RoboCop is one of the cruelest satires of capitalist culture gone nutzo, Reagan style. It portrays a world where basic public services have been privatized, profits are preferred over people, humans are transformed into primordial bodies, TV is a bastion of trash, and millionaire and former Chrysler CEO, Lee Iaccoca, is immortalized with an elementary school named after him. It also features giant robots, exploding melting men, military grade weapons, cypto-Christian imagery, and a perfectly placed bullet that rips into a man’s dick.
When RoboCop arrived in the Summer of 1987, audiences were craving something that seemed to bring a sense of order and justice to a world that was collectively sticking it to everyone. When Reagan stepped into office in January of 1981, his new brand of Republican neo-conservatism and nationalism was pushed to restore a sense of lost American character after Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis. Through “law and order” and free enterprise, Reagan’s new America of authoritarian police rule and unregulated markets created new and distorted values that we still live with today. RoboCop is both a sincere attack on this new consumer Americanism and police state tactics by embracing it and taunting it with a subversive gesture behind its back. Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script relishes in satirizing society with comic book humor and grotesqueries along with the broad, extreme strokes that Paul Verhoeven makes with his visuals and characterizations. RoboCop emerges as a savior against the coke fueled mania of the ’80s by taking the vigilante “judge, jury, executioner” mold, à la Dirty Harry (1971), and amplifying the violence into absurdity and self-parody.
Opening with two perfectly bland news reporters who deliver atrocities of the day with a smile and a commercial for a cheap artificial heart, the brutality of RoboCop’s future is instantly mundane and obliquely nefarious. OCP (Omni Consumer Products) now controls Detroit and is under scrutiny after the high number of casualties the police have incurred since OCP bought the Detroit police force. But this doesn’t prevent them from envisioning a new future: Delta City, with garish and shiny buildings like a matte painting from a utopian vision of the ’50s. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), smarmy senior president of OCP, then introduces the future of law enforcement for Detroit and Delta City by presenting ED-209, a clunky, bipedal robot armed with missiles and enough guns to fight off an army. There’s no more perfectly cinematic emblems of American excess and a belief in creating order through militarism and the threat of violence than ED-209, with its soulless design and monotone voice (and beautifully animated by stop-motion legend Phil Tippet). It’s equal parts nightmarish and ridiculous with its chicken walk and armory of weapons. Jones asks a board member to test the new robot by pointing a gun at it. ED-209 tells the board member to disarm or otherwise they’ll face execution. The board member drops the gun, but ED-209 glitches and is still threatening him with death. And like a beautiful middle-finger to automation, ED-209 fires a battalion’s worth of bullets at one man, who explodes in a sea of blood and nouveau riche business ready attire. Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) takes advantage of Jones’ moment of weakness to reintroduce his RoboCop program by offering an officer made from equal parts machine and flesh.
Simultaneously, every man, Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller), is transferred to one of the roughest divisions of the Detroit Police as the police force is in crisis over the violence inflicted upon the police and the impending labor strike against OCP. Alex J. Murphy gets teamed up with officer Anne Lewis (Karen Allen), whose first mission is to stop a bank heist. Leading the heist with his group of obnoxious, weaselly cronies is Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), a heartless bully who picks on everyone in his own team and carries an air of arrogance whenever he’s on screen. When Murphy and Lewis chase the gang into an abandoned warehouse, things go wrong and Murphy gets ambushed by Boddicker and his gang. Boddicker cruelly and masochistically shotguns Murphy’s hand off. And the film relishes in showing you the cruelty with a shot of Murphy’s arm as just a bloody stump. Boddicker proceeds to torture him until he finally kills Murphy in a barrage of gunfire. His remains are quickly recovered, and as a paramedic staff quickly assembles to salvage Murphy’s remains, we see the flashbacks of Murphy’s family life as the start to disappear from his consciousness. When Murphy reawakens, he’s no longer Murphy. He’s a reemerged, Christ-like savior ready to save Detroit from the dregs of society. He’s RoboCop, a cold and emotionless, but well-intentioned officer of the future.
