What Robocop Tells Us about the Neoliberal City, Then and Now

Robocop 1987 vs 2014

The recent release of Jose Padilha’s reboot of the RoboCop franchise offers ToM another opportunity to indulge in extreme historian geekiness. As an unabashed lover of the original 1987 RoboCop, I jumped at the opportunity to write a dual review of both films, reflecting on their contrasting messages and cultural commentaries.

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 version was a masterpiece. No, seriously. Taking place in an unspecified, but not too distant future, the film is set in a dystopic, post-industrial Detroit. The film’s Motor City is riddled with crime and drugs, where police are killed with shocking regularity. The thinly veiled illusion to urban blight during the Reagan years is hard to miss.        RoboCop ’87 is a biting indictment of neoliberal urbanism. The central villain of the film is the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation, whose maniacal plan is to bulldoze the slums (which seems to be most of the city) and build “Delta City,” a luxurious high-rise dominated community, over the rubble. It is urban redevelopment taken to its wildest extremes. The “dream” of OCP’s head, referred to as the “Old Man”, is to replace “Old Detroit” with Delta City, which will offer its presumably gentrified population safety, cleanliness, and order. The construction project will supposedly create two million new jobs, which the Old Man explains will “breath life into this city again.”

In order to pave way for the corporate takeover of the city, OCP plans to take control of Detroit’s law enforcement. Central to the Delta City project is the privatization of the city’s police force. The inner city’s police force is racked with dissension as the recent murder of another officer leads many within the overworked unit to threaten a strike. In a not so subtle reference to Reagan’s brutal punishment of the air traffic controllers union, the Sergeant tells his subordinates that he doesn’t “want to hear anymore talk about strike, we’re not plumbers, we’re police officers, and police officers don’t strike!” As a result, a young executive is able to convince the Old Man to green light his “RoboCop” program, which is developing a half-human, half-robot cyborg alternative. The goal of course is to replace the fallible, demanding human workforce with reliable robots.

To briefly summarize the film’s plot, officer Alex Murphy is gunned down in brutal fashion by a local gang, making him the first candidate for the RoboCop program. Murphy returns to service as RoboCop, but is haunted by fractured memories from his past life. Murphy eventually avenges his own death by tracking down the gang leader who slayed him, only to find that the crime boss is working with OCP. When RoboCop attempts to confront the OCP’s president Dick Jones, he is unable to arrest him as the corporation has implanted a secret directive that stops all criminal action against its executives. Inevitably, RoboCop is able to partially embrace his human side by remembering his past life as Alex Murphy. He then systematically arrests or kills the corporate and criminal villains of the film.

The film is laden with political commentary. At the heart of RoboCop is a cautionary tale. The movie warns against the inherently corrupting nature of public-private partnerships. As the  “urban crisis” reached new heights during the late 1970s and early 1980s, many city governments allied with the business community to help finance economic development projects and public services. New York serves as the canonical example. Following the “fiscal crisis” of the late 1970s, when the city avoided bankruptcy only with a federal bailout, Mayors Koch and Dinkins attempted to reinvigorate New York by spurring business investment. In an attempt to lure corporate firms, the city offered generous tax breaks and various other subsidies.

Like the fictional OCP, New York’s development strategy was paired with an aggressive approach towards crime. “Law and Order” became the overarching principle of neoliberal urban governance, which included the adoption of the infamous “broken windows theory.” This period also witnessed a major expansion in the enforcement of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which carried harsh penalties for the possession and sale of narcotics, a major cause of America’s massive increase in prison population. The results of these various initiatives are still hotly debated. Proponents of these neoliberal strategies point to the significant decline of crime in NYC, as well as the city’s improved financial status. While willing to concede the drop in crime rates, opponents note that corporate friendly development projects and aggressive police policies have resulted in the expansion of America’s carceral system, extreme economic inequality in NYC, and the sterilization of urban culture, with the primary example being the overly corporatized Times Square.

