Living in Old Detroit: How RoboCop predicted the world we live in today

To call Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi classic RoboCop a few years ahead of its time would be an understatement. Try a few decades, maybe. Verhoeven’s tale of commercialization and technology run amok was a cautionary tale in a lot of ways, and looking back on it 27 years later, it’s hard to say we actually heeded the warning.

Hidden behind the straight-up action story of a cop turned into a badass robot is a film about what Verhoeven worried the world could become, and what bled through as sometimes-wacky media satire turned out to be an almost spooky mirror on the world we live in today. Robo-drones an all-too-real, controversial part of warfare? Check. Rampant consumerism? Check. Corporations gaining more and more political power? Check. Heck, the script even predicted the eventual downfall of Detroit. Scary, right?

In the film, the RoboCop program was born of Omni Consumer Products (OCP) research and development into drone warfare, and is only greenlit after the initial all-robot prototype malfunctions and blows away a junior executive in a truly over-the-top hail of gunfire. It was a classically insane Verhoeven scene, but in a lot of ways, that orgy of blood and guts served as a precursor to the moral debates raging across the nation as airborne drones become more and more common on the battlefield. Before long, we could have an actual army of ED-209s roaming the streets.

But the real fun stuff came in the social satire. With everything from bizarre TV news footage to inane TV show clips, the film did an amazing job of making Old Detroit feel like a living, breathing world for Alex Murphy and company. There’s a reason “I’d buy that for a dollar!” remains a weird, but fondly remembered, catch phrase to this day. Not surprisingly, that aspect of the script was actually one of the big things that attracted Verhoeven, as he explained in a 2002 interview looking back on the project.

RoboCop was one of Verhoeven’s first forays into the American movie machine, and he said on a basic level the film was “mostly about the idiocy of American television.” Even Murphy himself is a reflection of that over-consumerist culture, as one of the only human things he can remember after having his mind wiped is the T.J. Lazer gun trick he learned to impress his son:

“That’s all in RobocCp. A lot of what we could call the ‘sociology’ was already in the script – this was something that the American writers have brought in. Starship Troopers was more me reflecting on American politics – to a certain degree, domestic American politics. There’s a lot of parallels with what happened after September 11, of course – not just in the obvious way of shooting rockets in tunnels at the Taliban, or the ‘arachnids’ in the movie – but also in the function of propaganda and spinning. In some ways it’s a pleasure that it all became true, but on the other hand there’s not much pleasure that it came true.”

RoboCop also tried to create a larger-than-life evil corporation with Omni Consumer Products, though the coverups and political backstabbing that made good sci-fi a few decades ago is now the same stuff you can catch on CNN these days. The company’s grand scheme to tear down Old Detroit and built Delta City on its ruins smacks of modern-day culture, where you can’t go a month without hearing how this neighborhood or that neighborhood is being changed through gentrification. They’re even facing that exact same debate in Detroit, ironically, as they try to find a way to revitalize a city that has devolved into almost a Third World country in some neighborhoods.

That brings us all the way around to Jose Padilha’s RoboCop reboot, which opens wide this week. The jury’s still out on whether the film is actually worth a look (It’s sitting at a good-but-not-great 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment), but we’re thinking about something a little different. The original RoboCop was a look forward at how all these things could affect our lives, whereas now, that's the world we're living in. Not that we’re saying Padilha’s adaption will pull it off, but the time is ripe to explore the next step of where everything foreshadowed in Verhoeven’s version leads next.

If Padilha can build on the world Verhoeven built, then explore where all those things might end up in another 25 years, then this could really be a worthy successor to the mantle. Or they could fumble the ball and this one could crash and burn like those other, recent attempts to update Verhoeven’s classic (see: Total Recall). Fingers crossed.

More from around the web