The hubby and I watched Robocop this weekend. Though I’ve seen it before, watching it in the context of the current political discussion about a “big government” takeover of health care helped me to see the film with fresh eyes. In case you were wondering, I have no qualms about a public option or a single-payer system for that matter and find the concerns about too much government involvement misplaced. Robocop and many other similar sci-fi/action hybrids of the eighties argue that big business may be the true enemy, a point conservative naysayers rarely acknowledge in the health care debate.
In Robocop, a corporation called Omni Consumer Products (OCP) finances and manages the Detroit Police department. In its efforts to clean up the city before building a high tech development known as Delta City, OCP creates a crime-fighting robot called ED-209. When brought before the company’s CEOs for a demonstration, things go horribly awry with ED-209:
The biggest proponent of ED-209, Dick Jones, considers this incident a minor setback, but the company’s president disagrees. As a result, young opportunist Bob Morton proposes that another weapons development program be given the green light. This new program creates a cyborg officer called RoboCop out of mechanical parts and the salvageable remains of Alex Murphy, a young police officer who meets an unfortunate end at the hands of cartoonish criminals only to be resurrected as RoboCop. While Murphy initially remembers nothing about his previous life, he gradually recalls the past with the help of his former partner, Anne Lewis. He also uncovers a vast conspiracy in which Jones works with the very criminals who initially destroyed Murphy, but avoids charges by pre-programming the RoboCop to let all OCP employees go. In the end, Murphy reveals the conspiracy to OCP’s president, killing Jones at the film’s end. RoboCop‘s message seems simple: with a huge corporation in charge of law enforcement profit motives outweigh basic principles of justice, enabling corruption and criminal activity.
This critique of American capitalism continues to be relevant over twenty years later. I’m particularly reminded of Naomi Klein‘s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, Klein reveals a pattern in which disasters, real and/or manufactured, allow proponents of free market capitalism to force their policies onto a vulnerable populace. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers an excellent example that’s close to home, but Klein also explores how countries such as Chile, Bolivia, Poland, and Russia, deployed the shock doctrine.
The Detroit of Robocop seems similarly positioned; while the film does not allude to a natural disaster or political upheaval, the decline of the Rust Belt seems to be an unspoken cause of the rampant crime and urban decay depicted in the film. OCP takes advantage of this weakened state, particularly in terms of law enforcement, to justify the development, manufacturing, and selling of law enforcement weaponry.
Other sci-fi films of the eighties also convey a distrust of corporations. I think specifically of Aliens. In Aliens, Ripley, the lone survivor of the original film, assists a group of marines on a mission to explore the now-inhabited planet where her crew initially discovered the creatures. As the body count quickly mounts, Ripley learns that the corporation involved in the investigation, known as Weyland-Yutani Corporation, hopes to bring an alien specimen back from the trip for weapons research by allowing Ripley and a little girl, Newt, to be impregnated and then frozen on the return trip. She also learns that the colonists of the planet were encouraged to look for the aliens after Ripley told the company of their existence. Ultimately, these actions wipe out all but one colonist, most of the marines, and not so surprisingly, the company’s corporate lawyer and chief instigator of the company’s actions, Burke.
Burke, by the way, epitomizes the sleazy, pip squeaky type. The same goes for Morton in RoboCop, though his is the more hedonistic variety (he literally does a line of coke off of a woman’s cleavage). Nevertheless, both men’s senses of masculinity strongly contrast the toughness demonstrated by the working men and women employed to further their causes. Early on in RoboCop, Nancy Allen‘s Anne Lewis show’s herself to be “one of the guys” by beating up a disorderly male perpetrator. Similarly, Vasquez (played by Jenette Goldstein) displays her ripped muscles and quick wit in the scene below:
This may seem like a digression, but these scenes demonstrate an action ethos in which those who work for the state–the cops, the marines, etc.–represent strong, working class masculinity, regardless of the sex of the character. By contrast, the corporation’s representatives exhibit feeble qualities that compromise their masculinity; instead of manifesting their power corporeally, they do so through cunning schemes that compromise the safety of the workers they employ. Clearly, there is a class critique at work here, and gender becomes the primary signifier of class differences.
The class critique is symptomatic of a broader concern that both films have with the role that corporations play in shaping public policies and managing disasters. While both films set their plots in futuristic worlds with technologies yet to be realized, the critiques they make could not be more contemporary.