November 13, 2002
RoboCop vs. Spielberg
Two RoboCop bits:
Take a close look at the track record of this company, and you'll see that we've gambled in markets traditionally regarded as non-profit--hospitals, prisons, space exploration. I say good business is where you find it. --Richard Jones, VP at Omni Consumer Products
Criminal 1: We're robbing banks, but we never get to keep the money.
Criminal 2: It takes money to make money--we steal the money to buy the coke to sell the coke to make even more money. It's capital investment, man.
Criminal 1: Yeah, but why bother making money when we can just steal it?
Criminal 2: No better way to steal money than free enterprise.
I just saw RoboCop for the first time. Despite the gratuitous, truly gruesome violence, it has some very interesting social commentary as scathing parody of corporate culture, which overlaps generously with organized crime. I keep forgetting that the corporate dystopia was a fairly common setting in 80's movies (Blade Runner being the other full-scale example).
But if you look at dystopic visions today, they're watered down, and the corporations that profit from crime and have taken over public services are strangely absent. In RoboCop, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) prides itself on corporatizing things "traditionally thought of as non-profit," like Police and Hospitals. Looking at Spielberg's Minority Report, we would be led to believe that in 20 years, the corrupt people in positions of power are going to be... mayors? Instead of Back to the Future, it's forward to some idealized-yet-mildly-disconcerting past of the 1950s.
Setting aside for the moment that mayors and politicians are not the ones really in power in the present, it's a little disconcerting that in the 80s, corporate control was a concern that showed up in mainstream culture, but now that the same corporate control is actually showing, pop culture goes out of its way to avoid these concerns. The worst thing about corporatization in Minority Report is the constant in-your-face marketing. Is this really the only real concern we can come up with about where we're heading? RoboCop, flawed though it is, effortlessly shows this not to be the case... fifteen years ago. From the movies I've seen, this trend seems to be fairly inclusive. 80s movies (which I've been watching a lot of lately) tend to comment directly on institutional issues, whereas 90s movies project these concerns onto individuals or ignore them altogether.
What brought all this to mind was, oddly enough, something that Stephen Henighan said when I interviewed him last week about novels and how they reflect and define the concerns of the day:
I think literature is extremely influential in shaping our view of ourselves as a nation. However, what worries me in the present situation is that a lot of the literature that has become very popular portrays a rather nostalgic view of our nation. There's very little that engages in an interesting way with the present. This has fortified or enhanced a certain tendency in Canadian life at the moment to turn our eyes away from the present and avoid a lot of the difficult issues we have, like "do we integrate our military with the states," or "do we sign Kyoto," and meanwhile we're all reading Alistair Macleod or Ann-Marie Macdonald about some misty Cape Breton of many years ago. In a way, the popularity of those novels actually goes along with our general reluctance to confront the present.
floccinaucinihilipilification (the categorizing of something as worthless or trivial)
The argument that Robocop and Blade Runner represent a trend, and that Minority Report represents another sticks in my craw, I think because I read a similar argument somewhere else Ė but I may have just read this same page a while ago and be misremembering (tragedy becomes farce). Since I havenít comment on this page in over a year I feel a bit sheepish that this is what it took for me to write a response. Forgive me, I canít help myself.
Nobody liked Blade Runner in the 80ís. When it first opened in í82 it was a flop, partly because of the awful voice over, but mostly because it opened against Steven Speilbergís monster 80ís sci-fi hit E.T. So I donít think it should count as 80ís sci-fi. E.T. now thatís 80ís sci-fi. The closest E.T. came to having a villain was Peter Coyote Ė a fairly benign authority figure. It also represents an early success for product placement in film. The Empire Strikes Back might fit in with your trend, after all the heroes are rebels, but the film also idealizes aristocrats and vilifies geometric abstraction (lets face it the empire is minimalist art, and Lukas is a reactionary). Alien fits the trend firmly, but it was made in 79, sorry. Dune is a romantic tale of eugenics, aristocracy, and lavish displays of wealth Ė and David Lych loved Ronald Reagan. It really doesnít get much more 80ís then that. Brazil could be disestablishmentarianism. It could be antidisestablishmentarianism (the longest word in the English language during the 80ís, itís been usurped by a dot-genome term). Because the story is so conveluted itís impossible to say on which side this film dwells, but Iíll give it to you just to show I mean to play fare: Brazil is an instance of socially critical 80ís sci-fi, I think. It should be said that Arnold Schwartzenager is also a right wing reactionary, but Terminator is critical of the military industrial complex. So Iíll give you that- strong no nukes massage and a hopeful moral about free will, no wait thatís Terminator II, and it was made in 92, that ones mine. Tron is anti-corporate right up until the end when the hero is transformed into a happily-ever-after-CEO who benignly employs his friends.
