Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: RoboCop (1987)

In addition to being a brilliantly-crafted action and sci-fi movie, the 1987 Paul Verhoeven film RoboCop has also proven itself a forward-looking and trenchant satire of (some) American values in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The film's use of humor and exaggeration to ridicule contemporary politics is not uncontroversial, either.

To wit, RoboCop is set in a future in which Big Business has finally had its way with the rest of us.

The police force has been privatized. 

A corporate media announces to the world the news that its overlords want disseminated, true or not. 

And raiders in the board room are just as dangerous -- and criminal -- as the thugs prowling the streets by night.  

On the last front, the film makes a clever association. Robocop very explicitly connects two forms of “crook” or criminal.  Both an OCP executive Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox) and drug-dealing, gun-toting murderer Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) recite an identical line of dialogue in the film, thus forging an indelible link between them.

That line?

Good business is where you find it.”

RoboCop thus asks a significant question about the direction of our country, which was then in the grip of an economic revolution: What gets lost in a society when the accumulation of wealth becomes the ultimate moral value? 

The answer?

Human life becomes cheap, and everything in society is about selling a product, and about making money.

Verhoeven creates an intriguing and effective tension in the film in order to effectively deliver his satirical points. Now-and-again, he cuts to funny TV commercials that are emblematic of the film’s corporate culture and media, and to TV programs that reveal how the masses are distracted by bread and circuses.

One of those programs involves a well-dressed white man surrounded by beautiful, scantily-clad models quipping “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

The insipid joke is itself an indictment of the culture. Everything and everyone is but a product, or for sale. 

Everyone has his or her price.

Verhoeven next contrasts these moments of high but illuminative comedy with RoboCop’s serious attempts to regain his human identity…to reconnect with the qualities that made him Alex Murphy, a loving family man and a dedicated police officer.

In other words, what RoboCop truly concerns is a machine trying to be a human being in a culture that is inhumane, and unbelievably violent. 

The film’s violence has often been criticized by moral watch-guards as somehow being over-the-top or representative of bad taste…and yet I would argue it is entirely appropriate to the film and its thesis. 

In RoboCop’s world, human life is disposable -- bought and sold for a dollar -- and so the film's violence is extreme enough (and oddly, funny enough too…) to make that point.  

Life is cheap, baby! (Unless you're rich and powerful...).

“He doesn’t have a name. He has a program. He’s a product.”

In advance of a major initiative to re-boot Detroit as ultra-modern Delta City, OCP (Omni Consumer Products) prepares to unroll its new product line: an urban pacification system called ED-209, created by Senior V.P. Richard Jones (Cox).

But when the droid fails, killing a corporate employee in cold blood, a back-up plan is required. An up-and-comer at OCP named Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), proposes to the CEO (Dan O’Herlihy) his own law enforcement system: RoboCop. 

But for it to work, the plan needs a good “human” candidate…a cop with a sense of duty.

When family man and cop, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is murdered by Clarence Boddicker (Smith) and his gang, he becomes that perfect candidate. He is rebooted as the mind of RoboCop, a cyborg police officer possessing at least some of Murphy’s instincts and memories.

Murphy and his partner, Lewis (Nancy Allen) attempt to bring Boddicker to justice, but eventually learn of his criminal connection to Dick Jones. Both are attempting to make a financial killing on the construction of Delta City.

As RoboCop,Murphy attempts to confront Jones and arrest him, but learns that he boass a secret directive that marks him not as a man, but as the property of OCP…

“There’s no better way to steal money than free enterprise.”

RoboCop was crafted in the mid-1980s and it's important that we understand that history, that context, as we consider the film’s satire.

During that span, many big American cities were suffering. Crime was on the rise due to the crack cocaine epidemic. The crime rate peaked in the early 1990s.

And government wasn’t helping much to alleviate the suffering. 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 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.

Additionally, more than two million American citizens were homeless by the latter part of the decade.

