Thursday, April 19, 2007

Driftwood 2007 & RoboCop

Recently, I had the high honor of serving as judge in a non-fiction competition at Point Loma Nazarene University. I judged a fine selection of student essays, and the results have been published in the Driftwood Creative Arts Magazine, Volume 27 (2006/2007 Edition). The contest winner is Matt Benson, who wrote a very interesting piece entitled "UCR Last Game vs. Idaho." The magazine itself is a lovely work, with essays by contest winners and honorable mentions in categories of fiction, poetry, photography, non-fiction and more. It was a pleasure and honor to be included.

Also, the magazine published a scholarly article I've been developing for some time, about the socio-political predictions/prognostications of the 1987 RoboCop. The article appears in its entirety in Driftwood. It is called "It Saw The Future of America," and here it is:

How many science fiction films can truly be termed prophetic? If Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) had proven accurate, Americans would be speaking Japanese and living side-by-side with humanoid androids by now. If Escape from New York (1981) had anticipated the future correctly, there would have been no 9/11 terrorist disaster...because the Big Apple would have been converted into a giant, maximum security prison in the late 1990s. As is plain from such examples, cinematic musings concerning the future have a funny way of getting it wrong.

However, this isn't so in the unique case of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film, RoboCop. True, Americans are not today policed by an emotionless cyborg wielding imposing weaponry. However, on the very cusp of the film's twentieth anniversary, the observant viewer can detect how so much of the world RoboCop unhappily predicted in the Age of Reagan has come to pass.

How did a science fiction - nay, superhero - film come to serve as a social critique of the very culture that produced it? In answering that question, it is critical to understand the history and context of RoboCop. During the 1980s, when the film was crafted, many big American cities faced daunting new difficulties. Because of the "trickle down' economic policies of the U.S. Federal Government, termed both "Reaganomics" and "Voodoo Economics" and aptly described by the Christian Science Monitor in December of 1981 as a hodgepodge policy of tight money, deep budget cuts in the social service area, and reductions in taxes for wealthy individuals, it wasn't necessarily "morning in America" as President Reagan boasted. At least not for everyone.

Here are some statistics to back up that assertion. First, the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was cut from 32.2 billion dollars in 1981 to 7.5 billion dollars in 1987-1988, meaning that government aid was less available for the indigent. Secondly, the number of Americans living under the Federal poverty line rise from 24.5 million to over 32 million in the late eighties. More than two million Americans were homeless by the later part of the decade, though President Reagan asserted that many of them were actually homeless "by choice."

So the poor grew poorer during the balance of the "greed" decade, and the rich grew richer. The middle class also suffered, with home mortgage interest rates teetering at a staggering twelve percent. The bottom echelon of American society was ravaged by street crime, and the yuppies at the top of society - men with names such as Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken - were proven corrupt. In some cases, millions of dollars were "stolen" through insider trading. This "greed is good" era of corruption, the age of characters like the fictional Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) from Wall Street (1987) was also the context of RoboCop.

In 1987, Hollywood responded to the prevailing Zeitgeist and a new breed of superhero film - a genre which universally focuses on social justice - gazed closely at these myriad 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 across the ensuing decades in films, TV series, cartoons, comic books and toy stores.

Described by his corporate owners as "the future of law enforcement," RoboCop was the 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 winking, toothless, laissez-faire government. Part Charles Bronson (another eighties icon...), part Batman, and part Clint Eastwood, RoboCop was introduced in the 1987 film directed by Dutchman Paul Verhoeven. Peter Weller starred. Shot in thirteen weeks in the summer of 1986, RoboCop was crafted on a budget of just ten million dollars, and Verhoeven was reportedly attracted to the material because of the comedic atmosphere and content of the screenplay. Pat of the satire involved poking fun at American culture and politics, and the course both were taking as the Republican Party increasingly won the war of words (and elections) in the public square. In the end, RoboCop accurately predicted two important facets of our contemporary American life: the corporatization of the culture and the coarsening of the mainstream media.

One pertinent joke in the screenplay by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner involves a "Lee Iococca Elementary School," an institution whose name equates a failed corporate mogul with a child's role model; on a part with historical figures such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Another rib-tickler features a mainstream electronic game glorifying nuclear war and based on Milton Bradley's popular game, Battleship. It is named...Nuke 'Em!

The latter joke is particularly funny since RoboCop arrived in theaters shortly after an event in which President Reagan had cavalierly joked about outlawing "Russia forever" and even threatened that "we begin bombing in five minutes." On a related front, Reagan had also asserted that nuclear missiles fired from a submarine could be recalled after launch. That was flat-out wrong.

Therefore, RoboCop's extrapolation of a future America where nuclear bombs were hailed as an acceptable part of the cultural landscape isn't so far-fetched. And today, of course, the press has reported Bush Administration plans to commence a new nuclear regime, one that features a reportedly "safer" breed of bunker busting nukes. It's eighties redux, and RoboCop predicted it.

