Why RoboCop is the strange film companion to Wall Street
In the month that a RoboCop remake is released, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the original and why it still matters. Made in 1987, RoboCop was set in “near future” Detroit and was a sleeper hit that spawned two (pretty terrible) sequels. The original was, however, a far smarter film than it’s given credit for.
The popular subtext with RoboCop is that it’s simply a Christ analogy. Indeed, director Paul Verhoeven said in 2010 that RoboCop was a Jesus-like figure who “gets crucified in the first 50 minutes, then is resurrected.” Verhoeven even included a scene at the end where RoboCop appears to walk over water at the steel factory.
But although it’s a film about salvation it’s also an overlooked satire of Ronald Reagan’s America. Released in the same year as Wall Street, RoboCop also ruminated on the decay of American industry and threat of immoral capitalism, both legal and otherwise, in the post-industrial world. For Wall Street it was Martin Sheen’s despairing blue-collar foreman at Bluestar Airlines, while in RoboCop we saw the abandoned “Rust Belt style” factories that RoboCop and Clarence Boddicker’s gang killed and fought in.
The ultra-violence largely overshadowed this message. Frankly it’s brutal, just as many of the big action films were around that time, but without the knockabout jokiness and instead a harder edge that would take it closer to the violence of a horror film rather than something Arnold Schwarzenegger would quip his way through. It was originally given an X certificate, and cuts were made to lower it to a hard 18. But amid the gore was a fine darkly-comedic critique of American culture at that time.
The hostile takeovers of vicepresident Dick Jones and Bob Morton’s cold-blooded yuppie backstabbing his way to the top could have come straight from Wall Street, while just as in Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning film, the little person from inside “the machine” comes through to show his humanity and do the right thing. As one of the criminal gang in RoboCop says, “There’s no better way to steal money than free enterprise” – a sentiment that is seemingly true in big business and big crime.
Of course it’s not new for sci-fi films set in the future to comment on present fears. Just as the acid rain in Blade Runner reflects real world angst from when it was made, so the mass unemployment and drug-crime portrayed in RoboCop mirrors the crack epidemic that terrified late-’80s America. While among the corporate corruption, drugs and the flawed ideology of trickledown economics were sharp pastiches of American media shown via interspersed clips from fake TV broadcasts.
Note the tacky game shows with sex and cash (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) and crass infotainment rolling news. Although those things are still very much with us, the reports from South Africa, where “the ruling white government may use nuclear weapons against the black insurrection” and the story about the “Starwars Peace Platform misfiring, killing hundreds in Santa Barbara” said more about fears in Reagan’s era than the supposed dystopian future portrayed onscreen. The fake adverts that followed for family board game Nukem, (where laughing family members launch nuclear weapons at their opponents) are reminders of that Cold War paranoia that haunted the decade. Just ask someone who grew up in the ’80s.
With the broad swipes at capitalism, profit imperative, and blurred morality, both RoboCop and Wall Street are products of their time and fine commentaries on the era in which they were made — the former is just overlooked because it was not set in the period. The Dutch-born Verhoeven would go on to satirise American military culture and fascism in Starship Troopers, but this, his first American feature, is an outsider’s skewed view of the Reagan years.
Strangely, it’s set to make its mark on Detroit once more as a 10-foot-tall statue of the original RoboCop is set to be unveiled in the city this summer. Although its creation started as a crowdfunding Internet campaign (raising $67,436 in just six days), it is, in its own way, a figure of redemption and resistance against corruption and a perfect totem for a city that needs that right now – a city that suffered more than most during the years of the Reagan administration.
For Esquire, February 2014
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