Tuesday, November 15, 2005

CULT MOVIE MUSINGS: The Satirical & Social Politics of RoboCop (1987)

I admire a movie with the guts to totally rip the very people who were filling theater seats to see it. The popular 1987 film RoboCop - in addition to being a brilliantly-crafted (and very funny...) action/superhero movie - when viewed today proves to be a forward-looking and trenchant satire of American values in the 21st century. Why? Well, in no small part because we're living in the very corporate-owned and-operated world that RoboCop predicted nearly twenty years ago.

But let's review how this popular film came to serve as a pop-culture, social critique. It was made in the mid-1980s, and so it's important that we understand that history, that context. During that time, many big American cities were in something of a pickle. Because of the fiscally irresponsible "trickle down" economic policies of the U.S. Federal Government, it wasn't necessarily "morning in America" as some claimed. Here are some statistics to back that up assertion: First, the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was cut from 32.2 billion dollars in 1981 to a measly 7.5 billion in 1987-1988, meaning that government aid was less available for the indigent. Secondly, the number of Americans living beneath the Federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million to over 32 million in the late eighties. And finally, more than two million American citizens were homeless by the latter part of the decade, though President Ronald Reagan countered that many of them were "homeless by choice."

So the poor grew poorer during the balance of the "greed" decade, the rich grew richer, and the middle class suffered too (home mortgage interest rates stood at 12%) The bottom echelon of American society was ravaged by street crime, and the yuppies at the top of society - the corporate millionaires - were corrupt (Ivan Boesky, anybody? Michael Milken?), stealing millions through insider trading. This was the era that gave rise to Frank Miller's satire, The Dark Knight Returns, as well as RoboCop.

This was also the "greed is good" era as personified so memorably by the Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) character in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. The homeless were frequently portrayed (in film) as outsiders (in such classic films as John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness [1987] and They Live [1988]).

Disturbingly, cynical politicians also played on the average citizen's fear of increased violent crime to win high office, notably with the highly divisive Willie Horton TV advertisement in Campaign '88, which made note of a criminal African-American convict robbing, raping and killing a white woman during a prison furlough. The truth was lost in that attack sound-byte: the Federal Government also ran the same furlough program that candidate and vice-president George Bush criticized Michael Dukakis for administering. This illuminates an important point. The message of this epoch was plain: winning was everything; the ends justified the means.

In 1987, Hollywood responded - as only Hollywood can - to the prevailing Zeitgeist, and a new kind of superhero film gazed closely at all these societal ills. The result was not only a blockbuster action film, but the creation of a popular character that has not yet disappeared from the pop culture terrain, appearing over the decades in films, TV series, cartoons, comic books and toy stores.

Described by his corporate owners as "the future of law enforcement," RoboCop was this character's given name. He was a crime-fighting cyborg, a hero (and former cop...) who could walk the savage streets of a city in chaos (in this case, Detroit), as well as clean up the board rooms where the decadent rich snorted cocaine, soaked the poor, and went unregulated by a winking government. Part-Charles Bronson, part-Batman and part-Clint Eastwood, RoboCop was introduced in the 1987 film directed by Dutchman Paul Verhoeven. It starred Peter Weller as RoboCop.

RoboCop was shot in 13 weeks in the late summer of 1986 on a budget of just ten million dollars, and Verhoeven was reportedly attracted to the material because of its comic-book type of "origin story" as well as the comedic atmosphere and content. Part of the glorious satire involved poking fun at American culture and politics, and the course both were taking. Indeed, RoboCop accurately predicted two important facets of our contemporary American life: the corporatization of American culture and the coarsening of the mainstream media.

Some of the more pertinent jokes in the screenplay (by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner) involved a "Lee Iococca Elementary School" (equating a business leader as a child's role model) and a family electronic game glorifying nuclear war (based on Milton Bradley's Battleship), called Nuke'Em! The film was made, after all, in a time in which President Reagan had made a cavalier joke about outlawing "Russia forever" and even threatened that "we begin bombing in five minutes." (August 11, 1984). He had also made the claim that nuclear missiles fired from a submarine could be recalled after launch (which they couldn't...), so the idea of a future America where nuclear bombs were accepted as part of the military landscape didn't seem so far-fetched. And today, haven't we heard about plans to start a new nuke program with mini-nukes and "bunker busting" nukes?

Even America's endless propensity to drive gas-guzzling, gigantic automobiles was satirized in the prescient RoboCop. Commercials depicted in RoboCop advertised a new vehicle, the 6000 SUX (not SUV mind you, SUX). The 6000 SUX offered a whopping 18 miles to the gallon, meaning it literally "sucked" gas. Hmmm, haven't we all seen just such lousy mileage numbers today in our sports utility vehicles??

