30 Years Later, RoboCop Is More Relevant Than Ever

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Peter Weller in RoboCop. Photo: MGM

Has there ever been a movie more misunderstood than RoboCop? Paul Verhoeven’s hyperviolent dystopian cybersatire was released 30 years ago and almost immediately joined the likes of The Prince, Watchmen, and Wall Street in the great pantheon of works whose points have been completely missed by legions of fans and imitators. RoboCop was intended to be a viciously hilarious attack on police brutality, union busting, mass-media brainwashing, and the exploitation of the working class by amoral corporate raiders. Alas, all too many people only noticed the viciousness, not the targets thereof. As a result, the film’s subsequent sequels, spinoffs, and 2014 remake have been generally straight-faced. If they’re socially biting at all, their criticism is mild in comparison to their carnage.

Unfortunately, we can now add another faux-boCop clunker to the steel pile: Fox’s new police procedural APB, which wears its admiration for RoboCop on its high-tech sleeve. The female lead (Natalie Martinez) is named “Murphy,” a near-certain homage to the real name of Verhoeven’s titular super-cop. The show borrows much of its basic premise from the 1987 masterpiece: A corporation privatizes a police force and puts advanced machinery on the streets to combat soaring crime. Alas, it lacks any of the visceral criticism of its forebear, opting instead to celebrate generic cop work done with fancy toys. That’s a goddamn shame, because RoboCop is more relevant today than it’s ever been. Indeed, if we had collectively heeded its warnings, America might not be in the dire situation it finds itself in today.

If you haven’t seen RoboCop, you could be forgiven for assuming the movie is an earnest thriller, given its basic plot outline. In a near-future version of Detroit, a sleazy firm with the delightfully over-the-top moniker Omni Consumer Products* (or OCP, for short) buys up the police force — ostensibly to fight crime more efficiently, but really to test out brutally violent hardware to sell to the military. They could not give less of a shit about the actual police, who are planning a strike, and when one of the boys in blue gets shot to pieces by an OCP-allied gangster, his brain is surreptitiously harvested to make a cyborg cop with a computer-driven consciousness. After a rocky period as a warrior against criminality, he turns on his masters and regains his individual dignity.

But the plot is only half the story of RoboCop. More important are the tone and stylistic flourishes, which are astoundingly good ventures in pitch-black comedy. Newscasters announce nuclear armageddon and accidental presidential assassinations with ignorant cheer; folks use comically oversize guns to shoot at their victims for 20-second stretches, unrealistic blood squibs firing left and right; everyone watches a TV show in which buxom ladies hit on a hideous old man who incongruously shouts, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” at random; an elementary school is named after Lee Iacocca; and so on. It depicts a fallen world where tragedy long ago faded into farce and we’re supposed to ridicule virtually everything that goes on. If you’re not laughing, you’re not paying attention.

That is, in a way, the tragedy of RoboCop — you really do have to pay attention to get it. It’s a victim of its own success, insofar as what makes it hilarious is how straight-faced everything is. There are no winks to inform you that it’s time to giggle, so if you’re only half-watching, you’ll miss all your cues. That said, if you do pick up what the film is putting down, you’ll see a remarkable degree of significance for the world of 2017.

In 1987, Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner were extrapolating Reagan-era greed and enthusiasm for privatization by imagining a corporate takeover of public services. Now, that’s barely an extrapolation — it’s a serious proposal made by a startling number of America’s most powerful industrialists. OCP dreams of throwing off all government control in its Delta City community, and it’s hard to watch the movie now and not think of it as a kind of land-bound seastead. The Peter Thiels and Tim Drapers of the world have, in their infinite wisdom, concluded that government more or less doesn’t work and that folks would be far better-served if they were part of an entirely private polity that values entrepreneurship above conventional citizenship. Today’s techno-utopians may prefer Jobsian asceticism instead of the coke-addled sneers of Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton, but their ideology is closer to Bob’s than they may like to admit.

RoboCop makes a profoundly good case against privatizing the police force and, by extension, any public necessity. Sure, it makes the obvious critique that the profit motive drives people to carry out obscene miscarriages of justice like, well, using a near-dead body to secretly build a super-robot that can be shopped around to the highest bidder. But there are even wiser points, as well. In a nod to the robo-fiction of Isaac Asimov, RoboCop has to obey three hard-wired laws, along with a classified fourth. We eventually learn that the last directive prevents him from arresting or attacking any employees of OCP, thus exempting them from the very law enforcement they make it their business to enact.

