The 80s were a decade when criminals were bad, authorities were right, and happy endings were all but assured. After Watergate and a decade of moral ambiguity in the 70s (I tend to think of Dog Day Afternoon, with its murky motives, paranoia, and near assurance of a bad end for the main characters, as one of the defining films of the decade), movies like Star Wars, the Rocky sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, et al, in the 80s ushered in an era of moral simplicity, where Communism was bad and suburban living and Pepsi were good. If there’s a prototypical 80s movie, it’s probably Back to the Future, with its overt nostalgia for an idealized 50s and its implication that any problem can be licked if you just act manlier (for which the reward would be a new coat of wax on the family car and a newer pick-up truck for your kid).
Into this cheery milieu in 1987 clomped Robocop, a spaghetti Western gunslinger in spirit and Arnold Schwarzenegger meets the rear end of a Cadillac in body, out to clean up a decaying Detroit, put out of business by cheap steel and Japanese cars, and in the process of being carved up by greedy capitalists.
The heroes of most of the other movies of the decade fought Nazis or Communists or drug gangs or even simply “the Dark Side” — it says a lot that in the most popular franchise of the era, the bad guy was essentially negative thinking. By the 90s this had become a punchline, with American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman telling a homeless man “You’ve got a negative attitude! That’s what’s stopping you!”
But in the hair metal 80s, “positive vibes cures poverty” was still the conventional wisdom. In the midst of this, Robocop‘s enemy was, of all things, privatization. While a lot 80s movies loved to poke fun at Ronald Reagan the person — think 1955 Doc Brown saying “the actor?!” upon finding out who’s president in 1985 — most of them played like sizzle reels for his policies set to Kenny Loggins music. Top Gun had come out in 1986, a year earlier. The Untouchables came out the same year as Robocop, landing 10 slots ahead of it on the year-end box office charts, a high-art movie directed by Brian DePalma and written by David Mamet, two hot young creatives who teamed up to canonize, of all people, the brave cops who enforced prohibition. The 80s loved a straight shooter, almost to an irrational extent.
Robocop, meanwhile, anarchic and rebellious in both execution and ideology, was one of the few films of the era to tell us that the future might not be so rosy, and not just because of the usual “drugs and crime are out of control!”
To be sure, Robocop did tell us drugs and crime were out of control, but it was mostly a way into a larger critique of privatization and techno utopianism. A company called OCP owns the police force (“you see that we’ve gambled in markets usually regarded as non-profit. Hospitals. Prisons. Space exploration”) and their plan to automate police work becomes a dark farce. Robocop ends up cleaning up the town, as you might expect, but not because he’s “the future of law enforcement.”
In fact, Robocop only exists in the first place because of boardroom infighting (the scene where OCP’s plan A, ED-209, shreds a junior VP during a presentation), and when he does defeat his all-robotic competitor, ED-209, it isn’t because of some triumph of the human spirit. It’s because ED-209’s rushed designers forgot to teach it how to negotiate stairs (I love it when even vast criminal conspiracies are depicted as kind of incompetent, it feels real, especially now). Whereas most 80s movies taught you to trust authority (even when it was enforcing nonsensical laws, like the Volstead act) and technology, Robocop told you that most people are flawed and incompetent, and even when armed with futuristic techonology, we’re apt to f*ck things up.
That’s part of Robocop‘s genius, feinting with a genre trope before going somewhere unexpected. I first saw it when I was a little kid (critique of my lax parenting goes here), when all I really understood was that Robocop had an awesome gun that popped out of his leg and that he could reload through his hand (which the movie never explicitly states, but kids somehow inferred). And that he had a robot middle finger for some reason (it’s actually his “information” spike, and he uses it to kill Clarence Boddicker, and if anything cemented my child-like fascination with the movie, it was that). The ideas in it went way over my head until much later. I just saw Robocop as another cool superhero to pretend to be during living room gun fights (his main attributes were not having to reload and flipping everyone off).
Robocop tricked me into receiving its message. And on a larger scale, I think it did that for all of pop culture. On a relatively modest $13 million budget (the 2014 remake would cost at least $100 million) it went on to gross $53 million in theaters and another $24 million in home video sales (in debuted in 1988 at a price of $89.98), massive numbers for a schlocky, lurid, exploitation-ish action movie with no big stars that only narrowly avoided being rated X. It played upon our love of cars, cowboys, and jacked heroes to trick us into watching a gritty, snarky, glorified B-movie screed against Reaganomics at a time when shiny cheerleading was the dominant mode of expression. And people loved it.