On the surface, RoboCop offers a critique of privatization and a defense of the public sector. RoboCop serves as a metaphor for the battle between the human public police officer and the private corporate machine. This message also has working-class appeal, as it speaks to the traumatic process of automation that destroyed millions of blue-collar industrial jobs during the post-World War II era (notably in Detroit’s auto plants). But the film ends on a rather ambiguous note, suggesting that the public vs. private/man vs. machine battle is far from over. Despite apparent criticisms of privatization, the film seems equally uncomfortable portraying the remnants of the urban New Deal Coalition. The police force and their public union are portrayed as shrill and unrealistic. The audience is clearly meant to identify with the police sergeant who chides his officers for risking the public good by threatening a strike. The film also casts aspersions on criminal defense attorneys and civil liberties defenders, who are as portrayed as nothing more than badly dressed, long-haired protectors of “scum bags.” Interestingly enough, for a film set in post-industrial Detroit, the movie treads lightly on issues of race. African Americans and other minorities are represented amongst the criminal element, but no more so than the police force (the anti-union sergeant is black), corporate America (an OCP board member is black), or the political system (the mayor is an African American). Obviously, this is consistent with the films overall liberal tone, but seems to also suggest an eventual “post-racial” world were economic conflicts reign supreme.

Reflecting these ideological inconsistencies, the film remains mum on the larger issue of urban redevelopment that motivates the OCP’s project. The movie casts a negative light on the antiseptic Delta City, but portrays Old Detroit as equally unappealing. This ambiguity is captured in the enigmatic character of the Old Man. The paternalistic, but seemingly disconnected, head of OCP is the visionary behind Delta City, and the one who calls for the “cancer” of crime to be surgically removed. But by the end of the film, the Old Man is shown to be a victim of profiteering underlings. The final message seems to be that the neoliberal vision of corporate led economic development is not inherently flawed, but that the private sector houses unscrupulous individuals who will look to profit from urban disorder.

Ultimately, the original RoboCop offers an insightful and scarily prophetic take on the pitfalls of neoliberal urban governance. But at the same time, the film’s mixed messages speak to the gaping hole in our contemporary discourse on American cities. In the last year, after decades of deindustrialization, population decline, and financial mismanagement, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. In an attempt to shed its debt and start over, Detroit officials suggested reducing, or eliminating, pensions and other financial obligations to public sector beneficiaries. Though the issue is still making its way through the judicial system, it portends a very bad precedent. But like RoboCop, there is no coherent vision to counter neoliberal economic development strategies. Reducing Detroit’s debt burden seems the only way that the city can eventually lower corporate tax rates in hopes of spurring investment. Much like debates surrounding modern Detroit, RoboCop ’87 offers much lamentation, but no real way out. “Old Detroit” is plagued by crime, poverty, and filth, while “Delta City” offers gentrification, authoritarian policing, and corporate dominance. Much like RoboCop himself, Detroit and American cities seem to be stuck in limbo, struggling against privatization, mechanization, and militarization, but unable to imagine a more humanistic, egalitarian, and civic ideal.

RoboCop 2014 is an entirely different beast. Where as the original took urban America as its unit of analysis, the newer version adopts a global perspective. Detroit still remains the film’s setting, but the city serves less as a theme and more as a background (an homage to the franchises past). RoboCop ’14 is not about urban redevelopment or public sector decrepitude, but rather foreign policy and private security forces. Less the War on Drugs, more the War on Terror. The move opens in a dramatic fashion. Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), a conservative television host meant as a parody of Bill O’Reilly/Glenn Beck, introduces his American audience to the latest innovation in global policing. OmniCorp, this time doing its best Blackwater impersonation, has developed a robotic army. The mechanical military is used largely in overseas projects. Novak’s crew has been sent to the recently occupied Tehran, Iran (scary right!) to witness the robotic army “pacify” the local population. Promising that no American soldiers need ever die again in foreign conflicts, Novak lauds the mechanical mercenaries. However, the quiescent scene immediately bursts into outright violence, as a group of partisan Iranians launch a suicide attack on the robots, hoping to die on camera before the entire world.

Despite Novak’s applause, OmniCorp cannot manage to import its program to the domestic setting. OmniCorp’s CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), aims to bring his robotic police force to American cities, but is continually frustrated by the opposition of liberal Senator Hubert Dreyfuss and unfavorable public opinion. In an attempt to humanize their robotic technology, Sellars turns to his chief scientist Dr. Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman). They formulate a plan to build a hybrid human-robot cyborg, which is meant to ease the worries of the American public.

