Published on January 19th, 2021 | by Douglas Rasmussen


Robocop: Revisiting a Science Fiction Classic in Troubled Times

We look at Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film, Robocop, to see how its political satire translates things like corporatization and police brutality in our modern times.

Science fiction is often thought of as a genre that uses allegory to discuss the contemporaneous social, political, and cultural issues affecting the writer at the time. Rather than a narrative of prognostication acclimatizing us to the rapid technological shocks of innovation and progress, science fiction is seen in this regard as an imagined present which provides insight into our current situation through the use of futuristic settings and imagery.

One notable example of this idea of science fiction as social allegory is the 1987 science fiction/action film Robocop (1987). A film I recently revisited during our lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. If we were to look at Robocop as a film predicting the future, then it fails utterly. The production design, the aesthetics, the use of cathode ray television sets, lack of cellphones, and computers that take up an entire room date the film. This is the problem with a lot of science fiction films, less than a decade after their initial release they tend to look obsolete and antiquated in their prediction of future technology. The technological landscape changes too rapidly for a film to be effective in predicting the future look of the world. Even just the basics of cinematic techniques changes from one decade to the next, further dating a film.

Robocop, however, fares better than most science fiction because of its distinctly political satire on contemporary American trends that had their foothold in the 1980s, but persist to today. This became evident upon a rewatch of the film a few months ago when I rewatched the original trilogy after a long absence. Or, rather, I rewatched the first two films, as I had never seen Robocop 3 (1993) prior to this viewing. After my experience with the Frank Miller-penned sequel I lost all interest in the franchise. I am not so sure that I should have spent the time on it, but hey, we are in a pandemic and there is a lot of time to kill.

At the time of filming Detroit was facing a financial crisis and was near bankruptcy. It is a situation that Detroit faces even to this day. Economic growth, housing, and the quality of municipal services were all being negatively affected by the urban crisis of the 1980s. This crisis was reflected in the movie’s dark, gritty and violent tone. For instance, in the scene after the Detroit police go on strike we see a scene where the main antagonist Clarence Boeddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his crew are looting and vandalizing stores, alongside a bunch of other criminals. This is clearly meant to invoke Detroit’s Devil’s Night where young, bored, disenfranchised individuals with no job prospects and a lot of free time engage in riots and acts of vandalism, burning down houses and so forth.

Aside from Devil’s Night, however, what struck after watching Robocop in today’s political climate is what the film says about law enforcement. For one thing the reason the police are even able to go on strike is that they have been privatized by OCP (Omni Consumer Products). Corporatization was a huge deal in the 1980s, with political leaders such as the American President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanting to privatize municipal services. This is still an issue that resonates today as Reagan’s neoliberal agenda has pervaded almost every aspect of American life. It wreaks havoc on our social support systems as politicians increasingly are intent on stripping away almost every valuable social support system available. President Bill Clinton stripped away welfare in the 1990s, effectively kicking numerous people to the streets, and of course the thankfully one-term President Donald Trump considered the office to be a personal investment in his own corporate interests and basically ran the country into the ground in an effort to line his own pockets.

The effect of this corporatization, both in the film and in real life, is that it beleaguered and exhausts the police department. In the film police officers are depicted as being on the verge of burnout and exhaustion, having to fill the roles of law enforcement and social service worker. Even those police officers with good intentions, such as Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), and Sergeant reed (Robert DoQui), are strangled by a system that wants law enforcement to carry out specific corporate interests. 

Law enforcement is being used to oppress the marginalized and the poor in the film, which is a facet of law enforcement that troubles us as a society today. It is an aspect of the film that resonates all too clearly when watching it in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the senseless murder of George Floyd and other African-Americans by a beleaguered system. This is why Robocop posits that the perfect police officer has to be a programmed machine with only 3 simple directives: 1. Serve the public trust. 2.Protect the innocent. 3. Uphold the law. No nuance, no subtlety, or subjective judgment.

In this way Robocop better reflects law enforcement than the majority of police procedurals and action films. Robocop was coming off a decade where viewers saw cops like Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) violate constitutional rights and saw Miranda Rights as a roadblock to his sense of ‘justice.’ The viewer is intended to view Dirty Harry as the empathetic hero, but in today’s world where the police are increasingly exposed as the strong armed enforcers of the state, the idea of a truly heroic cop is an untenable fiction. Which is science fiction films like Robocop and Dredd (2012)—which is based on the popular British comic book character Judge Dredd, of which I am a life-long fan. It is one of the few comic book titles that I still actively read—are more realistic than their dramatic counterparts. I was never much of a fan of that particular genre, in fact I never made it past season 3 of The Wire (2002-2008), despite its critical acclaim. Rewatching Robocop in a year where we had to deal with a pandemic and legitimate protests about an unjust system that was meant with a brutally oppressive response by Trump has made it evident about how effective science fiction as social allegory can be. If you have not seen it awhile, or somehow missed it in the 30+ years since its initial release, this is definitely the appropriate time for some entertaining, yet insightful commentary on the current police state in the United States (or in Canada for that matter. Lest you think we are innocent, just look at the RCMP’s troubled history).

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About the Author

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earned his Master of Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan, where he focused on film studies, media theory, and consuming as much free food as physically possible, earning quite the reputation for being the human equivalent of a chipmunk. He now spends his time writing, being perpetually stressed, reading Judge Dredd comics, and wondering how he managed to acquire so many Funko Pops despite a stated aversion to them.

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