies to the Iron Man movies.

Still grumpy that they made Lewis a man in the remake. Even if it was Michael K Williams. Grumble.
posted by dumbland at 5:44 PM on April 30 [3 favorites]

RoboCop (1987) Is an Almost Perfectly Symmetrical Film

I'd buy that.

... for a dollar.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 5:55 PM on April 30 [20 favorites]

We watched the new RoboCop last night and it's more like RoboCrap amirite? Even though it had Michael Keaton in it.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:56 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

Boddicker shows up at Morton’s home and tells his girlfriends to leave.

That's more writing restraint than I could ever manage.

**muttering line under my breath even now**
posted by phearlez at 6:15 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]

also symmetric: the greatest music video of all time
posted by bruceo at 6:17 PM on April 30 [6 favorites]

relatively-conventional action films like this

Robocop is a relatively conventional action movie in the same way that Hamlet is a relatively conventional revenger's tale.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:47 PM on April 30 [12 favorites]

There's some stuff that are interesting but you don't want to put too much emphasis on it being symmetrical. I think there are a lot of things that are set up and and later echoed, but I doubt getting them in reverse order would be that important.

For example, we go from H partners split up to I Robocop at shooting range. Between those two, Murphy is shot and killed and turned into Robocop, which is a pretty significant event in the film, and the list glosses over that because it didn't have a match.

Also, for J, the connecting element is that Robocop causes property damage and the criminals cause property damage. I think if you picked two scenes at random there's good odds of them both involving property damage. The image used there of Robocop walking away from an exploding gas station comes from later in the movie, between L and M.
posted by RobotHero at 7:29 PM on April 30 [3 favorites]

This is pretty neat but it leaves some stuff out that might break the thesis. There's very little mention of the Morton vs. Jones subplot, for example.
posted by equalpants at 7:35 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]

So, RoboCop is an almost perfectly symmetrical film if you ignore the parts of it that make it merely a mostly symmetrical film. Does this impugn the quality of the original work? Not in the least. Does this weaken the validity of this particular thesis on the film? Yes, absolutely.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:43 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

I actual asked for suggestions of symmetrical movies and songs a few years back. RoboCop... not among the answers!
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 8:47 PM on April 30

also symmetric: the greatest music video of all time

Without clicking your link, somehow I know that you're talking about Sugar Water. OK, now I either sound like an idiot for being wrong or a liar for being right.
posted by Edgewise at 8:51 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

dumbland: " Omit needless words."

Omit needless words.
posted by meehawl at 9:00 PM on April 30

Edgewise, you are not alone.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 9:17 PM on April 30

Human becomes robot becomes human.

Was this "symmetry" not extremely obvious?
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:36 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

I can't recall the specifics, but years ago I had a really good film studies instructor who got really excited telling us how A Clockwork Orange was so symmetrical, that the film built to its midpoint and then kind of mirrored everything that came before, with both sections timing out to exactly the same length.

As a would-be artist, guys like Kubrick and Welles are really discouraging. They did stuff that was clever as hell, just dazzlingly complex on a formal level, while also telling a really compelling story. But you have to be a Kubrick or a Welles to do something like that, and the rest of us kind of have to choose flashy formal experimentation or compelling storytelling, and just hope we can achieve either.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:34 PM on April 30 [4 favorites]

Almost perfectly symmetrical = some mildly interesting parallels

A genius director = a director who can tell a good story working with a budget and time constraints

Must we put all of our favorite movies into the Kubrick grinder?
posted by Brocktoon at 10:57 PM on April 30

Neat. It'd be nice to see this fleshed out with a bit more analysis — as it is, the author has pointed out a formal property of the movie, but hasn't said anything that I could see about what this formal property does in the movie. Like, it'd be great if pairing up the scenes this way forces some pairings between scenes with no obvious similarity, but once they're paired, the juxtaposition suggests some interesting way of understanding those scenes. But the blog doesn't go there, or anywhere similar, so I'm left feeling like I don't understand the movie any better for having read this.
posted by stebulus at 5:53 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]

"Can you fly, Bobby?" <> [Bobby "flies"]
posted by blueberry at 6:17 AM on May 1

I'm curious about structural symmetry in other films. Off the top of my head: lots of Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining), lots of Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive), Hitchcock (Vertigo)? 12 Monkeys?

Those are all examples of parallelism more than symmetry. To explain:

Eyes Wide Shut:
1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1
posted by shakespeherian at 6:47 AM on May 1

Another symmetrical music video is the moving and mysterious Naked As We Came [SFW] by Iron & Wine.
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:03 AM on May 1

I get the sense that my conscious mind doesn't notice the symmetry but my subconscious mind sure does. Symmetrical movies leave me with kind of a buzzing feeling, as though it was well done even when the movie per se wasn't very good.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:38 AM on May 1

I don't know; seems kind of a stretch. Three reasons. (1) the three-act structure does seem to fit very well, so there's no immediate need to look for an alternative strucure; (2) as others have mentioned, you have to leave quite a bit of stuff out to make the narrative fit the proposed structure, and (3) the main point of the movie, the "payoff," if you will, definitely comes at the end, not the middle, as would be the case if the plot were genuinely chiastic. RoboCop arresting Boddicker and attempting to arrest Jones are significant plot points, but they're hardly the thesis of the movie. The most important events are the last few.

