Most of you know RoboCop as one of those movies — like Network or The Fifth Element — that rotates endlessly on late-night cable TV.But buried beneath the shoot-outs, car chases and pre-CGI stop-action animation is a cogent, bitter critique of American capitalism, and the dystopia it could possibly produce.
More than that, RoboCop asked a sophisticated philosophical question about the role of technology in medicine: How much of a human being’s physical body can be removed before a person stops being a human?
MGM has slated a remake of RoboCop, but as the original star, Peter Weller, recently told a Los Angeles audience, it won’t likely reproduce the morality at the heart of the original.
Nor its macroeconomic analysis.
In 1987, the concept of 'singularity' -- that artificial intelligence will merge with human intelligence to produce a new intelligence greater than either -- was still in its infancy. Mathematician and author Vernor Vinge only coined the term in a 1983 Omni magazine article, and it wasn't until Vinge wrote another article on the topic for a NASA symposium in 1993 that the concept became truly widespread.
Yet RoboCop, years ahead of its time, asks a fundamental question about singularity: If human and machine are joined, is there a point where one subsumes the other?
Today, singularity is a trendy debate topic among Silicon Valley's chattering class. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel -- one of the early funders of Facebook and the founder of Paypal -- is a singularity enthusiast.
The Ford Taurus was first launched in the 1986 model year, and the car features prominently as a product placement in the movie -- all the cop cars are Tauruses. The future would indeed feature the Taurus: Between 1992 and 1996, the Taurus was the best-selling car in the U.S.
The car was discontinued after 2007 but has since been scheduled for a relaunch.
Toward the end of the movie, in a climactic battle between RoboCop and the paramilitary droid ED 209, the latter is unable to negotiate a staircase and falls to its doom.
In RoboCop, economic life is deformed by extreme poverty and recession. The only decent paying jobs, it seems, are as ruthless corporate chieftains, police officers or drug lords. The cops are on strike. The capitalists want to destroy the city. And the gangsters are enjoying every minute of it.
Does this sound familiar?
The central premise of the movie is that in the future Detroit will become a crumbling disaster area overrun by crime lords who hide out in its abandoned industrial buildings.
That's pretty much what happened between 1987 and now.
In the movie, Omni Consumer Products proposes that 'Old Detroit' could be swept away by building a new, modern, 'Delta City' on top of it. The idea was implausible at the time.
Today, it's commonplace for city-scale developments to spring up from nowhere. Dubai is the best example, and China has created dozens of large cities from scratch over the last decade. In the U.K., Liverpool--a rustbelt city that resembles Detroit in some ways--added a new 'Liverpool One' development onto its West side, doubling the size of its downtown. Liverpool is planning another Dubai-style extension, 'Liverpool Waters,' to its north.
In the film, Omni Consumer Corp's law enforcement robots--ED 209 and Robocop--make split-second judgments about who is innocent and who is guilty, and several bad guys are executed in spot decisions by both machines.
In 2011, President Obama signed the National defence Authorization Act, which allows the government to imprison indefinitely without trial anyone suspected of terrorism. Obama has also authorised the killing of at least two American citizens by robot drones.
BELOW: In the movie's most famous scene, the ED 209 prototype malfunctions, killing an Omni Corp executive after giving him '14 seconds to comply!' with an order to drop his weapon.
After three wars in two foreign countries, no one is surprised that large sections of the U.S. economy are driven by spending on private military contractors such as Academi (formerly Xe Services, formerly Blackwater) and Halliburton.
But in 1987, before either of the Iraq Gulf Wars, the notion that an American company would use its civilian R&D unit to covertly develop weapons for the military -- as Omni Consumer Products does in RoboCop -- was still controversial.
In 1992, the famed feminist critic said RoboCop was merely one of 'an endless stream of war and action movies' in which 'women are reduced to mute and incidental characters or banished altogether.'
We now know that Nancy Allen, as officer Anne Lewis (RoboCop's former partner), with her body armour and boy-cut, was one of the new pioneer archetypes in American action movies: The arse-kicking heroine. Today it is unusual for an action movie to not feature a strong female lead capable of taking down any bad guy she meets.
Actor Kurtwood Smith is best-known for playing Red, Eric's irascible father, on 'That 70s Show,' from 1998 to 2006. Smith has had a long career in TV and film (his first role was a walk-on part in the classic sitcom spoof Soap, in 1980).
But it wasn't until he played the gangster Clarence J. Boddicker in RoboCop that he became Hollywood's go-to guy for scene-chewing villains.
Plans are moving ahead for a RoboCop statue in Detroit, akin to the Rocky statue in Philadelphia. Supporters say it will bring in tourists, and celebrate one of the most memorable characters ever associated with the city. Detractors believe it reinforces the image of Detroit as a lawless hellhole.
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