RoboCop, Detroit, and the Rise of Our Contemporary Dystopia

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RoboCop, Detroit, and the Rise of Our Contemporary Dystopia

The 1980s sci-fi film RoboCop still has a thing or two to teach us about the dangers of privatizing our cities in the name of security. (Image: Screenshot)

It was July 1987 and I found myself in a cool, dark, completely packed movie theater, perched on the edge of my seat.  The crowd was raucous, the mood electric.  That night, I didn’t care about popcorn or soda or candy.  I was still in grammar school.  I had never seen an R-rated movie in the flesh. And this was the R-rated movie to beat all R-rated movies—ultra-violent, unbridled expletives, even fleeting partial nudity. It narrowly avoided an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, for god’s sake!

I had been desperate to see RoboCop since Orion Pictures began a relentless ad campaign weeks before it opened.  Part man.  Part machine.  All cop!  Only because the stars magically aligned was I not relegated to waiting the usual year to watch it through the squiggly lines, scrolling screens, and snowy interference that typified 1980s cable pay-channels that you hadn’t actually paid for.

All these years later, for good or ill, some scenes I viewed that sultry night—and again and again afterward through pay-channel snow—remain firmly lodged in my brain.  Like the one in which police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is literally shot to pieces by the gang of criminals who rule the city of Detroit in what was pictured as a not-so-distant dystopian future. (The crucifixion!)  Or the scene at the police station shooting range leading to the big reveal: Murphy has been transformed into a cyborg cop and is being sent back to clean up the urban warzone that cost him his human life. (The resurrection!)

What really stayed with me, however, were the subversive qualities of director Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire, which poked fun at an imagined Reagan-era-on-steroids version of twenty-first-century America, complete with faux television commercials for a gas-guzzling luxury car that revels in its obscene size, a board game that trivializes nuclear terror, and a tasteless ad for an artificial heart clinic (in the days before real-world TV screens were overrun by ads for pharmaceuticals).  Then there were the news reports about U.S. troops fighting rebels in Mexico and a lethal malfunction of the Star Wars missile defense system.

What also stuck in my brain was Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, a malevolent mega-corporation—equal parts Lockheed, Halliburton, Cyberdyne Systems, and Soylent Industries—which plays an outsized role in the film.  A privatized prison profiteer and shameless peddler of military arms with plans to bulldoze the Motor City and construct a gleaming tomorrow-land in its place, OCP is making sky-high profits, while corporate president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) stands to make even more by lording it over a criminal syndicate that will provide drugs, gambling, and prostitutes to the million men building the new “Delta City” on the ashes of “Old Detroit.”

OCP has also entered into a contract with the beleaguered city to run local law enforcement and Jones envisions replacing the cops with battle droids known as ED-209s.  “After a successful tour of duty in Old Detroit, we can expect 209 to become the hot military product for the next decade,” he says during a slick presentation in the corporate boardroom.  But when ED-209 proves tragically dysfunctional during a test run, a young OCP up-and-comer undercuts Jones with his RoboCop program.  And since OCP runs the cops, they can repurpose the remnants of poor Alex Murphy’s bullet-blasted body to make their electric dreams come true.

Now, I could accept the idea of a cyborg cop that lives on baby food and moves with all the subtlety and grace of a 1960s electric can opener. But a privatized Detroit police force? Come on! There’s a limit to the suspension of disbelief.

Of course, I lived to see the real Detroit fall into abject decay, go bankrupt, and have its police declare the city unsafe for visitors.  “The explosion in violent crime, the incredible spike in the number of homicides... for officers trying to work 12 hours in such deplorable, dangerous, and war-like conditions is simply untenable,” said Donato Iorio, an attorney for the Detroit Police Officers Association in 2012.  It sounded like a statement straight out of RoboCop—and in some ways, so does TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener’s latest piece of striking reportage from America’s new urban wilderness, “Two Detroits, Separate and Unequal.”  She takes us on a fantastic voyage through what Paul Verhoeven and my pre-teen self could only imagine -- the real-life Old Detroit and Delta City: one being investigated by the United Nations for possible human rights violations, the other turned into a privatized, securitized, billionaire’s experiment in better living through dystopian surveillance.  Maybe she didn’t get to go on a ride-along with Robocop, but Gottesdiener’s arresting dispatch from the passenger seat of a private police force’s prowl car in the Motor City sure brings back memories of that future. Buckle up!

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