I certainly didn't mean to imply that all (or even most) of 80 sci fi was a scathing critique of corporate culture... rather that as a concern, corporate control was a lot more present for a lot of mainstream artists 20 years ago than it is today. Now, it's much more likely to be ignored in a kind of "end of history," ubercapitalism-is-inevitable kind of way.
The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, the One, Minority Report... most of the sci-fi settings of the mid to ate 90's that I can think of have little or nothing to do with corporate control.
More to the point: I can't think of one major sci-fi film in the past 6-7 years that has done the corpo dystopia thing, and Minority Report is set up in the exact position to do it, but ends up sugar-coating it.
In that sense, RoboCop and Blade Runner are significant. I may well be missing significant counterexamples, but no one has pointed them out.
Si-fi has always been about sequel, the genre began as serials and has very few self contained classics. Your thesis is supported by the fact that the only two franchises two take corporate culture head on, Robo Cop and Alien were filing by the late nineties (mercifully Robo Cop went tits up with its third installment, to bad that wasnít the case with Alien). It should be clear by now that Lukas had nothing to do with any of the more interesting content of the early Star Wars pictures, and that he is in fact a reactionary pinning for a return to Victorian ideals of beauty. But unless I am very wrong about The Matrix, it should not be listed with The One.
Iím surprised you feel The Matrix as a film that ignores corporate control Ėespecially its first hour. The Reeveís character is far more alienated by the rules and stricture he finds himself within then Harrison Ford was (the Robo Cop seemed to take his transformation in stride). I hope that the two sequals coming out this year will play more off that first hour.
EXistenZ Is a stand-alone (and Robo Cop should have been) Cronenbergís take on commercial culture and its influence are hardly benign. Likewise Strange Days gives us a gloss on virtual reality, a far more conventional take then Cronenbergís, but itís still pretty grim. Verhoeven went on to make Star Ship Trooper í97. Totally worth watching Ė shot like MTV for fascists, Verhoeven surpasses himself for wry cultural criticism with this one. More recently he made Hollow Man which pitches the argument back in you favor so Iím just going to move on.
Speilberg is a chicken; thatís what A.I. and Minority Report show us. Both contain the possibility of harsh critical content and both undermined that same content. A.I was such a mess by the end itís not worth talking about the first part of that film, but Minority Report came far closer to the mark. I say this because I found the idea of being personally addressed by billboards insane, of being unable to escape the presence of television oppressive, and of meekly going limp for a retinal scan more then a little frightening. I mention this because all of this seemed realistic, a future we will probably have to deal with in some form or another. That said this atmosphere of control is made to feel avoidable. The security of a wood frame house in the country is made available and the political mechanisms are counter intuitively given human scale.
But hey did you notice that the darker a character is in the Lord of the Ring the more evil it is? And that the Humans collaborating with the fiery eyeball Ė the "Easties" looked like they were Middle Eastern?
I'm not sure Verhoeven had too much to do with the subversive content of RoboCop (I haven't seen Starship Troopers). The script writers were both outsiders, though. Neither has worked on any other significant hollywood project.
I didn't see existenz, either, though I've been meaning to.
I definitely noticed the racial bit in the Lord of the Rings. It was toned down (though not enough) compared to the book, though. The easterlings in the books have black skin, come from the east, wield scimitars, and ride oliphants. The orcs are all mentioned as having black skin, too. There was an article in the guardian about it: