Film: RoboCop (1987)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith
Written by: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
It can be a great thing to watch a movie as a child and see one film, and then watch it again as an adult and see something completely different. It’s kind of appropriate, given the current state of our country, that I recently rediscovered this classic tale of American decline. The dirty cyborg ultra-violence in the RoboCop film series morbidly evolved into a sleek kid’s franchise (which I, as a one-time aspiring robot policeman, loved), but the real genius of this toy robot flick is in the subtext. Like John Carpenter’s They Live, which on the surface is an alien invasion story and an epic alleyway brawl, RoboCop has a heart of punk.
Its great subversion is envisioning the end result of Reaganomics, a world of gas-guzzling wrecks and corporate feudalism. Detroit and its media serve as a microcosm for the rest of the nation, with talking heads attempting to distract the peasantry from the cataclysm surrounding them. The Benny Hill-esque TV pervert who chuckles “I’d buy that for a dollar!” is actually a fairly sinister figure in a society where businesses own everything worth having and leave everything else to rot.
The twin cancers of unchecked privatization and overblown defense spending come to a head in RoboCop, as Detroit’s largest corporation buys out the city’s police force and begins a process of replacing the beat cops with massively weaponized machines. Executives scheme against each other in each one’s attempt to get his pet project greenlit, yet the flaws of a drone police force are immediately realized when a boardroom demonstration ends with a walking tank glitching and gunning down a hapless executive.
RoboCop comes about as a direct result of that incompetence. He’s a step up from the walking tank due to his consisting of a human mind placed in a robot’s body. The acquisition of the murdered policeman who would be RoboCop leads to another interesting moral dilemma: the question of human beings as property. It’s assured by the tech people that RoboCop will not have the memories of his former life, but of course that isn’t how things turn out. However, that doesn’t stop the corporation from treating RoboCop, memories or no memories, as their product, to use and abuse at will.
Of course, RoboCop gets all triumphant action hero, putting his boot in Red Forman’s ass, causing one of the most disturbing toxic waste spills in film history, and generally saving the day. Yet the underlying theme of unchecked corporatism in RoboCop is much more interesting (and relevant) than the game of Cyborg Cops and Robbers that it disguised itself as. Clever trick!