In the summer of 1987, I only had two things on my mind: robots and violence, for I had heard my first piece of "entertainment news": Robocop was so violent that the MPAA was going to slap it with an X rating unless an entire minute of footage was removed. I couldn't believe it. Dirty movies were rated X, movies with boobies and lots of other stuff I didn't understand. If Robocop was going to be rated X for violence, then that meant it must be dirtier than sex. It must be the most horrific thing ever put on film, a monstrosity so grotesque that it made Satan wet his acid-washed jeans. By my logic, the R-rated version would be one decimal point shy of pure hell-on-film, thus making it as close as I was going to get to a dirty movie for at least ten years. This was my shot at juvenile depravity. Nothing was going to stop me from seeing this movie.
And I wasn't let down one bit. Robocop is the most nihilistic movie of the 1980s, a film that cleverly combines a basic revenge plot with Frankenstein and some brutal satire, but this isn't your run-of-the-mill genre mash-up. This is a genre mash-up with robots, spine-snapping, pain-slinging mechanical merchants of misery. Everything is better with robots. Robocop is so amazingly bad ass that he makes Dirty Harry look like Rainbow Brite. In the time it would take Dirty Harry to complete his grandstanding "Do I feel lucky?" monologue, Robocop would have stocked every morgue in the county to capacity.
But Robocop is more than a violent piece of glib entertainment; it's really a meaningful action film that has the gall to mix balls-to-the-wall action with an economics debate. True, most of that splatter is blood and brain matter, but the rest of it is the fresh-squeezed juice of free enterprise.
Crime is a seemingly unstoppable force in Robocop, and the citizens of Detroit are not going to take it anymore; they're going to do something about it. No, they're not going to write their Congressman. This isn't Frank Capra country; this is the Reagan Revolution: government is the problem, not the solution. The private sector, industry, corporations -- these are the saviors of the modern world. In Robocop, Detroit prostrates itself at the altar of the free market, turning over control of the police force to Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a seemingly-neutral corporation that promises to bring state-of-the-art technology to law enforcement and to deliver us all from evil.
There's a word for this kind of thinking, and it appears in action movies as often as Lindsey Lohan shows up to work on time: Libertarianism. Most of us have encountered Libertarianism in the form of some bearded white guy screaming about the "fedrul gubmit" on public access TV, but there's more to it than that. Libertarianism believes that all goods and services should be provided by the private sector under the indifferent and inerrant rule of the free market. After all, who would you rather have patrolling the streets: Uncle Sam's underpaid, overworked, average Joe, or a rich corporation's cutting-edge crime fighter with a kung-fu grip and balls made of actual steel? What could possibly go wrong with that?
Well, it's a robot movie, so only, you know, everything. But Robocop is clearly bored with the clichés of other robot vs. human movies, all that touchy-feely kumbaya crap about how technology cannot replace the human soul or whether we control technology or technology controls us. We call these things moral dilemmas. Robocop thinks they're cute. There are no ideals in Robocop, only blood, guts, and cash -- what's more American than that? Ideals are for English teachers, Little Leaguers, and Bono.
Robocop pawns off the existential crisis of the soul for an existential crisis of capitalism that looks at Libertarianism and asks, Is Privatization The Way? Robocop puts the matter up for debate the only way that makes sense: staging a corporate war waged by heavily-armed robots. In Robocop's robo-duel with ED-209, the poster bot for corporate pork, Robocop separates ED-209's nuts from its bolts, but his victory has almost nothing to do with the triumph of good over evil -- that's incidental -- it's really a battle of design and marketing. Robocop finishes ED-209 off simply by climbing down a flight of stairs, which is something the bulky ED-209 cannot do. It's the most riveting falling-down-the-stairs scene since The Exorcist, and it reveals how ED-209 is not designed for real police work, making this a battle not about endurance or firepower, but about product reliability. It's an all-out free market war, and in a free market battle, the better product always wins.
Privatization produced a good robot and a bad one, so in the end, the economy has nothing to do with Robocop's success. Robocop shows us that it's not the idea of privatization that's good or bad, but how you use it. It's not the economy, stupid -- it's the people. Good people using their talents for the greater good will meet with results beneficial to all, regardless of the economic system, just as a few bad apples can spoil an entire bunch, no matter what kind of basket they're in.
Twenty years later, as the halls of power are overflowing with Reaganites who think ol' Gippy was too pro-government, it seems like Robocop is more relevant now than ever. Today, we can finally examine what this film has always been trying to tell us, the things that remain even after the violence has been edited for television and formatted to fit this screen, and recognize the film for what it really is: ahead of its time.