America's seemingly endless propensity to drive gas-guzzling gigantic automobiles is also satirized in the prescient RoboCop. Commercials depicted in the film advertise for a new vehicle, the 6000 SUX (not SUV, SUX). The 6000 SUX offered a whopping 18 miles to the gallon, meeting it literally "sucked" gas.

Sadly, this is no longer the arena of science fiction either. With little regulation from Washington D.C., Detroit has regularly offering Americans super-sized vehicles that actually do get only 18 miles to the gallon. Fact has caught up with fiction. So much so that President Bush has finally addressed our nation's "addiction" to foreign oil. Still, who will ask us to give up our 6000 SUX?

RoboCop also dramatizes the cutthroat world of corporate one-upmanship. In the film, OCP business men not only vie for stock options and promotions, but actually kill one another to gain seniority in the company. An exaggeration? Perhaps, though today Americans' understand that Big Business and good ethics don't always walk hand-in-hand. In the fallen corporate giant Enron, for example, employees held discussions about the "Death Star," in their efforts to bilk the consumer, a way of literally annihilating opposition. Still, there's no murder charges attached to the company's corruption. Not yet, anyway.

RoboCop also accurately predicted the right-wing's push to destroy the Federal government (to "drown" it, in the conservative parlance). In particular, the movie comments on the relentless push towards the privatization of municipal and government programs, the dismantling of the social safety net. After his narrow re-election victory, Americans saw the effort manifest in President George W. Bush's now stalled drive to privatize Social Security and hand over the trust fund to the mercies of the stock market.

Much of RoboCop revolves around just such a notion, in particular the business conglomerate OCP's funding and administration of the Detroit Police Department "as a business;" an enterprise designed solely to generate profits. Of course, OCP only worries about the bottom line in this venture. Yet a police force should protect and serve the entire community, not merely a particular corporate interest, right ? Yet if the market is to be unfettered and unregulated, a hallmark of the Reagan Revolution and conservatism, who knows where the push towards privatization will ultimately end?

In toto, RoboCop's Detorit is an unregulated world of business run amok, and street criminals and board room executives work hand-in-glove to ruin the life of the American Joe. Ronny Cox portrayed Richard Jones, the Bill-Gates-like businessman who wants to push his pet project, an "urban pacification" droid called the ED 209 into production, despite the fact it is riddled with glitches (Windows Vista, anyone?).

Back in the 1980s, some right-wing media watchdogs (like the Moral Majority) decried the level of violence on screen in films like RoboCop, but even the blood and guts proved relevant to Verhoeven's indictment of eighties morals. Just two years earlier, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) depicted similar levels of horrific violence in a non-fantasy setting, but cloaked the horrifying bloodshed under the patriotic fabric of the U.S. flag and nationalistic pride, thus escaping criticism from the right. Those that condemned RoboCop for its gore missed an important and telling point: its violence was actually meaningful because it satirized the violence deemed acceptable in our mainstream entertainment.

Today, violence in the media is worse than ever. During the opening stages of the Iraq War, for instance, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all broadcast on American television the bullet-ridden corpses of Saddam Hussein's dead sons. Again, this was done with the blessing of the Bush Administration and an act cloaked in patriotism. Transmitting images of dead bodies is apparently deemed okay by the same government that strenuously objects to Janet Jackson' wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl. Thus RoboCop's violence soaked world, one with murder in board rooms and private homes, reflects our new reality.

Gazing at it twenty years later, one can determine how RoboCop got just about every detail of the "future" right. It did so by imagining a nightmare America where the Reagan Revolution never ended. Today, we seldom get movies with such careful and thorough social criticism embedded in their cinematic DNA, least of all in a mainstream "entertainment." Why? Because the same big corporation that lobby our politicians for favors also control the news media...and the entertainment - movie - conglomerates.

Welcome to the future...


  1. Michael A. De Luca12:22 AM

    To call "Robocop" prescient is an understatement. It won't be long before Social Security will be fully privatized and under the aegis of a KBR subsidiary, aka you-know-who, that is, dare I say, unless we get a person of a different political persuasion in the White House. And after war intelligence cherry-picking, the War Commisions Act of 2006 and indefinite confinement(paging Blake), black sites and extraordinary rendition, warrantless surveillance, open discussion of a CIA agent identity with reporters to get back at her war critic spouse, and one lying sack of an Attorney General, I am indeed making a partisan endorsement.

  2. joey_bishop_jr.3:46 AM

    Actually, did you know that at work I actually keep my pistol inside my right thigh?!?

    Seriously, the thought of a privatized or corporate police force is frightening. How different is that really than the "opportunity" to go to Iraq for a year and train their police, and come home with $100,000?

    Last night on Coast to Coast they were just talking about privatized prisons. If corporations have to lie, cheat and stael just to make a buck, can we trust them to safely contain hardened criminals? What happened when a multi-millionaire drug kingpin wants to buy "favors"?


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