This was all uncharacteristic for Orion Pictures. Orion was then home to the films of Woody Allen and comedies by directors like Johnathan Demme and Susan Seidelman. Though Paul Verhoeven had art house cachet from his international films like Turkish Delight (1973) and Spetters (1980) that prided themselves on hyper-sexual behavior and libertine attitudes while teetering somewhere between high art and trash, RoboCop was an action film rooted with very American ethics. Verhoeven was still a relatively fresh émigré to the US and was looking for projects better suited for his aesthetics and taste. But from studying the renaissance of American action films of the 80s, Verhoeven manages to create brilliant action scenes that are among the most memorable of the era. RoboCop’s showdown at a cocaine warehouse is beautifully frenetic and seems like a joke on the drug of choice of that decade. Cocaine flies throughout the air with blood spattering on all corners of the screen creating pure chaos and visual abstraction.
This was future shock informed by the Samuel Fuller school of filmmaking. No sense in presenting commentary as a covert undercurrent. Paul Verhoeven applies the same gratuitous, cartoonish style he used in portraying sex in his European features with the violence and excess in RoboCop. The new Murphy is as much as a caricature of the perfect American police officer as ED-209 was. RoboCop is as equally destructive, even if he lacks the firepower of his larger and deadly counterpart, but the remains of RoboCop still gives him a human quality and professionalism that’s lacking from its robotic enemy. ED-209 makes an amalgamation of animal sounds and mechanical whirring that gives it a sterile, frightening personality. RoboCop has little touches that make him human like clumsily telling a woman who was almost sexually assaulted that he will inform a rape crisis center on her behalf. This is partially from Peter Weller who can move the cyberpunk suit halfway between a Frankenstein and a baby learning how to walk while sticking out with those distinct, full lips of his that protrude from his helmet, making him both sexually ambiguous and human.
Unlike Blade Runner (1982), whose painterly dystopian vision of Los Angeles presents a carefully constructed future filled with crowded economic centers, mysterious ruins, optimistic technology, and philosophical androids, RoboCop’s future Detroit resembles the decay and ugliness of real urbanism. Wide city roads are barren and soulless and one of the few times people are seen roaming the streets, it’s to loot and destroy. Blade Runner’s gorgeous, futurist advertisements, that wrongfully predicted Japan’s continued investments in the US, are artful and elegant against the commercials stuck between Detroit’s newscasts. Between plastic news reporters announcing battles among rebels in Acapulco, racially motivated nuclear threat in South Africa, and the “Strategic Defense Peace Platform” killing a 130 people (including two former US presidents) from a misfired laser from space, we get commercials of smiling suburban families playing the atomic death board game, Nukem, or ads for the gas guzzling (and appropriately named) 6000 SUX. Detroit itself continues to be in tragic decline since the automotive industry began to vacate the US or replace jobs with the reality of what the future represents to blue collar factory workers: automation.
The connection between the world of big business, drugs, and crime felt like a too-real parallel to the current Iran-Contra scandal. Just four months before the release of Robocop, the Reagan administration admitting to making illicit funds by selling arms to Iran while funding the anti-socialist contras of Nicaragua. The contras were notoriously cruel and broke several human rights violations, among them mass executions, rape, and torture, and Iran was under the control of the devout Muslim and right-wing figure, Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite both groups seeming to be against the perceived ideas of western values, the United States was able to find one universal enemy that they all shared: the Soviets and leftist ideology. But by their process, the US was both creating the problem and selling the solution by creating a cyclical pattern where the big winner was the paramilitary companies who made massive profits. RoboCop similarly has OCP, which funds both the police force and the new future tech, while corrupt board members also fuel the cocaine and violence in Detroit by giving money to the people creating the problem. One of Boddicker’s goons says it best, “No better way to steal money than free enterprise”.
In today’s political climate, Robocop might feel downright cheery. We’re still stuck in the curse of Reagan’s ’80s as wage disparities are higher than ever and the population of Wall Street walks away from being prosecuted after creating the 2006 housing crash, the largest American market collapse since the Great Depression. Having a school named after the man who represented American business of the ’80s, Lee Iaccoca, seems tame in a world where former TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump, who amassed most his wealth in the ’80s, is president. Privatization too has made a cruel return as millionaires continue to profit off a flawed prison system and Trump himself as expressed interest in extending this to public schools, public transportation, and most recently, even air traffic controllers. There’s a sense of collective victory for anyone who has ever worried about their safety, their finances, and their rights when RoboCop blasts manic thugs and the rich into a bloody mess. “I’d buy that for a dollar”.
RoboCop screens June 16 & 17.