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    An Exploration of the Social Satire in Paul Verhoeven Movies RoboCop

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    Detroit in the future is ravaged by street crime, and ran by a massive multi-million dollar company. The company has developed a huge crime-fighting robot, which unfortunately develops a murder glitch in the system. The company sees a way to get back in favour with the public when a newly transferred police officer Alex James Murphy is killed in the line of duty by a gang of murderous violent thugs. Murphy’s body is reconstructed within a steel shell and named RoboCop. Though RoboCop proves to be a massive success in cleaning up the streets of Old Detroit, he soon has to face up against the very gang of criminals that killed him.

    On the surface level Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop can be easily dismissed as another dumb, loud and violent American power fantasy However, 29 years later one of the reasons RoboCop remains with us today isn’t because of a number of bullets fired into Detroit’s worst criminals nor is it because of the number of faces melted off. The film has stayed within the public’s eye because unlike most violent and over the top action movies the 80s, the violence in RoboCop has been engineered towards a satirical look at society. In RoboCop, Verhoeven manages to craft a perfect juxtaposition between the corporate world and the public which imaginatively expresses the need to protect public services from the advances of the private sector.

    RoboCop was shot in a 13 week period in the summer of 1986 with a minor budget of $10 million. Verhoeven was apparently drawn to the idea of making the film due to it’s ‘superhero’ style origin story, as well as the comedic tone and atmosphere. The satire of RoboCop pokes fun of contemporary American culture and politics, from commercials to multi-million corporations, television shows, emergency forces, and the news. A lot of science fiction, in general, has always had elements of social commentary. Even if it’s about the future, it’s about the present. RoboCop heavily mocks 1980s America more than it mocks the future. The United States of America during the late 80s were a period of pronounced pessimism towards authority figures due to the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal compounded the high rise of crime and economic inequality during the Ronald Reagan administration.

    During this time many of the biggest American cities were in some sort of an issue, this was mostly due to “trickle down” economic policies of the United States Federal Government. Here as some statistics to back up these points: “In 1981, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had authorization of 32.2 billion; by 1989 they had been slashed to 6.9 billion, a reduction of 78 percent” (Y.M.Vissing, 1996). In simpler terms, this basically meant that the American government didn’t have enough money to supply people homes at a reasonable price. The cut in support meant that more people became homeless.”Under Reagan, the number of people living beneath the federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million in 1978 to 32.5 million in 1988.” (Democracy Now, 2004)

    President Ronald Reagan stated that many of these people were “homeless by choice”. So the poor grew poorer during the 80s, which is sometimes known as the decade of greed, the richer became more wealthy and the middle class also suffered too as home mortgage rates stood at around 12%. The lowest echelon of American society was completely ravaged by violent street crimes, and the yuppies and other members of the upper class were at the top of society. Corporate millionaires were corrupt, some were even found stealing millions through insider trading.

    “In the 1980s insider trading cases of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, bonds were focus of the government’s charges. In these cases and others, instead of safe, secure, and predictable sources of income for risk-averse investors, these fixed-income securities were the devices of fraud” (L.L Straney, 2011)

    During the 1970s to the late 1980s street crime was at an all-time high. This saw the rise of films and other forms of media such as books and comics, featuring either police officers or vigilantes taking the law into their own hands, cleaning up the crime-infested streets, showing no mercy to anyone who contributes to societies ills. “vigilante, revenge films that gained “feel good” popularity in the 1970s and 1980s” (J. A.Clapp, 2013) A few noteworthy examples, other than RoboCop, are Paul Kersey from Michael Winner’s controversial thriller Death Wish, Harry Callaghan from Don Seigel’s Dirty Harry and Judge Dredd from 2000AD comics. Also, one of the other influencers for the creation of RoboCop is the Marvel comic book superhero Iron Man.

    “Since the mid-1970s Hollywood had presented the city as a zone of chaos in which police were out of their depth and the letter was inadequate to the challenge. Films like Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974) and their sequels valorised the rogue cop and the vigilante. RoboCop trod the same beat and self-consciously sought to tap the same audience, even while satirsing the approach by rendering it in absurd extremes” (J. Chapman, 2013)

    In the world of RoboCop, there are two villain groups, the drug-dealing, murdering and bank-robbing thugs ran by the ruthless Clearance Boddicker and the cut-throat corporate, cocaine-obsessed yuppies of the Omni-Consumer Products (OCP) such as businessperson Dick Jones. The film’s depiction between these two groups suggests that the moral authority of the legal system is entirely de-legitimised by the privatization of law enforcement. The satire and social commentary in RoboCop could be considered as the films zenith in its portrayal of violence in the corporate world.

