Essays · Movies

The Violent Satire of ‘Robocop’

Paul Verhoeven’s cult classic warned us about the future.
By  · Published on June 29th, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this installment, we examine the sociopolitical satire in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop.

It’s easy to look at the surface elements of RoboCop and dismiss the movie as a violent actioner about a crime-fighting robot cleaning up the mean streets of a futuristic Detroit. Equipped with cheesy one-liners and plenty of scenes containing bloodshed and carnage, the film certainly ticks all the right boxes in that regard. Still, anyone who understands RoboCop will agree that the movie is much smarter than its basic premise suggests.

At the time of its making, director Paul Verhoeven and writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner set out to comment on the problems affecting 1980s America. Issues like corrupt politics, violence, unchecked capitalism, economic decline, gentrification, media influence, and the militarization of the police force. The movie is a melting pot of upsetting sociopolitical commentary in addition to being an entertaining sci-fi action romp.

RoboCop himself was created as a reaction to action hero archetypes popularized by the likes of Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. Similar to their respective heroes in Death Wish and Dirty Harry, RoboCop is all about shooting first and asking questions later. According to Neumeier, the film’s protagonist and his violent nature represents “how ludicrous the [action] genre was becoming.”

Additionally, his simplistic brand of justice — all guns blazing and merciless if need be — also exemplified the unforgiving conservative ideology of Ronald Reagan’s America. Even though the titular machine-human hybrid is a walking parody, he also displays these characteristics pretty straight-laced.

As is the case with most Verhoeven flicks, RoboCop‘s satire is far from subtle. For example, throughout the film, we see several segments of Media Break, a Detroit news program where the smiling anchors comment on horrendous global catastrophes without a shred of sympathy. During these scenes, we’re reminded that the world has become so desensitized to violence that it’s just a common aspect of day-to-day life. Perhaps this is why the movie goes overboard at times when it comes to the gruesome stuff.

Of course, the entertainment we consume is also partly to blame for people’s apathy toward atrocities that don’t affect them. RoboCop drives this point home by treating us to commercials for fake products such as NUKEM, a board game where the objective is to launch missiles at opposing players. Furthermore, as the commercial for the game shows, it’s fun for the whole family. There’s no moral or social responsibility when it comes to making a few bucks.

Naturally, RoboCop’s biggest gripe is with corrupt corporations and capitalism gone awry. In the movie, this notion is represented by Omni Consumer Products, a powerful conglomerate which sells items for virtually every consumer need. They also control Detroit’s law enforcement and treat it like a for-profit business. The problem with this is that they’ve turned the city into a crime-ridden cesspool of human waste. However, the company wants to create a shinier new city down the line, and they employ RoboCop to flush out the undesirables.

Omni can also be interpreted as a metaphor for America’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, which saw Colonel Oliver North illegally sell weapons to Iran to help rebels combat Nicaragua’s socialist government. While Reagan’s involvement in the conspiracy is up for debate, many people believe that he was an out of touch imbecile. In the movie, the head of the company is simply referred to as Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy) and is presented as being unaware of the unlawful scheming being carried out by his executives, which includes employing violent mercenaries to do their dirty work.

There’s no denying that RoboCop is a movie that encapsulates the perils of its zeitgeist. That said, watching it today, you can’t help but feel the film’s messages were a sign of things to come. That’s because its vision of the near future was prescient in many ways.

For a start, capitalism is still far from perfect as companies continue to be afforded a wealth of privileges. To name one example of this unfairness, earlier this year CBS News reported that 60 of America’s most profitable Fortune 500 corporations paid no federal income tax in 2018. But given that the current US president has personally used loopholes to avoid paying tax in the past, this news isn’t surprising in the slightest.

Elsewhere, there’s been a rise in the privatization of prisons and mercenaries being hired to serve in the American police state. With the combating of crime now rooted in the financial interests of corporations, the ethics of this type of law enforcement is very questionable. It’s only a matter of time before they invent robot cops to do exact uncompromising justice on criminals.

Of course, the film’s themes pertaining to violence, the media, militarization, and conservatism that lacks compassion are still topical in the current climate. NUKEM is tame compared to modern video games, daily news reports show us cops looking like they’re about to go to war, and Reagan’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric is back in full swing. Maybe RoboCop is a silly action flick to some, but it remains a biting satire that’s proving to be timeless.

Related Topics: ,

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