Compare to, say, the structure of Genesis 42-45, which actually contains a double chiasm. It doesn't really fit any other kind of narrative structure all that well, you don't really have to leave anything out to see the structure, and it makes perfect sense to think that the message of the passage is in the middle rather than the end:

1. (42:1-4) A. Jacob’s Sons Sent to Egypt
2. (42:5) B. Arrival in Egypt
3. (42:6-16) C. First Audience with Joseph
4. (42:17) D. Brothers in Custody (Reuben speaks for the brothers)
5. (42:18-24) C’. Second Audience
6. (42:25-28) B’. Departure from Egypt
7. (42:29-38) A’. Sons Report to Jacob (Reuben speaks for the brothers)
7’. (43:1-14) A. Jacob’s Sons Sent to Egypt (Judah speaks for the brothers)
6’. (43:15-25) B. Arrival in Egypt
5’. (43:26-34) C. First Audience with Joseph
4’. (44:1-13) D. Brothers in Custody (Judah speaks for the brothers)
3’. (44:14-45:15) C’. Second Audience
2’. (45:16-24) B’. Departure from Egypt
1’. (45:25-28) A’. Sons Report to Jacob

Here we've got two chiasms linked together in a larger double chiasm. The focus of the first section is Reuben speaking for the brothers before Joseph. The focus of the second is Judah speaking for the brothers before Joseph. Each is chiastic in its own right. Put them together and you see a single, larger chiasm, with the first element of the first section matching the last element of the second section, etc. And with the transition from the first section to the second we have the turning point: the transition from Reuben to Judah. At the end of the first section, the brothers come home and Reuben tries to convince Jacob to send them back with Benjamin. Jacob says no. At the beginning of the second section, Judah tries to convince Jacob to send them back with Benjamin. Jacob says yes. And the way the events are structured in parallel draws our attention to this transition. Judah's role later in the book gives creedence to this theory.

Now that's how a chiasm works.

Nothing like that happens in RoboCop. The plot may be superficially symmetrical, but it isn't trying to draw our attention to the events in the middle. They're only "central" by accident. The conclusion of the story is at the end. It's still a modern story.
posted by valkyryn at 9:50 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]

Like Charlie don't surf said, the broad strokes are a human is turned into a robot and regains (at least some of) his humanity. So yeah, him giving his human name right at the end, and twirling his gun, which was a sign of his identity to Lewis, that illustrates that theme very nicely.

If we go by the time, the very middle of the movie is Lewis says "Murphy, it's you." Strictly speaking, it's Bob Morton telling Lewis that Robocop doesn't have a name, he's property, but that comes just a minute after "Murphy, it's you," which is much closer to the centre than they got, and also seems more thematically appropriate.*

What the author identify as the centre of the symmetry occurs a little over an hour into a 97 minute movie, that's about 2/3rds of the way through. Murphy is shot in the head 23 minutes in, and is pronounced dead 26 minutes in. We don't get a clear view of Robocop until 30 minutes in. So if we do a three-act interpretation, what they identified as the middle is the transition from 2nd to 3rd act, and the death of Alex Murphy (which they completely glossed over) is the transition from 1st to 2nd.

But if you were to try to interpret it symmetrically around "Murphy, it's you," then the pairing for "Robocop is shot by a bunch of cops and almost dies," is not "Robocop is shot by the criminals in the drug factory and they bounce off him," but "Alex Murphy is shot by a bunch of criminals and (almost/ actually) dies."

But then you can't be too strict about matching scenes up, or you have to pair Dick Jones threatening Bob Morton in the executive washroom with a criminal threatening a gas-station employee. Like I said, there are a lot of things that echo earlier events, but you can't be too strict about the sequence.

* Also, I can't entirely explain it but, "I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening," always makes me cry. Always. Like, I'm wiping away tears just while typing those words out.
posted by RobotHero at 9:30 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Also the first shot of Robocop visiting Murphy's home is the reverse of the last shot of Murphy's memories of his family, only now the street is empty. We never see them in reality, only in flashbacks. Once while Murphy is dying, and again when Robocop visits the house.

If we treat the failed attempt at arresting Dick Jones as the centre of the movie, both of those precede it. If we treat "Murphy, it's you" as the centre of the movie, one precedes it, one follows.

My previous theory was Robocop was the opposite of the Terminator. Mostly based on the image of Robocop's visor being broken to show a human eye underneath, vs. the Terminator had a robot eye under a human eye. Terminator has a metallic endoskeleton, Robocop has a metallic exoskeleton.
posted by RobotHero at 11:56 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

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