That plot point echoes current controversies over Facebook and Google. As the saying goes, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product, and Facebook and Google — as well as a bevy of other digital entities — make their billions by mining users’ personal information. Each takes our secrets and our intricacies and auctions them off, but in a cruel irony, they themselves are black boxes. Some people are banned without explanation; others are allowed to remain, despite ostensibly breaking the terms of service. The core algorithms, so crucial to countless users’ businesses and lives, are opaque and will remain so until the sun dies.

Like OCP, Facebook and its ilk exempt themselves from the things they do to everyone else. RoboCop teaches us that a private service, be it a police force or anything else, will inherently lack the transparency and accountability that (at least in theory) is built into an entity beholden to the public through elections, recalls, impeachment, and the like. We trust free-market libertarians at our own risk.

What’s more, RoboCop teaches us that, when the forces of corporate overreach are at work, we have to retain power against them — power that comes not from robot suits, but from unions. Early on, we learn that the overstretched and underfunded cops, who receive not a whiff of the cash that OCP is stirring into its R&D division, are contemplating a strike. This becomes a running bit in the film, especially as the uncaring OCP chieftains start to favor their shiny RoboCop over the concerns of the actual folks on the beat. (To Verhoeven’s credit, the force has a substantial number of tough women, not just dudes.)

An officer who’s acquiesced to OCP control muses that “we’re not plumbers, we’re police officers — and police officers don’t strike.” The guy is, of course, totally missing the point: The fact that cops don’t usually strike makes a potential strike all the more potent. Not everyone has a tin exoskeleton, but everyone can create the collective armor of a picket line. Even then, though, there has to be a society-wide appreciation of unionization, as RoboCop points out — when the strike is put on the table, an OCP exec gets stoked about the idea of using it as an opportunity to put more robots on the street. In other words, RoboCop was talking about the tension between automation and working people well before it became a topic at the highest levels of political and economic debate. It’s hard to imagine these ideas coming up in a sci-fi film today, largely because union membership is so passé, free-falling at a rate that makes 1987 look positively communist. RoboCop’s pro-labor message was powerful then, but it’s vitally urgent now.

So, too, is the way Verhoeven and his collaborators confront actual police work. RoboCop is a metal personification of extrajudicial police violence, destroying bodies and lives with casual aplomb. He bursts into an attempted convenience-store stickup and viciously beats the gunman, then, without attending to him medically, bids the owners a calm “Thank you for your cooperation” and walks out. He reads a thug his Miranda rights while punching him bloody. He also has no idea how to interact with the community — after stopping an attempted rape, he holds the victim and, in his inhuman, metallic monotone, declares, “Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock. I will notify a rape crisis center.” She looks terrified.

Such overcompensating intensity feels especially chilling in the Trump era. The new president frequently depicts the “inner cities” as hellholes rife with murder, gangs, drugs, and (his favorite term) carnage. It’s not unreasonable to think the man in the Oval Office would love to see RoboCop put on the streets, fighting violence not with any kind of structural reasoning or community improvement, but rather the simple language of brutality. The irony is that he’s also in favor of unrestricted access to guns, which is another essential point of critique in RoboCop — everyone has firearms, and they accomplish nothing but mayhem and dismemberment.

Unfortunately, the mayhem and dismemberment is all that some people enjoy about the film, the ultimate insult to RoboCop’s teachings. We’re supposed to laugh at and loathe the use of violence. In this, the movie is a spiritual sibling to Verhoeven’s other tragically misinterpreted masterwork, 1997’s antiwar satire Starship Troopers. In both tales, the impulse to fuck other people up and over leads only to empty souls and dead bodies. The vulgarity of television and interpersonal conduct leaves everyone debased and pitiful. Our present moment is one in which the ability to take what you want at all costs, without the slightest bit of empathy, is espoused at the highest levels of society — in other words, a moment that RoboCop prefigured three decades ago. It’s time to listen to what the movie screams at us, to reengage with a movie that is simultaneously funnier, more thrilling, and more socially astute than most ever made. A RoboCop renaissance? I’d buy that for a dollar.

*This post has been updated to correct the name of the corporation.

30 Years Later, RoboCop Is More Relevant Than Ever