“That’s life in the big city.” —Bob Morton
There are real arguments to be made that RoboCop is one of the best works both of excessive ’80s action film and of nuanced sociopolitical satire. You’ve heard them from that same friend of yours who insists, with a maniacal grin on his face, that Die Hard is his favorite Christmas movie. (I decline to comment on whether I am this friend of yours.) Unlike, say <>the ambivalence around Starship Troopers, RoboCop has always been regarded as at least a good movie despite the fact director Paul Verhoeven’s satire sails over the heads of both the film festival set and the way-too-stoked-to-be-watching-it.
There is a lot going on in this story of a decent man made into the tireless tool of craven corporate interest. Every scene is layered with some commentary or symbolism, including some of the blistering action scenes. Breaking down the entire movie would take a book. With it just turning 30 this July, though, I think it’s as good a time as any to look back at a film set in the near future and focus on the most stressful part of it: The fact that it may as well be set today.
Detroit Is a Monument to the Screwed.
RoboCop is set in Detroit in a near future that pretty much looks like we never grew out of the 1980s. Apartheid is about to cause a nuclear exchange, the Star Wars defense platform is something we actually spent money on, and Yamaha is making artificial hearts, according to the opening commercial montage. Telling little details pop up in the first few minutes as we visit local police and the sky-high corporate board room of mega-corp Omni Consumer Products, as well. A belligerent suspect accused of attempted murder brazenly offers the police the chance to soften his charges in exchange for paying his bail in cash right now. OCP, meanwhile, pats itself on the back on how it’s conquered every sector of business—including outright purchasing the Detroit police department from a cash-strapped city.
Between 1980 and 2010, Detroit’s population dropped from 1.2 million to 712,000, per the U.S. Census. Even in 1990, a New York Times article reported that the past three decades had seen the city’s population drop by about half. Just this past month, Detroit’s chief of police publicly stated he’d gladly accept federal help to deal with the city’s high homicide rate.
To be fair, the city’s crime rate has been steadily falling, but it consistently remains among the top five cities with the highest crime rates in the country. And there is some evidence that the city’s police have abysmal case clearing rates, meaning that criminals are getting away with their crimes.
Sounds eerily familiar.
Corporate Largesse and Petty Infighting Is Swallowing Government Whole.
The board room bozos of RoboCop have no idea what they’re doing, either. High above the city, OCP Vice President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) tries to debut ED-209, a massive tank of a robot that’s supposed to patrol the violent streets of Detroit. It just so happens ED-209 was apparently brought up to the board room (in what must have been quite a cargo elevator, come to think of it…) and introduced to everybody fully loaded and with software that doesn’t understand when a suspect surrenders. Be sure to watch the unrated version, where you’ll get an extra cut of the poor yuppie who Jones picks as a test subject being turned into chunky Ragu.
The death of a young toady is merely a setback and a disappointment, though. Up-and-comer Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) uses the opportunity to pitch the RoboCop program. And he mentions that “candidates” should be coming in soon. The unnamed president of OCP (Daniel O’Herlihy, referred to here in the film as in the credits only as “The Old Man”) buys it and approves the program.
The fact OCP runs the police department in this movie is supposed to be one of the most casually scary parts of it. So what are we supposed to make of it today, when an entire private industry has risen up to run our wars, lock up our convicts, and chase down our bail jumpers?
After Murphy (Peter Weller) rises from the grave to become Morton’s poster boy for mechanized crimefighting, he hits the streets to mop the floor with criminals. It’s clear from the outset that he’s just Morton’s ticket to the executive bathroom, rather than any kind of moral effort on the man’s part. It’s in that bathroom where Bob runs afoul of Dick Jones, enraged that his own costly and defective ED-209 program has been passed over. In another telling detail wrapped seamlessly into a charged character moment, Jones reveals his outrage is equal parts ego and corporate pragmatism: ED-209 was going to be OCP’s bread and butter, the source of contracts and maintenance. As he snarls to Morton, “Who cares if it works?” The fact Bob at least wants RoboCop to fully function is the sole quantum of morality he has on Dick.
And, just as Bob has stepped on Dick’s toes in the boardroom, his pawn RoboCop is stepping on Jones’ contacts in the criminal underworld. It’s not long before Murphy’s righteous rampage brings him back to the thug who murdered him, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who happens to be on Jones’ payroll.
In a gruesome twist, RoboCop’s programming causes him to seize up when he attempts Jones’ arrest. The message is pretty clear: Let an unaccountable company run the law and you’ll find it’s not bound by it.
Besides the corporatization of those industries I mentioned above, do note that U.S. politicians are all starting to look like they attend the same country clubs as well.
Violence—and a Sense of Hopelessness—Is Starting to Become Ho-Hum, too.
We’re not quite at the point where a police officer, like poor Alex Murphy, gets shotgunned to death by a pack of hyena-cackling psychopaths, but would you be surprised? In one of the most hilarious directorial choices Verhoeven made, the principal characters are hardly ever the least bit fazed by horrific violence (and all Verhoeven violence is stomach-churningly horrific). The ad bumps that he uses to set the tone and context of the movie also seem to hint at a society completely inured to it.
Is a city where most crimes go unpunished so different from the horror show in RoboCop? Is Chicago, where police once, straight-faced, tried to classify indoor murders as essentially not part of the homicide rate? There have been mass shootings in the United States with more casualties than some of the gunfights in this insane, ultraviolent action movie.
Murphy gets his men in the end, luring Boddicker’s pack of killers into the skeletal guts of an abandoned factory and killing the ever-loving crap out of them before scrapping ED-209 and taking down Jones to boot. He even reclaims a little bit of his humanity in the process—coming to terms with what he is and what happened to him, at least for now.
But the Old Man still owns him. OCP still reigns supreme. The city is still a wreck. The movie’s sequels didn’t review nearly as well as the original. I still argue they complete the story, if you’ve got the patience to watch them. It’s a familiar one.
RoboCop isn’t just about how mechanization turned one sector of the economy into a dead end. It’s really about the problem writ large, a sort of allegory for what happens when you commoditize a human the same way you would a robot and then start wondering which one you can get more use out of. It’s pretty clear right from the beginning that human capital is just another line on a balance sheet to Jones and Morton and the Old Man.
My early career put me in a depressed mid-size Midwestern city groaning under the decades-long absence of manufacturing jobs. Most of those gigs vanished before I was born. There are still some massive corporations there, but the jobs available to regular folk are fewer and fewer each year. The executives increasingly move away to major cities and lament that the local schools just aren’t turning out young workers who can pass a drug test and perform the work required. The executives then turn around and largely donate to Republicans.
“That’s life in the big city,” Morton says dismissively after a fellow executive pointedly mentions ED-209’s victim. If you watch the extended cut, RoboCop’s partner, recovering in a hospital bed with a beaten smile, repeats the line. It’s a reflexive sort of “Shit happens” saying in the world of RoboCop.
Would you believe there was something like that in that city I worked in, too? The smoke stacks there belch a foul substance. I had to live with my windows shut for four straight years. “It smells like money!” older folks would often say, in the exact same reflexive way.
It didn’t make me feel any better.
Kenneth Lowe would buy that for a dollar. He’s written for Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues Magazine and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and you can read some of his other work at his blog.