The film was also brutally funny in its depiction of cutthroat corporate one-upmanship, with OCP businessmen not only vying for stock options and promotions, but actually killing one another left and right to gain advantage. Today, we know that the fallen corporate giant Enron held discussions about the "death star" and the like in their efforts to bilk the consumer, although there's been no murder charges attached to the company's corruption (at least so far...)

also accurately predicted the right-wing push towards the privatization of municipal and government programs, the dismantling of the social safety net, such as President George W. Bush's (now stalled...) desire to privatize Social Security. Particularly, much of RoboCop involved OCP's funding and running of the Detroit Police Department "as a business" - designed to make money and worried only about the bottom line. Of course, the police force should protect and serve the entire community, not serve at the behest of a particular corporate interest, but if the market is to be unfettered and unregulated (as many believe...) who knows where the push towards privatization will stop?

In all, RoboCop's Detroit was an unregulated world of business run amuck, and street criminals and boardroom executives worked hand-in-glove to ruin the life of the average American Joe. Ronny Cox played Richard Jones, the Bill Gates-like businessman who wanted to push his pet project, an "Urban Pacification" droid program called the ED 209 into production, despite the fact it was riddled with murderous glitches. At least Microsoft Windows hasn't killed anybody yet. Again, at least not that we know of...

Critics raved about RoboCop, noting its social value as satire. Author William Latham (Mary's Monster, Eternity Unbound) noted in my book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television that "seeing a corporation as the ultimate savior and the villain at the same time, where a man becomes a product, gave this film a special meaning in the 1980s." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington noted that RoboCop had been "assembled with ferocious, gleeful expertise, crammed with human cynicism and jolts of energy. In many ways it's the best action movie of the year." In New Statesman, Judith Williamson praised the film because the "pace is zippy, the script is witty and the political satire is acute."

Some media watchdogs decried the level of violence in the film, essentially a big screen comic-book, but even the blood and guts were relevant to Verhoeven's indictment of contemporary morals. Just two years earlier, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) depicted similar levels of horrific violence, but cloaked the bloodshed under the patriotic fabric of the U.S. flag and nationalistic pride, thus escaping the same criticism. Those that condemned RoboCop for its gore missed an important and telling point: its violence was actually meaningful, criticizing (or satirizing) the violence deemed acceptable in our mainstream entertainment.

Frankly, except maybe for They Live, I can't think of another 1980s genre movie that so ably and pointedly satirized the time of its production, and that's why I wanted to remember RoboCop today. It's not only a rip-roaring action film, it boasts layers of subtext that remind us what the future looked like in 1987.

Amazingly, RoboCop got just about everything right. Today, we seldom get movies with such social criticism embedded in their cinematic DNA, least of all in an "entertainment." Why? Because the same corporations that lobby our politicians for favors also control the news media and entertainment conglomerates. So in many ways, we're living in RoboCop's world.


  1. robocop is an all time favorite of mine. its one of those movies i have great glee in surprising the uninitiated with. i have a lot of friends who like film a lot but tend to avoid commercial action and genre stuff. its great because robocop is assumed to be a regular, dumb 80s actioner, but its so much more. the satire is ruthless, fearless and hilarious. "i'll buy that for a dollar" has actually become a favorite cliche of mine. i particularly love robocop referring a near victim to a rape crisis center, kind of perfectly captures the treatment of female victims by an uncaring, inhuman beaurocracy. and the action and violence really go a step beyond. really exhilarating and surprisingly excessive even by the 80s action playbook. robocop ends up intelligent, transgressive, hilarious and exhilarating, a real film experience operating aggresively on the best of the brows, high and low. certainly my favorite work by the always entertaining (well, except for hollow man) crazed dutchman verhoeven. a close second: starship troopers, another one mispercieved as an idiotic action effort but actually an ultraviolent satiric joy.

  2. George:

    I couldn't agree more about RoboCop, it's a terrific and sharp-edged film, one that far exceeds expectations for an "action film." I need to watch Starship Troopers again and blog about it here...

  3. i can't say starship troopers is on quite the same level of inspiration as robocop, but i sure like it a lot.
    it really takes the piss out of gung ho war movies (i can't think of a stupid pro war movie cliche that is not done here in a deliciously overwrought fashion) as well as the gee whiz stupidity of the whitebread heroes of such films. the kids in this movie are really generic, moronic, archetypical barbies and kens. i think people took the satirical stupidity of the characters as literal stupidity in the movie.
    the one character who is a really smart teen here is doogie howser md, which is pretty funny. and he's made by the end to be a cartoon fascist!
    plus, the violence in starship troopers may not be as surprising and transgressive as robocop, but its still pretty ruthless, seeing hordes of interchangeable earth (american) heroes being torn apart in the goriest fashion by giant inscects.
    also, starship troopers shares with robocop the technique of using gag media cutaways, with the pro war interjections. my favorite has soldiers happily giving gleeful kids bullets, and the kids enthusiastically stomping on small bugs because we are being invaded by big bugs (as idiotic as putting japanese americans in prison camps in wwii).
    and the whole idea of earth using traditional earth military tactics to fight...hordes of inscects is as absurd as our style in veitnam.
    so i like starship troopers. it has teeth.

  4. I remember seeing Starship Troopers in the theater back in November of 1997. I thought it kicked ass the way RoboCop did...on a very satiric, tongue-in-cheek level. I need to get that movie on DVD and cover it here soon...thanks for the refresher.


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