Robocop is still a sensational social satire 35 years later
The film is already a classic, having only screened one frame of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 action sci-fi Robocop rolls.
This is a powerful tagline that jumps off the poster and puts people in their seats. It perfectly sums up Robocop’s whole premise. The film was a treasured Orion Pictures jewel and one of the most iconic films in the 20th century.
Robocop is initially a surface-level investigation: Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a recently transferred cop, is shot to death by gangsters. Robocop is then resurrected as an artificial crime-fighting machine called Robocop.
Robocop did not check every box for Jay, despite Murphy’s hand cannon-like TJ Lazer twirling or his penchant to utter one-liners such as “Your move creep” or “Dead, alive, you’re going with me.”
This film is still a top-notch movie. However, Verhoeven’s multilayered approach to societal satire was not something I appreciated until I was older.
Film comedy can be tricky. Comedy is more difficult than drama. Over the past decade, it has been clear that satire is easy to misinterpret or miss entirely.
Take Veroeven’s 1997 sci-fi smash Starship Troopers. It is largely a damning indictment against American militarism. It is sometimes misinterpreted that the film has American nationalist energy. This notion is not at all what the film intended.
Some have also referred to Robocop’s pro-cop/capitalism as Robocop, which is a far cry from Verhoeven’s original intention. The film doesn’t like capitalism, the militarization of police or consumerism.
Robocop’s initial success is due to Verhoeven, Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier’s use of in-universe media.
The film opens with a segment from Media Break that boasts, “You only have three minutes and we’ll show you the world!” It is funny to think of the notion of delivering information in just 180 seconds about the world. Their report focuses on a South African conflict where the ruling military government is threatening to use a three-ton neutron blast to end civil unrest. The story is short and factual, but it quickly becomes a humorous one.
Despite the content, the lack of tonal contrast between segments tells viewers that “this is an unguarded world teetering on nuclear and political conflict despite technological advances.” Or it could be business as usual.
We see ads for artificial hearts sponsored and funded by well-known brands. They are affordable with non-predatory financing, so everyone can afford them. (See: Repo Man), family-friendly board games that revolve around nuclear war.
It is hard to believe that Robocop’s world is so complicated. This makes Alex Murphy’s fight against Omni Consumer Products (OCP), seem small-minded. In its portrayal of OCP’s transformation from a household product company to a weapon development company and finally militarizing the police force, the film is somewhat prophetic.
This aspect of the film is all the more chilling considering our current political and socio-economic climate, and the ease companies have in navigating between the grey areas of the law.
OCP plans to use walking urban pacification tanks called ED-209 by OCP, making Robocop obsolete. It accidentally shoots a board member exactly 1000 times after 209 is introduced. Although we don’t have any walking 209’s patrolling crime-ridden areas, the disturbing trend of police officers using military equipment over the past decade has been disturbing. Robocop’s depiction of OCP’s attitude toward impoverished communities is chillingly accurate.
Their CEO stated that “Old Detroit has cancer.” The cancer is the crime and it must be eradicated…” This notion that crime is a sign of poverty rather than an accusation of a city’s deliberate neglect of its most vulnerable tells you everything you need to know about OCP’s moral compass.
OCP claims that these communities would be better served if they had 24/7 military personnel. This is not a good sign of America’s inability to solve its problems. It’s a quick fix that will create a whole new set of generational problems.
Robocop intervenes to stop an attempted sexual assault. Under the glowing billboard advertising the new gentrification project in Delta City, Murphy sees the thugs tormenting the women’s clothes before Murphy intervenes. A tagline for the project, “(Delta City), The Future Has a Silver Lining” is included.