Friday, October 16, 2009

RoboCop (Dystopia Week Part 6)

The great 1987 Paul Verhoeven movie RoboCop, like all of his movies, runs the gamut from the brilliant to the laughably absurd and sometimes does both simultaneously: “You have fifteen seconds to comply”…“I’d buy that for a dollar”…“You have suffered an emotional shock”…“Bob, you’re fired.” Besides an increasingly-relevant depiction of Detroit as a crime-filled hell on Earth, it’s got Christ imagery revolving around a cyborg police officer, two of the funniest boardroom deaths in film history, and a bit involving a thug deformed by toxic waste exposure that is so protracted you almost feel as if you’re watching Troma’s Toxic Avenger, a film that’s about as classy but has a much smaller budget.

Too, RoboCop is a reminder that the cyberpunk aesthetic was commonplace in the 80s, long before it got a second wind with The Matrix in 1999: hipness combined with near-futurism, current political/media concerns ironically combined with imagined technology.

In fact, the cyberpunk aesthetic was probably more common in the 80s than in the 90s — tomorrow, I’ll take a look at 1989’s Circuitry Man, but think, too, of things like the comic book The Dark Knight Returns, written by Frank Miller, who would go on to write the two fairly lame and far more heavy-handedly anti-capitalist (if that’s possible) sequels to RoboCop.

In case you only remember the robots, recall that the real threat in all three films is the evil corporation Omni Consumer Products, which had contracted with the city to run the police force in the first film, convinces a pliable mayor to privatize public housing in the second (while a sinister child uses libertarian arguments in favor of drug legalization), and is brought down by an explicit Latin American-style revolution against “capitalists” everywhere, with RoboCop’s help, in the third film (admittedly, about the only other thing I remember about the third film is a young Scott Nybakken sarcastically muttering in the theatre, “Oh! The tips of the cigarettes are blue! It’s the future!”).

Frank Miller would later become a conservative, under the influence of Ayn Rand and 9/11, but not in time to undo his propaganda work in the Robo-sequels. Since he’s the man behind the comics Sin City and 300, he may yet get another chance to comment on politics on the big screen — but he’ll have to hope studios forget the subsequent box office performance of his film version of The Spirit, which despite featuring a superhero, several beautiful women, and Samuel L. Jackson, bombed so badly last December that when I tried checking to see if it was still in theatres about three weeks after it opened, I had to search within a 200-mile radius of Manhattan and found that within that zone it was only playing at one location in central Connecticut. That’s quite a bomb for something that poor Frank might have expected to have some built-in fan loyalty.

But perhaps he deserves to suffer a bit: His Robo-sequels goaded our culture into fighting creeping privatization, when by now it should be obvious to any person with a conscience that creeping nationalization is the real problem in places like Detroit.


High Five! said...

This dystopia stuff is all very well and good, but when do we get all the details about how Helena came crawling back? Couldn’t last two weeks without Ramrod Todd, eh? Yeah.

Sean Dougherty said...

Frank Miller can’t write movies. They always stink. The Spirit was worse than Robocop Two if that’s possible. It’s like he’d never read an issue of it before.