The eventual candidate for this program is of course, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). After Murphy and his partner get to close to busting Detroit’s head crime boss, he is badly mangled by a bomb placed in his car. Facing certain death, Murphy’s wife decides to allow OmniCorp to use her husband for their RoboCop project. Murphy’s body is taken to China, where OmniCorp builds their robotic army. Murphy is manufactured into RoboCop.

RoboCop returns to Detroit and is put into action though, where he has immediate success. Able to access Detroit’s criminal database and the city’s surveillance cameras, RoboCop tracks down criminals with ease. The success of the program results in a massive swing in public opinion, as the American public catches RoboCop fever and Congress begins the process of repealing the Dreyfuss Bill (which outlawed the use of OmniCorp’s robotic army on American soil). Just like the original, RoboCOp is haunted by memories of his past murder, eventually seeking vengeance by tracking down and killing the crime boss who ordered the hit. What he discovers, however, is that Detroit’s Chief of Police is in league with the city’s criminal syndicate, even participating in the planting of his car bomb. As RoboCOp is about to arrest/shoot the chief, OmniCorp remotely shuts him down. Realizing that RoboCop has started to operate outside of OmniCorp’s oversight, the CEO decides to have him killed. Managing to escape, RoboCop rushes to the OmniCorp headquarters, where he ferociously fights his way past the company’s mechanical army to the helipad where he shoots the OmniCorp CEO dead.

If Robocop ’87 reflected worries about privatization and corporate America’s takeover of public services, RoboCop ’14 expresses a fit of anxiety about globalization and the domestic implications of American foreign policy. The word “drones” is repeated throughout the movie. RoboCop ’14 gives voice to American concerns that the mechanical Frankensteins we have unleashed upon the rest of the world will ultimately be used to curtail our own freedoms and civil liberties. Debates surrounding the usage of drones by domestic police forces seem to permeate the film’s every pore. NSA style surveillance is also being lampooned. RoboCop’s ability to access police computer systems and security cameras makes him a more effective police officer, but also capable of intruding on the privacy of ordinary citizens. The film takes an obvious shot at globalization by setting RoboCop’s creation in China. Capital mobility and the flight of manufacturing to lower wage regions throughout the Global South has been a persistent post-World War II trend. (At least the original RoboCop was American made.) RoboCop’s international birthplace only heightens his threat to domestic tranquility. International corporations, like OmniCorp, operate beyond the boundaries of any given nation, making them particularly difficult to regulate and monitor.

In contrast to its predecessor, Detroit does not play a significant role in the movie’s plots. In fact, many of the scenes set in the city (such as the dramatic showdown outside of OmniCorp’s corporate high rise) eschew the gritty urban slums and post-industrial settings of RoboCop ’87. Instead the new version is more comfortable in the sanitized downtown landscape of convention centers and corporate office buildings. However, these seemingly unconscious decisions seem to play to the film’s central message. If, as critics suggest, globalization is a homogenizing force that destroys human beings’ sense of place and the uniqueness of individual locations, then it seems all too appropriate that Detroit would serve as nondescript background for RoboCop ’14. In another sense, these directorial decisions actually link the newer film to its predecessor. In the wake of massive deindustrialization and white flight, many urban communities decided to focus their limited resources on turning their downtowns into high-end tourist attractions, casinos, building grandiose hotels, shopping malls, convention centers, and even domed football stadiums. In this regard, RoboCop ’14 seems to have sadly carried out the neoliberal vision of the original. Delta City was built after all, if on a smaller scale.

As is always the case (apologies for the historians cliché), RoboCop reflects the anxieties and concerns of a particular time. In the 1980s, the worry was that authoritarian and anti-democratic forces were coming from within. Private corporations threatened to take control of our communities and civic services, robbing individual citizens of public oversight and political recourse. Today, we fret about the enemy from outside. Though the source of our anxiety, unresponsive and unaccountable corporations, continues to be the same. But this time, those fears are global in nature. The public-private alliances that America has fostered in order to wage its global War on Terror seem to carry the potential to destroy domestic liberty. Whether or not RoboCop ’14 augurs the future as precisely as RoboCop ’87 predicted the rise of neoliberal urbanism is as of yet unknown.