    The first example of extreme violence within a corporate space is during Dick Jones’s demonstration of his prototype law enforcement droid ED 209 as a glitch in the droids system riddles a subordinate business man with bullets. You’d normally expect to see this sort of violence in the back alley of a city in films instead of a high-rise corporate boardroom. Another example of this is during the final scene of the film as Dick Jones takes the chairman of OCP as hostage where RoboCop must first allow the CEO to fire the executive in order to save the hostage.

    In RoboCop, the corporate world is full of idioms that have brutal and relentless imagery attached to them, such as back-stabbing in order to receive a promotion or some other form of gratification. The first and last scenes of the film that are set in the boardrooms of OCP drive these metaphors about businessmen trying to one up each other in literal acts of ultra-violence. From an anti-corporate and anti-establishment point of view, these violent scenes set in these multi-billion dollars corporate boardrooms is Verhoeven’s way to transplant the unforgiving and oppressive nature of the brutal street crimes into the corporate boardrooms which are mostly responsible for the poverty and crime in the lower-class area Old Detroit.

    Just before the incident with the Enforcement Droid, Series 209 (ED 209), Dick Jones states to his colleagues 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 later said by the violent drug lord Clarence Boddicker when making a deal with a cocaine producer, this once again further establishes the fact that in the film there is a likeness between the film’s street thugs and corrupt businessmen. Also, this speech re-establishes the films entirely justified scepticism of the privatisation of public services; a message which is strongly emphasized within the film’s television segments that completely satirises.

    In RoboCop’s Detroit is an unregulated world where businesses run amuck, and street criminals and executives work to ruin the life of the average American Joe. The previously mentioned Dick Jones and his ED 209 is a prime example of this idea. Ronny Cox plays Dick Jones as some Bill Gates like businessman who wanted this ED 209 droid to basically replace the police but production was halted due to the fact it was riddled with murderous glitches.

    “So Robocop was a really rad film about how the privatisation of public services is really fucked up, essentially. A giant corporation that pretty much owns Detroit and which has recently purchased the city police department, decides to turn dead cops into way more efficient robocops. You get the whole great explanation of how letting for-profit corporations run parts of society that should in no way ever be run for a profit while watching a whole lot of explosions.” (U.Gaming, 2015)

    Although RoboCop is packed with scenes of extreme ultra-violence that seem to celebrate it, the filmmakers also demonstrate consideration toward the problem of how violence is represented within society. Verhoeven stated that the news breaks in RoboCop, known in the film as “MediaBreak” which parody American news was “one of the things I found interesting about the story.” Ar numerous points throughout the film, these news segments pop into the film’s narrative to offer some lore into RoboCop’s dystopian future; the news presenters cheerfully attempt to construct a false order and hope, they remain cheerful even when talking about a war in another country, One of the first things the audience sees in the first opening few minutes of RoboCop is a fake commercial for ‘The Family Heart Center’, which is an advertisement for-profit medical facility which specialises in prosthetic heart transplantation.

    The commercial shows a man in a lab coat stating that “You choose the heart!’ before saying the medical centers fake toll-free phone number. The intention of this commercial was to be designed to be quite a distasteful at the time but after almost 30 years later this commercial segment has lost almost all of its satirical meaning because it is not all that different from today’s kind of for-profit health care providers you see being advertised every single day on American television. This reference to American private healthcare is faithful with the films them of the public’s distrust for the private sector providing public services.

    “In the dystopian future of Detroit, and the planned Delta City, comes an ad that is a pitch-perfect satire of current medicine in America. You get what you pay for; it’s all about the brand. And remember, we care.” (P. Suggett, 2010)

    Some of the other notable elements of RoboCops social commentary involves an in film TV commercial for a fictional family broad game Nuke’ Em that glorifies thermal nuclear war. As the film was being made a massive concern of the world’s population was that at any moment either Russia or American would launch their Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs for short!) at each other which start World War 3 and would wipe out a large percentage of the population within a matter of minutes.

