RoboCop, American Exceptionalism and the Common Good
In 1987, Deputy Commissioner of Metropolitan Police Service of London Ian Blair stated that the “freedom from crime and the fear of crime is not a commodity which should be controlled by market forces.” That same year, RoboCop successfully played on our innate mistrust of authority in order to impart an anti-privatization parable which addresses these same salient societal issues but in the unassuming form of a summer blockbuster.
On the surface, director Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop can be easily dismissed as yet another troubling American power fantasy full of gratuitous violence and clichés about the supremacy of the individual over all else. However, 27 years later, the reason RoboCop remains with us isn’t because of the amount of bullets fired or the number of faces melted off (although that probably helps). The film stays in the collective consciousness because unlike most Hollywood action films, the violence in RoboCop has been engineered towards a resonant observation about the direction of society. In the film, Verhoeven manages a wickedly sardonic juxtaposition between corporate space and public space which imaginatively expresses the need to protect public services from the advances of the private sector.
Science fiction is almost always about the present, even if it claims to be about the future. The present from which RoboCop emerged was the late 1980s in the United States; a period of pronounced cynicism toward authority figures resulting from the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal compounded by the rising crime and economic disparity during the Reagan administration. From a sociological context, RoboCop is a manifestation of a Reagan-era societal anxiety around the privatization of the American prisons as well as the negative influence of economic forces on the legal system – what has since been called ‘The Prison Industrial Complex’.
In RoboCop, the world-of-the-film offers two antagonist groups; the drug-dealing, bank-robbing street criminals controlled by Clearance Boddicker and the cut-throat corporate thugs of the Omni-Consumer Products Corporation (OCP for short) such as executive Dick Jones. The film’s depiction of rampant collusion between these two antagonist groups suggests that the moral authority of the legal system is entirely delegitimized by the privatization of law enforcement.
The satire and social commentary at work in RoboCop is perhaps at its zenith in the film’s representation of violence in corporate spaces. The first demonstration of extreme violence in RoboCop unexpectedly takes place in the safe confines of high-rise corporate boardroom, opposed to back alleys of the city where we expect to find violent death. During the scene, OCP senior vice-president Dick Jones conducts a presentation which involves a subordinate being riddled with bullets by a malfunctioning prototype for the ED-209 police droid. Also the final scene of RoboCop transpires in the same OCP boardroom, when Dick Jones takes a hostage with the same pistol and RoboCop must murder the executive in order to save the hostage.
The corporate world is rife with phrases that have brutal imagery attached to them, such as head-hunting and back-stabbing. RoboCop’s first and last scenes in the OCP boardroom push these metaphors about business into literal acts of shocking violence. From an anti-corporate perspective, RoboCop’s violent scenes set in corporate spaces is the filmmakers’ attempt to transplant the brutality of street crime into the corporate boardroom which is tastily responsible for the impoverishment of lower-classes and in many cases are the knowing beneficiary of criminal behaviour.
Just prior to the incident with the ED-209 droid, Dick Jones says to the boardroom that OCP has “gambled in markets traditionally regarded as non-profit. Hospitals, prisons, space exploration. I say good business is where you find it.” The last sentiment is echoed later in the film by gangster Clarence Boddicker when making a deal with a cocaine manufacturer, once again establishing a likeness of minds between the film’s corporate thugs and street criminals. Also this original speech by Dick Jones re-establishes RoboCop’s entirely justified scepticism of the privatization of public services; a message which is strongly emphasized in the film’s television segments which parody manipulative advertising and the American news-media.
Although RoboCop is packed with scenes that seem to celebrate horrendous violence, the filmmakers also demonstrate consideration toward the issue of how violence is represented in society. Verhoeven has said that RoboCop’s “MediaBreak” segments which satirise US television news were, “one of the things I found most interesting about the story.” At various points in the film, the vacuous media personalities pop into the film’s narrative and cheerfully attempt to construct a false-order around of the chaotic violence in RoboCop’s dystopic Detroit.
The first false television commercial (which appears two minutes into the film) is for ‘The Family Heart Center’ and it is an advertisement for a for-profit medical facility which specialises in the transplantation of prosthetic hearts. The ad depicts a man in a lab-coat claiming that “You choose the heart!” before listing their toll-free phone number. This fake commercial was obviously designed to be distasteful and inappropriate at the time, but when watched nearly three decades later the segment has lost much of its satirical value because it is not very different from the kind of for-profit healthcare providers you see advertising on American television every day. This once-hyperbolic reference to private healthcare is consistent with RoboCop’s theme of distrust for the private sector providing public services.
These anti-corporate sentiments notwithstanding, how can RoboCop be considered a progressive work of science-fiction if the film reinforces the notion of American Exceptionalism that is prevalent throughout the Hollywood action genre? The expression ‘American Exceptionalism’ is believed to have originated in Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America published in 1835. More recently, Professor of Political Sciences Philip J. Wood defined American culture as one “which has its roots in the frontier, rugged individualism and easy court-protected access to weapons” and one which therefore makes allowances for its unprecedented violent crime and incarceration rates. With this in mind, it seems the narrative of RoboCop employs double-coded use of American Exceptionalism; Verhoeven promotes the attractive archetype of rugged individualism while creatively combining it with a dangerous and undesirable element of extreme conformity in the form of a corporate conspiracy.
When compared to subsequent sci-fi blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), the endorsement of American Exceptionalism in RoboCop is ambiguous at best. By means of an extraterrestrial threat, Independence Day depicts a situation where the dominant global superpower is cast as the rebellious and defiant protector of the planet and thereby affirms that American values are both international and universal. Once compared to the latently conservative ideology expressed in Independence Day, Verhoeven’s RoboCop appears to be much closer to a progressive work of science-fiction because the film uses action and fantasy to highlight glaring paradoxes and defects within American society.
When attempting to apply a label like progressive or conservative to a work of science-fiction, it is important to consider whether or not the hegemonic status quo is restored at the end of the picture. Is the OCP Corporation supposed to be interpreted as an impediment to the common good – Or is the message of RoboCop’s ending that corporations are necessary and well intentioned, except for the few bad apples like Dick Jones?
While mulling over the representation of the status quo in RoboCop, special attention must be paid to the nature of RoboCop’s “Prime Directives”. In the film, the foundations of RoboCop’s programming are grounded in the ‘Prime Directives’ which have been formulated a by the OCP Corporation and programmed into Alex Murphy’s resurrected grey matter. They are;
“1. Serve the Public Trust, 2. Protect the Innocent, 3. Uphold the law”
The film’s plot soon reveals there is a classified fourth directive built into the programming which belies all prior allegiances to the law: that RoboCop cannot arrest a senior official of the OCP Corporation. Shots from RoboCop’s perspective with a green readout displaying these directivities seem designed to draw attention to the inherent contradictions between each of the Prime Directives. The film’s emphasis on this encrypted fourth directive asks us to consider if corporations have intentionally manipulated flaws in the legal system to place themselves above the law.
In the decade following RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven directed a run of intended satires within the Hollywood studio system which were heavy on shock value and disappointingly light on social commentary; Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), Starship Troopers (1997). But it is RoboCop that will stand the test of time because of the still-relevant social anxieties present in every aspect of its story. Moreover, RoboCop succeeds and endures because it is a cohesive work of progressive science fiction which sagely alludes to the authority of the law enforcement being invalidated by the involvement of the private sector.