While the poor grew poorer, the rich grew richer, and often unethically so. Lest we forget, this was the era of Ivan Boesky, and Michael Milken, businessmen who stole millions of dollars through an unethical business practice: insider trading. In movies, these figures were synthesized as Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), a corporate raider who believed that “greed is good.”

Meanwhile, the same politicians who cut budgets for social help programs in the 1980s cravenly exploited the average citizen's fear of increased violent crime to win high office, notably with the highly divisive (and highly-effective) 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. First these candidates made life harder for the poor, and then they ran as "tough on crime" candidates, and imposed stiff sentences for first time drug offenders.

In 1986, Hollywood responded to the prevailing Zeitgeist of rising crime, and increased fear about it. 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 across the decades in films, TV series, cartoons, comic books, and even in a 2014 reboot.

RoboCop was shot in thirteen 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. The thrust of the satire involved poking fun at American culture and politics, and the course both seemed to be taking during the eighties. 

Indeed, RoboCop accurately and comedically predicted two important facets of our contemporary American life: the corporatization of American culture and the coarsening of the mainstream media.

In terms of its commentary on corporations, RoboCop depicts a company, OCP (Omni Consumer Products) strutting over the whole of Detroit. It has “bought” and privatized the police force, and now its vice-president hopes to introduce military grade equipment for “urban pacification” of the streets. 

This equipment, specifically, involves a giant droid called ED-209.  The only problem is that ED-209 has been already bought and sold...and yet it doesn’t work at all.  As Dick Jones points out.  “Who cares if it works or not?” because he’s already got a contract for it.  The idea underlining all this is that unregulated business, committed to laissez-faire principles, can’t and won't effectively police itself.

The same point is hammered home with the creation of RoboCop. OCP scientists program a police officer -- a cyborg sentry who should protect and serve -- with a secret or classified directive.  The meat of this directive is that RoboCop will shut-down if he attempts to arrest a high-ranking officer in the company.

In other words, OCP has “privatized” RoboCop so that the members of the OCP board are above the law. He can police others, but not them. “We can’t very well have our product turning against us, can we?” Jones asks.

Meanwhile, Jones is secretly allied with a street criminal Clarence Boddicker, with the goal of turning the “gentrified” Detroit, Delta City, into a drug-riddled hellhole.  And the reason? Again, profit. It’s all for money.  Human suffering isn't even in the picture for these men.

What may be most disturbing about Dick Jones’s behavior in RoboCop is not his sense of entitlement because he is rich and powerful, but his absolute disregard for the life of other human beings. A man is killed in the board room demonstration of ED-209, and Jones says, simply, that it is “just a glitch” that caused this (bloody death). 

Later, he murders his rival, Bob (Ferrer), because Bob dared to attempt to be successful himself, at Dick’s expense. 

And finally, Jones sees himself as above the law, reprogramming a police officer (RoboCop), and announcing that he is (“practically”) an extension of the U.S. military.

Pretty clearly then, RoboCop deliberately paints an unflattering picture of big business. Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker are defined in the film as two sides of the same coin: men who know how to “open new markets” and exploit the free enterprise system, no matter who gets hurt.

Sadly, such men as Dick Jones are considered heroes in the universe of RoboCop and one of the more wicked jokes in the film involves “Lee Iococca Elementary High School,” a name which represents the elevation of a businessman (and one who was bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer, to boot…) to the role of national hero and role model.

RoboCop doesn’t go any easier on the corporate media, or television programming. The heavily made-up, perfectly-coiffed glib newscasters of “Media Break” report, without irony, about the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” as the film starts.

The conjunction of the words “wars” and “peace” in one title goes unremarked upon. And really, how could it be missed? Quite simply, these aren't journalists, but news readers, reciting talking points to support the agenda of their employers.

In terms of the TV commercials featured in RoboCop, many are quite funny, and yet they deliver the same point about the blasé inhumanity of the culture that the film's violence does.

One advert concerns a family electronic game glorifying nuclear war (based on Milton Bradley's Battleship), called Nuke'Em!  

The game’s motto: “Get them before they get you!” 


