‘Robocop’ at 30: How The Sci-Fi Classic Reflects Contemporary American Anxieties

30 years ago, Paul Verhoeven unleashed a violent social satire of the Reagan era, but is it still as relevant today as it was back then?
By  · Published on July 14th, 2017

30 years ago, Paul Verhoeven unleashed a violent social satire of the Reagan era, but is it still as relevant today as it was back then?

When Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop debuted in 1987, it was a sleeper hit. Set in a futuristic Detroit burdened by escalating crime and economic depression, the film tells the story of an assassinated police officer. Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller). Murphy is brought back to life as half man/half cyborg mutation to uphold the law on behalf of a corrupt organization willing to break it at any cost if it suits their agenda. However, as the story progresses, Murphy begins to regain his memories of the life he left behind, which sets him on a path to find his murderers and deal with them accordingly.

Robocop is a myriad of things, which is why it still holds up remarkably well to this day. On the one hand, the film is a Christian allegory about the Resurrection told through the guise of science fiction. On the other, it’s an examination of the human identity in an age of rapid technological advancement. That said, the main themes in Robocop highlight the societal concerns present in 1980s America, a period where civil unrest spawned as a result of economic decline and political scandals. As such, the film has garnered somewhat of a prophetic reputation throughout the years, as some of the anxieties it depicted are still relevant today.

Let’s take a look at them and see how they persist today.

The Decline of Industry

The decline of the American manufacturing industry, particularly in Michigan and the “Rust Belt’’ states, during the ‘70s and ‘80s was the primary motivator in the creation of RoboCop. As the film’s writer, Ed Neumeier, told CNN: “The sculpture of it is very much Detroit road-iron… having grown up in the ‘60s when the muscle car was so prominent, the notion of cars was fundamental to me then and ultimately to the formation of RoboCop.”

Once considered the driving force behind the country’s automotive industry and home to the industry leaders like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, Detroit saw a sharp decrease in vehicle production during this era due to the emergence of imports from Japan. This, in turn, saw the Land of the Rising Sun establish itself as a global force. In Robocop, the local community has broken down and escalated into violence as a result of mass unemployment; unfortunately, it also mirrored real-life anxieties at the time.

The loss of jobs bred hostility among some aggrieved workers and citizens across America, which led to the “Japan bashing” phenomenon and a period of racial hate crimes As our very own Farah Cheded pointed out in her examination of Blade Runner, “In Detroit, Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American mistaken to be Japanese, was killed by two white Americans who had targeted him because of his race, blaming him for their redundancies in the automotive industry.”

Neumeier’s future vision for the Motor City might have been born from the city’s economic misfortunes back then, but the suggestion that things would only get worse proved to be prescient when the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013. And while the last couple of years has marked somewhat of a recovery for Detroit and America’s auto industry, manufacturers are cutting jobs once again following months of decline.

American industry has been a hot topic of late, with President Trump promising to create more steel and coal jobs. In June, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt claimed that ‘almost 50,000 jobs’ had been gained since the fourth quarter of 2016. His claims have since been refuted, with Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that the number is 1,300. Fake news?

Elsewhere, the retail industry has also been suffering in the last couple of years as brick-and-mortar stores are struggling to compete with e-commerce. According to The Atlantic, “Between 2010 and last year, Amazon’s sales in North America quintupled from $16 billion to $80 billion.” The article also highlights the nine retail bankruptcies so far in 2017, which has equaled last year’s already and highlights a growing concern for the future of stores. If the ED-209 and RoboCop himself showed us anything in Paul Verhoeven’s film, it’s that humans become obsolete and disposable when there are alternative, cost-effective solutions available. The idea that technology is rapidly changing and leaving humanity behind is nothing new, and with the growth of e-commerce, there is a growing fear that store workers will be obsolete in the near future.

Capitalism & Privatization

The dystopian imagination often seeks to make us wary of the power and influence of big businesses. Whether it’s the Soylent Corporation in Soylent Green or the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, science fiction storytelling has a tendency to portray corporations as evil capitalists willing to ignore social responsibility to turn a profit. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so far-fetched from reality either – and RoboCop was unleashed during a period where such issues were prevalent in the social discourse.

In an interview with The Dissolve, Neumeier stated that his idea from the outset was to make fun of corrupt capitalism. “I had been thinking about an idea, making fun of what was going on in the world of business in the 1980s. At that time, the hot books about Wall Street were stuff like The Book Of Five Rings, which was a book by a samurai warrior in 17th-century Japan about how to kill more effectively.”

