In a world where an actual CEO has become the leader of the free world, 1987’s Robocop is even more relevant now than it was in the Rubik’s Cube decade. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven held up a Magic 8-ball in front of moviegoers across America and showed them a dystopian future where corporations — fueled by apathy for the human condition, and a lust for profit — had run amok. Unfortunately, audiences glommed onto the wrong parts of RoboCop (namely the cool robot part), and over the years Verhoeven’s words of warning have become less like the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come, and more like the Ghost of Christmas Present. Watching RoboCop today is like staring into a fun house mirror: the image might be warped and stretched, but you can still make out the reflection – and it looks a lot like our current society.
Let’s back up a bit. If your memories of RoboCop consist mostly of watching the cartoon as a kid or playing with the action figures that accompanied it (they fired real caps using real gunpowder, something unimaginable in 2017), then you might not remember all the biting social satire that made up the majority of the original film. As with many 80s properties (*cough* Rambo *cough*), what started out as an extremely adult concept full of complex themes and over-the-top violence was dumbed down to its most basic premise (musclebound super-soldier, bitchin’ cyborg) in order to sell toys to kids.
If you haven’t watched the original film in a while, or have only a rudimentary understanding of 80s pop-culture, then you might be tempted to compare it to other sci-fi action movies of the era, like Aliens or Terminator. On the surface RoboCop certainly has a lot in common with those other classics – tons of violence, explosions, and witty one-liners – but dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that the film acts almost like a parody of those types that dominated the box office at the time. Instead of setting up cool action set-pieces that fulfill an adolescent male fantasy, a la Commando or Predator, Paul Verhoeven uses horrific acts of violence as a way to lampoon the “Greed is good” era of materialism (Oliver Stone’s Wall Street even came out the same year as RoboCop) where “enough” was a dirty word and “more” was the gospel of the day. Take for instance the scene where ED 209 fires a seemingly infinite stream of bullets into a poor OCP junior executive: the carnage continues well past the point where most films would cut away, until it becomes like a Family Guy bit that draws humor solely through its audacity to go on for too long. The malfunctioning droid just keeps firing round after round until there’s nothing left of poor Mr. Kenney but blood and scraps of what was once a grey business suit. It’s so ridiculously brutal that you just have to laugh.
Murphy’s execution scene is equally savage, with limbs being blown apart like fruit at a Gallagher show, accompanied by Peter Weller’s piercing howls of agony. Scenes like these feel like Verhoeven’s way of confronting the audience and saying “You like violence, huh? Well I’m going to give you so much violence that by the time it’s over you won’t even be able to look at a paper cut without reaching for a barf-bag!” Indeed, Verhoeven’s sadistic excess feels at times like the celluloid equivalent of a dad catching his son smoking a cigarette and making him finish the whole pack as punishment. It might seem odd to use obscene amounts of violence as a metaphor for obscene amounts of personal wealth, but Verhoeven is far from the only one to do so. Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (the novel) both came out around the same time as RoboCop, and both use the same over-the-top violence to comment on Reagan-era excess.
Of course, if RoboCop were only a dark reflection of the time period in which it was birthed, we would look at it all these years later as nothing more than a pitch-black time capsule of a more cynical era, but Verhoeven’s vision of a world where corporate greed leaves the boardroom and infiltrates our social programs and public infrastructure manages to transcend the decade of Duran Duran and big hair to maintain its urgency in a world of iPhones and YouTube.
Sure, we may not have a Microsoft-run police force or a Verizon-sponsored fire department yet, but we do have corporate-owned, for-profit prisons, and there’s a big push for the privatization of public schools. In a world where corporations have been legally deemed “people,” and companies are starting to implant microchips under the surface of their employees flesh, lines of dialogue like “He doesn’t have a name – he has a program. He’s product” seem less like some satirical nightmare future and more like a forgone conclusion.
RoboCop is of course more than just Paul Verhoeven’s scathing indictment of uber-capitalism; it’s also a rumination on what makes us human, how much of our physical selves we can lose before we lose our identity, and a commentary on society’s desensitization after years of being on the brink of nuclear war. It’s even — with Murphy’s death and resurrection — a kind of Christ allegory. In truth, RoboCop satirizes, parodies, and subverts so many genres and facets of our society that each example deserves an article of its own to do it justice, but one fears that to drone on and on, word after word on one film would risk becoming the very gluttonous overkill that RoboCop makes fun of.
All in all, despite being older than most of the people probably reading this, RoboCop feels as fresh today as the day it came out; its comedy is still black, its blood is still red (and copious), and its satirical wit has only been sharpened with age. After thirty years, I’d still buy that for a dollar, and you should too.