When it comes to the ‘80s sci-fi flicks, RoboCop (1987) is one of the all-time greats, right alongside Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986). Of course, while RoboCop has its fair share of blood and guts, the movie is a lot more than just gory gunfights. Just like Aliens is a metaphor for the Vietnam War and Terminator is warning audiences of the dangers of A.I., RoboCop is taking dead aim at 1980s America.
In this (not so) futuristic world, violence has lost a lot of its edge, and both average citizens and journalists have grown pretty detached from concepts like “tragedy” and “suffering.” Throughout the film, we’re treated to several segments of Media Break, a Detroit news program where all-too-cheerful anchors comment on international catastrophes, never bothering to wipe away their professional smiles.
When the program finally breaks for commercial, Detroiters are assaulted with crazy commercials for “NUKEM,” a board game in which parents launch nuclear missiles at their kids and then share a laugh when the game is over. Even RoboCop himself is a dig at America’s violent nature. As screenwriter Ed Neumeier points out, the pistol-packing cyborg was a “reaction to the later Eastwood and Bronson pictures.” Give Harry Callahan or Paul Kersey a shiny silver helmet, and bam, you’ve got RoboCop, complete with tough guy one-liners like, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
When the film isn’t commenting on America’s obsession/indifference towards violence, it’s commenting on the general stupidity and tastelessness of U.S. culture via It’s Not My Problem. In the future, there’s no escaping this ridiculous sitcom, a show featuring ditzy bimbos, a greasy bug-eyed host, and an incredibly stupid catchphrase: “I’d buy that for a dollar!” And in the future, this is considered high comedy.
The film also lobs a few bombs directly at the Reagan White House. As Neumeier explains in the Criterion Collection RoboCop commentary, the chairman of Omni Consumer Products (known in the film as “The Old Man”) was based on the 40th President and the board of directors was inspired by Reagan’s cabinet. In addition to commenting on a desensitized populace, the board game “NUKEM” is a none-too-subtle jab at ‘80s era Cold War tensions. And in one of the movie’s best gags, the news anchors report on how a satellite (the so-called Strategic Defense Peace Platform) malfunctions and blows up part of California with a high-powered laser beam. Star Wars anyone?
In addition to the “Peace Platform,” the movie takes quite a few shots at the military-industrial complex. When writing RoboCop, Ed Neumeier was quite obsessed with the subject of the Vietnam War and inserted a few Easter Eggs into his screenplay. For example, the scientist who introduces the monstrous ED-209 to the OCP board of directors is intentionally named McNamara, after Robert McNamara who served as the Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, ED-209’s design was based on the Bell “Huey” helicopter, an American gunship used in the Vietnam conflict.
However, RoboCop’s biggest beef is against capitalism and corporate corruption, a culture where “greed is good,” and everyone worships the almighty dollar. Well, at least the big wigs anyway. In this film, Detroit is absolutely destitute. It’s a city of unemployed workers and impoverished families. Sure, OCP promises to build Delta City, where “the future has a silver lining,” but it’s slow in coming, and the streets are full of thugs. (Interestingly, RoboCop was pretty accurate when it came to painting a picture of Motor City. As of February 2015, it could take up to seventeen minutes for police to respond to a 911 call…and that’s six minutes longer than the national average.)
Of course, while Detroit is struggling with financial ruin, the claw marks of capitalism are visible pretty much everywhere. In this sci-fi world, Yamaha produces artificial hearts, there’s an elementary school named after Lee Iacocca, the former Ford president and Chrylser chairman, and Detroiters are encouraged to spend their cash on the 6000 SUX, an automobile that definitely deserves its name, both visually and practically. This hunk of junk only gets 8.2 miles per gallon. It’s an especially depressing joke considering that Detroit was once the automotive capital of the world.
If all that wasn’t quite enough to prove the point, the film’s big bad Dick Jones, played by Ronny Cox, is a corrupt businessman who invents weapons of war, tests them out in the streets of Detroit, and then sells his creations to the military. Jones is so corrupt that he doesn’t even care if his machines malfunction. When ED-209 murders an innocent bystander, he describes the killing as a mere “glitch.” Of course, when the Old Man explodes in anger, he isn’t worried about his ex-employee. He’s angry because this so-called glitch “could cost us fifty million dollars in interest payments alone!”
Later on, Jones explains, “I had a guaranteed military sale with ED-209, renovation programs, spare parts for twenty-five years…who cares if it worked or not?” The man doesn’t care about protecting the peace. He just wants a little extra cash in his bank account, courtesy of the American government.
Throughout the movie, we witness how Big Business, unchecked by any kind of oversight, has completely taken over the city, including the Detroit Police Department and RoboCop himself. Thanks to their Machiavellian tactics, Clarence Boddicker has risen to power and unleashed a wave of terror upon the city. Even worse, Alex Murphy has morphed from a man into a slow-moving, emotionless machine, an in-your-face metaphor for the result of complete corporate control. Basically, whatever they touch, they slowly destroy, and by the end of the film, after RoboCop regains his humanity, he finally sees the truth of the situation. Comforting his wounded partner, he levels an incredibly sarcastic and devastating quip against the OCPs of the world.
“They’ll fix you. They fix everything.”