It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since RoboCop first stalked the streets of Detroit. The movie premiered on July 17, 1987 to little fanfare, yet soon went on to become a surprise hit. The film’s success launched a franchise that includes two sequels, a remake, comic books, video games, TV shows, and even a theme park ride, making RoboCop one of the most recognizable characters to emerge from 1980s pop culture. And while the film is still very much a product of that decade, it remains surprisingly relevant today.
The ’80s were, without question, the heyday for ultra-violent R-rated action films. This was the decade in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the box office; when films were judged on how fast bodies piled up and how snappy a muscle-bound hero’s one-liner was after impaling a villain. Emerging from this crowd was RoboCop, a movie that was just as violent as any of them — in fact, more violent than most — and yet considerably smarter. On the surface, the movie didn’t look terribly dissimilar from its peers. Here’s an invincible cop ruthlessly taking down criminals in extreme fashion; a Reagan-era fantasy if there ever were one. But beneath the facade of a typical ’80s actioner lived a film that was actually satirizing the genre to which it belonged.
The film’s director, Paul Verhoeven, was hardly a household name when he was hired to helm the film. The Dutch filmmaker was pushing 50, and had never directed a Hollywood film before when he got the call. Initially, he had no interest in the project, dismissing it as another brainless and grotesquely violent product of the era. But after examining the script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, Verhoeven saw his chance to wrap a discreet, biting satire in a shiny robotic suit. Once in Verhoeven’s hands, the film found numerous ways to upend audience’s expectations. Instead of casting a hulking action star like Arnold, whom the studio preferred, everyman Peter Weller was given the lead role. Rather than glamorizing gory, over-the-top violence as the retribution of righteous lawmen against criminals, the film made its violence so gory and over-the-top that it could only be taken as parody when compared to other movies of the day.
Even if you don’t want to think about it on a deeper level, RoboCop still works as an example any other successful ’80s action movie. Its relentlessly entertaining, features silly one-liners and hammy bad guys, and the corpses pile up at an absurd rate. But it’s that deeper level of examination that really elevates RoboCop above its cinematic brethren. Movies like Cobra and Commando don’t have much to say other than an ultra-macho guy has the right to take the law into his own hands whenever he sees fit, consequences be damned. But underneath its violent, action sci-fi exterior, RoboCop had a lot to say about American society in the 1980s.
The rise of corporate worship had taken hold in the decade, and the movie illustrates this beautifully by having a corporation literally buy the Detroit Police Department. It becomes clear the corporation doesn’t actually give a damn about any of the cops, and that’s why they build a robot cop with no conscience to do their bidding. Of course, the corporation ends up being a front for a criminal outfit and RoboCop ends up having a conscience after all, but the point is made that giant corporations professing to have the public’s best interests at heart are only looking out for their bottom line. The film also brilliantly satirizes how Americans had become media-obsessed and complacent as the ’80s wore on, with the working class subjugated to watching mindless sitcoms while 3 minute news reports cheerfully tell them that everything has gone to hell and corporations look to earn a buck off either saving their lives or helping them end someone else’s. You certainly don’t see commentary like that in The Delta Force.
Today, it almost seems as if we’re at the dawn of another ’80s. Media consumption is at an all-time high, while at the same time, the American middle class has eroded as corporations grow more and more powerful. And despite it being 30 years old, RoboCop should really be considered one of the most relevant action movies in existence when it comes to our current culture. Honestly, which seems more politically relevant in 2017: RoboCop, or The Fate of the Furious? There’s no contest. At the very least, RoboCop remains the most relevant action movie of the 1980s when looked at through the prism of today, which is kind of sad when you think about it. Here’s hoping things improve and that’s no longer the case by the time the movie’s 60th anniversary rolls around.