As you can see in the commercial, every foreign policy challenge is met with the threat of absolute over-kill, a tribute to the blood-thirstiness of the populace, and an example, as noted above, of this future’s society’s inhumanity.

Why a game called Nuke’Em in 1987?  Well, again, one must consider context. The film was made 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 also made the erroneous claim in a presidential debate with Walter Mondale that nuclear missiles fired from a submarine could be recalled after launch. So the idea here of a future America where nuclear bombardment was part of the accepted military landscape didn't seem terribly far-fetched.

Even America's endless propensity to drive gas-guzzling, gigantic automobiles (when we know better) is satirized in the prescient RoboCop. Commercials depicted in RoboCop advertise a new vehicle, the 6000 SUX. The 6000 SUX offers a whopping eighteen miles to the gallon, meaning it literally "sucks” gas.  

My car, today, in 2015, gets exactly eighteen miles to the gallon.

RoboCop also accurately predicts our nation’s relentless push towards the privatization of municipal and government programs, the wholesale dismantling of the social safety net. Particularly, much of RoboCop involves OCP's funding and running of the Detroit Police Department "as a business" - designed to make money and worried, therefore, only about the bottom line. Is the company in the red? Or is it in the black?  

Of course, the police force should protect and serve the community, not serve the financial interest of a particular corporate interest. Instead, we see with ED-209, how business, police, and military interests all combine to create a fearsome face for law enforcement.  

And again, RoboCop must be considered prescient for making this point. Today, many localities literally have war machines patrolling the streets.

OCP’s irresponsibility towards the police and the protection of the community is contrasted, strongly, by the value system of the police officers actually depicted in the film. A sergeant, at one point, makes an important point when the idea of a strike is broached, noting that they are all police, not “plumbers.”  He feels a responsibility to the community, a sense that is wholly alien to OCP.

Contrasted with this cruel, heartless, money-obsessed society is the human and personal journey of Alex Murphy. He is transformed from a person into a product by OCP, but still possesses the feelings and memories of a person. 

Murphy’s triumph is that he manages to hold onto his humanity through everything (even death), and acts in accordance with his three good and moral directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law. 

And at film’s end, he reveals his victory aloud, suggesting that he should be referred to by his human name, Murphy, and not by his product name, RoboCop.

At least in this case, humanity has beaten the corporate culture. The "heart" of RoboCop rests in Weller's performance, and in the character's development.  He re-discovers his humanity after losing it, and ekes out a victory over OCP, at least temporarily.

RoboCop is a splendidly shot, acted, and designed film. Critic Michael Wilmington noted in his review that RoboCop has 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."

The film tells an exciting human story, but this is one cinematic effort in which audiences truly can’t separate the satirical message from the narrative details or content. The monster in RoboCop inescapably, is one of man’s own making. 

Intriguingly, the Frankenstein Monster depicted here is not RoboCop, a half-man, half-machine individual, but rather OCP, an organization that has been given legal permission to loot the culture, and determine its direction and health.  

As I’ve written before, science fiction films can lean left or right, and get their points across effectively. I’ve reviewed films positively that espouse each world view if they do so consistently and with wisdom. RoboCop absolutely leans left, and worries about what could happen to a decent, moral culture that allows a money-making organization to become more important than the community itself.

Today, we seldom get movies with such sharp -- nay scorching -- social criticism embedded in their cinematic DNA. 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 an iteration of RoboCop's world, getting the movies that big business want us to see, or thinks we would like.

And that, quite simply, SUX.

1 comment:

  1. Absolute spot-on insightful analysis of a masterpiece film. I remember reading in one he magazines where the screenwriters (Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) took the existing Reagan America of the time and pushed it a few more notches to the right. Not only were they astoundingly prophetic in the dystopian world they created, we have since far surpassed every aspect of the satiric elements (police militarization, corporate fascism, privatization, etc.) The use of Liza Gibbons as the over the top news anchor and the commercials are wickedly hilarious and pretty much sums up about half of the 200 of so channels on my cable right now. Great stuff!