    Further, the film was made after President Ronald Reagan made a joke about outlawing “Russia forever” and then jokingly threatened that “we begin bombing in five minutes” (POTUS Ronald Reagan, 11th August 1984). He had claimed that ICBMs that were fired from US military submarines could be recalled after they have been launched, which they obviously can not, so the idea of a future world where nuclear missiles are accepted as part of the military landscape didn’t seem so far-fetched. Whereas today militaries all over the world have their own nuclear bombs.

    “Reagan-era Cold War politics are aggressively sent up in the family board game Nukem (sales slogan: “Get them, before they get you!”), which turns the horrifying prospect of nuclear Armageddon into an evening’s cheery entertainment.” (R. Lambie, 2012) Not only was the Cold War situation mocked in RoboCop but also Americans endless proficiency to drive overpriced and immense cars. Another fake commercial in RoboCop is advertising a new auto mobile called the 6000 SUX.

    The car is also mentioned in a few scenes within the actual film, for example during the scene where a disgruntled and crazy office worker takes the mayor of Detriot hostage he asks the hostage negotiator for a new car “that goes really fast and gets really shitty gas mileage!’ in exchange for the Mayor, the negotiator responds with “How about the, uh, 6000 SUX?” (RoboCop, 1987). This means that the 6000 SUX within the film literally “sucks” petrol out of the car, much like many sports cars of that era. This is still relevant in many modern cars today, especially in sports cars.

    “Then there’s the 6000 SUX, a fictional vehicle which, according to its slogan, is “An American tradition”, offering “8.2 Miles Per Gallon”. Advertised with a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion dinosaur, its skewering of America’s appetite for big, thirsty cars is about as subtle as a sledgehammer… The SUX reappears later, and is also mentioned in a brief hostage sequence in which a disgruntled, gun-waving council worker says, “I want a new car… with reclining leather seats, that goes really fast and gives really shitty gas mileage!” (R. Lambie, 2012)

    It could be argued that RoboCop could be considered one of the most progressive works of science-fiction that augment the assumption of American Exceptionalism that is widespread throughout American action films. The term American Exceptionalism basically means “the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty.” (I.Tyrrell, 2009). In recent memory, Professor of Political Sciences Phillip J. Wood stated that American culture as one “which has its roots in the frontier, rugged individualism and easy court-protected access to weapons” (A. Friedman, 2013) and one which therefore makes allowances for its unprecedented violent crime and incarceration rates. With this in mind, the narrative of RoboCop seems to employ a double-coded use of American Exceptionalism: “Verhoeven promotes the attractive archetype of rugged individualism while creatively combing it with a dangerous and undesirable element of extreme conformity in the form of a corporate conspiracy”.

    Special attention was paid to the nature of RoboCop’s “Prime Directives”. In the film the foundations of RoboCop programming are grounded in the ‘Prime Directives’ which have been implanted by the scientistic at OCP and programmed into Alex Murphy’s Robotic Frankenstein Monster. The film soon reveals that RoboCop is programmed with a classified fourth directive which kind of cancels out the previous allegiances to the law: that Robo cannot arrest a senior official of OCP if he tries than he will be automatically shut down. Shots from RoboCop’s point of view with a green readout displaying these directives seem to draw attention to the inherent contradictions between each of RoboCop’s prime directives.

    “Alex is programmed three prime directives: Serve the Public Interest, Uphold the Law, Protect the Innocent; and a Directive Four: Classified (any attempt to arrest a senior officer of the O.C.P (Omi Consumer Products) will result in a system break down. O.C.P is responsible for the technology that created RoboCop” (V. Terrace, 2002)

    Many critics at the time decried the level of violence in RoboCop since it is basically a big screen superhero styled comic bookish film, but even with all the countless gallons of blood and guts were relevant to Verhoeven’s satire of contemporary morals. Two years before the release of RoboCop, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) pictured horrific scenes of bloodshed similar to RoboCop but that film has cloaked the bloodshed under a the flag of the USA and patriotism, so it escaped criticism. The critics who condemned RoboCop missed the point of the film entirely as it wasn’t being violent for the sake of being violent, it was being violent with a message behind it, it was criticising and satirising the violence deemed acceptable in our mainstream entertainment.

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    An Exploration of the Social Satire in Paul Verhoeven Movies RoboCop. (2022, Nov 27). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/an-exploration-of-the-social-satire-in-paul-verhoeven-movies-robocop/

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