Film * Paul Verhoeven * Buying That for a Dollar Since * 1987
Robocop is an important generational touchstone. I mean, yes, it’s a good movie, a sharp commentary on its time, and a rockin’ action flick, but it’s more than that. Ask any dude in his 30’s what movie of his youth fucked him up the most, and I can all but promise you the answer is going to be Robocop. This film traumatized an entire generation of young men, because we all saw it, most of us saw it illicitly, and the shit in this movie will absolutely damage young minds. As for myself, I was probably nine years old. Fourth grade? I don’t know ages. Anyway, I was not allowed to watch R rated movies because my parents were sensible and PG movies in the eighties were already pretty rough. However, my neighbor and best friend at the time had no such restrictions. It’s the friend’s permissive parent loophole, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. So, spend the night, stay up late, and watch grossly inappropriate movies! I saw Predator and Commando this way. And, of course, goddamn Robocop.
The movie wastes no time before jumping into the old ultraviolence. One of the first scenes takes place in a corporate conference room as an executive is unveiling a rad (for the time) killer robot. It glitches out and mows down some poor bastard in a flurry of bullets and blood and giblets. If you’re 9 this was both extremely awesome and extremely horrifying. ED-209 wasn’t traumatic, though. Literally for weeks after that my friends and I would be running around shouting “you have 20 seconds to comply” in cute nine year old robot voices before pretending to shoot each other to death. Precious. No, that’s not the part that fucked me up the most. I can’t speak for everyone, but the scene that haunted me for years – and is still a bit tough to watch – is the scene where Clarence Boddicker starts shooting apart a helpless Murphy in a grimy abandoned factory. Because holy shit, he just shoots that poor bastard’s hand right off! If you’ve seen the film you know how stark that image is, too. Murphy, caught flat-footed, lying on his back with all these guns pointed at him, baddies surrounding him and cackling like hyenas around him, and Boddicker just messing with him – ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne – before they blow him apart. Yeesh.
The thing about watching Robocop as a kid, aside from the deep psychological scars, is that you miss pretty much everything else the movie is doing. Verhoeven is not particularly subtle, but his vision for the future of America is striking in part because he does everything as large and as loud as possible. The story being told here demands a comic book presentation, because while the film’s premise is preposterous, the actual world itself is upsettingly plausible. The main conceit here is that corporations run the world, and are slowly but surely taking over previously not-for-profit enterprises. The main entity of the film, OCP, runs the police department of Detroit. They’re not super great at it, as you can see from the background of the film. Detroit, or more specifically “Old Detroit,” is a burned-out wasteland dominated by roving gangs of violent thugs. Yet the public has ceded the police to a private company, and it turns out that their priorities aren’t necessarily that of protecting the public. The reason ED-209, and later Robocop himself, are introduced is to clean out Old Detroit so that OCP can build a big prefab “city” and fill it with well-to-do, ready-made consumers. Meanwhile, the actual police are getting killed by the dozen out on the streets.
Once you get past the hyper-violence and the gross-out scenes and the garish TV parodies and the hyperbolic personalities, Robocop actually has something to say about the state of the 1987 United States. If you flip through the archives of this site, you’ll come to see that media produced in the eighties often have a dark undercurrent beneath that smooth eighties veneer. As a society it seems like we’ve been waxing nostalgic for the eighties since like 1998, and that nostalgia seems to have no end to it. Shout out to Gen X: we’re just as bad as the Boomers we used to make fun of, the world has no use for nineteen Transformers movies, I don’t care how much you loved the toys back in the day. That nostalgia focuses on the surface elements of that decade, though. The over-the-top hairstyles and the pop culture effluence that clutters up our perception of that time. Even something like Stranger Things, which walks that line between period piece and flat-out nostalgia fairly well, still succumbs to focusing on the fluff. Oh yeah, I remember Ghostbusters and Dragon’s Lair and whatever the hell, gosh being a kid was great. But then you remember things like The Day After and it’s readily apparent that beneath the Family Ties fiction was an uncomfortable reality of uncertainty and anxiety. Robocop, somehow, provides an iconic bit of pop culture while simultaneously underscoring what was going horribly wrong in society.
Robocop’s depiction of Old Detroit is hideously predictive, although to be fair to the city they seem to be turning it around. Verhoeven also had a keen eye for figuring out a source for the downfall of a major American city, and the forces which would allow a once great town to decay and fall apart. That source is, of course, the age-old issue of income disparity. In the film, and arguably in 21st century America, corporations are the mechanism behind the degradation of social structures and behind the decay of civilization itself. In some ways, Robocop is reminiscent of something like Blade Runner or Neuromancer. Both of those seminal works present a future dominated by corporate interests, and their glittering towers dominate the landscape and the populace. The teeming masses live and work in the squalor below the corporate towers, but the rich lead lives of incomprehensible wealth. The world of Robocop isn’t there yet, but it’s definitely in the planning stages. OCP, the big bad corporation of this story, are working toward the complete demolition of Old Detroit in order to build one of these massive planned communities for the rich. Before they can do this, however, they have to clear out the undesirables. Thus the killbots.
The problems that Robocop sets forth do not have easy answers, even though the movie does a decent job of making those problems very clear. Of course corporate self-interest is the principal issue. The various TV parodies that are inserted randomly into the film SNL-style depict another, which is the rather rote “TV is the opiate of the masses” observation. Robocop gets a lot right but it’s weird Verhoeven thought that Benny Hill was a big enough deal to become the basis for the next TV sensation. Beyond the confines of Old Detroit – rather like in Blade Runner or Neuromancer – is a nebulous understanding of not-city. We get a glimpse of the world beyond the urban hellscape when Robocop goes to find his old house in the suburbs. In stark contrast to the filthy streets of Old Detroit, the ‘burbs are pleasant. America is still found there, even if the occupation of real estate agent has been automated. Presumably the middle class still exists and is actively uninterested the horrors of the underclass in what’s left of the decaying city. Robocop’s overstated style is just the kind of shock to the system that the middle class might need to see to begin to understand life doesn’t end at the border of the housing development. It’s too bad that at nine years old the message was wasted on me.