In the film, the Omni Corporation controls Detroit’s police and health care services. They also create everything from military weaponry to everyday household items regular people use. They have a plan to gentrify the city and turn it into the ultra-upscale Delta City, but first, they must reduce crime rates, which leads to the creation of RoboCop.

The satire is presented through interwoven fake TV commercials which mock American capitalism and politics. Take, for example, an ad for a board game called Nukem which features a family engaging in nuclear war around the coffee table, or the one where a car thief is electrocuted by a seatbelt. These scenes commentate on an accelerating consumerist culture and the idea that companies will do anything to make a quick buck — no matter how unethical it is.

The Omni Corporation also draw parallels to the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra scandal, where Colonel Oliver North illegally sold weapons to Iran to help rebels combat Nicaragua’s Socialist government. In RoboCop, the head of the company is simply referred to as “Old Man” and is portrayed as an ignorant fool who is unaware of the unlawful scheming being carried out by his executives. While it’s up for debate how involved Reagan was in the Iran-Contra conspiracy, Omni’s president is reflective of public perception of Reagan during the 1980s. Furthermore, in the film, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) hires criminal Clarence J. Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) to do this dirty work, it draws comparisons to America using Iran to do theirs.

RoboCop predicted how capitalism and politics would become even more intertwined and how the latter has become increasingly bound to private money. Privatization isn’t a recent phenomenon by any means in the U.S., but Trump’s presidential campaign was built on the premise that he was a successful business person who understood the economy better than traditional politicians. Since taking office, his government has been adamant about continuing the trend as evidenced by plans to privatize air traffic control, Afghanistan, and the Veteran’s Health Administration.

If the proposed Obamacare reforms go ahead, it would take away a security blanket for many uninsured American citizens who can’t afford healthcare. Like the corrupt capitalists of the Omni Corporation, proponent’s of the Bill have been criticized for being inhumane — as if they see regular people as statistics and not individuals.

Militarization of U.S. Police Force

Another way in which Robocop is considered prescient pertains to the militarization of the police force. In the movie, our Robocop’s prime directives are to “serve the public trust”, “protect the innocent” and “uphold the law.” This gives him the authority to carry out his duties through any violent means necessary.

In Margaret Barton-Fumo’s book, “Paul Verhoeven: Interviews”the director stated that “[The film] was a critique of Texas’ ultraconservative justice system, in which it can seem that criminals can get condemned in a minute and are executed just a couple of hours later.” But if recent history has shown us anything, it’s that sometimes the condemnation and execution of criminals don’t even take a couple of hours.

In August 2014, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking heated protests. Later that year, a mentally ill man named Ezell Ford was shot and killed by two police officers in Los Angeles. The LAPD statement claimed he “grabbed the officer’s handgun and attempted to remove the gun from its holster.” None of the officers involved in either situation faced any charges, and these are just two examples of similar events involving cops shooting citizens which have brought negative attention to law enforcement in the U.S.

The ensuing civil unrest following Brown’s shooting is a prime example of just how militarized the police force has become. As heated protests and riots broke out, SWAT teams took to the streets equipped with 5.56-mm rifles similar to the military M4 carbine, capable of hitting targets up to 500 meters away. Their uniforms were camouflaged like soldiers and only their badges identified them as cops.

Craig Atkinson’s award-winning documentary Do Not Resist sheds some light on the increasing use of military tactics and technology by the police, as well as the mentality of the officers themselves. There is a scene where a commander hypes up his team by proclaiming, “What do you fight violence with? Superior violence. Righteous violence. Violence is your tool. You are men and women of violence.” Even though not all police officers are bad people, moments like this only reinforce the growing fear that militarization breeds brutality. Moreover, a recent study conducted by the Washington Post revealed that “police militarization tends to result in more officers shooting both people and pets.”

Robocop can be viewed as both a time capsule of a bygone era as well as a reflection of the socio-political and economic climate contemporary America is experiencing. As a biting satire, the socially irresponsible and inhumane nature of corporations, the film’s message is arguably more on point than it ever has been. As a critique of the justice system’s quick-to-condemn mentality, it’s never felt so vital. While it is upsetting to know that nothing has changed in the last three decades, the film’s ability to poke fun at such issues highlights just how absurd the world we live in can be sometimes. We need a sense of humor to cope with the horrors.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.