From the atom bomb to the Hoverboard®, Science Fiction’s supernatural prescience in the realm of technological innovation is exceedingly well-documented—real world science increasingly intertwines with its imaginary counterpart in bizarre and uncanny ways. By contrast, the ways in which Sci-Fi portrays its speculative economic systems—though no less significant—have received considerably less scrutiny. In the new feature Futures Exchange, Zuckerberg’s Lament publisher K. Mike Merrill invites a re-examination of these imagined economies: a critical look at Science Fiction Cinema’s portrayal of finance.
Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop is a cynical, curiously revered 1987 film about a police officer who is also a robot. It’s also in some ways the Platonic ideal for what Futures Exchange hopes to explore in our semi-regular communiqués: a Science Fiction film whose fundamental conflict hinges on the social and political consequences of economic policy.
A movie often recognized for its prophetic portrayal of Detroit’s swift, dystopian decline (something that anyone paying attention to the city’s significant white flight at the time might have envisioned), the first Robocop’s apocalyptic socio-economic predictions were only magnified in its sequel — in which derelict Detroit hangs unthinkably on the precipice of bankruptcy. This is the kind of shit that we live for: cinema that suggests radical civil and societal revelations through economic policy — policy that by some unimaginable twist of fate finds itself tested in real life, in real time.
In the 2014 of our collective imagining, it’s telling that the idea of a superhuman bionic policeman seems somehow a hell of a lot less fantastic than that of a major international tech corporation headquartered in downtown Detroit. Set scarcely fourteen years in the future, one of the strangest things about this year’s Robocop reboot is how totally tone-deaf it manages to be about the plight of contemporary Detroit — significantly less conscious than Verhoeven’s was over a quarter century before it all actually happened. The new Robocop’s Detroit has somehow seemingly emerged from its current financial ruin, with few signs of the previous decade’s pockmarks. It’s a Detroit that appears in considerably better shape than both the Detroit of the original film and the Detroit of present day — an astonishing windfall that’s never addressed directly.
The one piece of evidence we’re given for Detroit’s economic recovery comes in the form of OmniCorp — a forward-thinking multinational with major defense money that seems not only to be shouldering the tax burden of an otherwise insolvent city, but also voluntarily field test their one-of-a-kind, two billion dollar investment in its corrupt and lawless streets. Lead by CEO Raymond Sellars (played sympathetically by Michael Keaton), OmniCorp’s noble mission is to remove the human cost from defense and law enforcement — replacing flesh and blood soldiers with mechanized, completely objective automatons. Though already successfully helping to police nations throughout the rest of the world, the U.S.’s bowtied, big government luddites uphold legislation that still ascribes value to subjective reasoning and the fallacy of free will — leaving American citizens in the regulatory lurch.
Sellars is an archetypical Silicon Valley Libertarian — riding an ever-cresting wave of progress, and fighting the good fight against the prohibitive powers-that-be and their inanely regressive policies. In an effort to fast-track the inevitable shift in social tides, Sellars deftly proposes a hybridization of man and machine — an undertaking that costs him a literal fortune in bionics, dramatically improves the well being of the city’s populace, and saves the life of an otherwise doomed Detroit police officer. (It’s important to note that R&D for this project takes place in China, presumably out of reach of the meddling American government.) What do the filmmakers assign him for his efforts, besides a triptych of Francis Bacons in his office? He’s villainized for cybernetically bypassing one dude’s freedom of choice — a dude who would be otherwise dead without him.
Robocop 2014’s intended moral appears to be that the civil liberties of the half-dead few outweight the well being of the many. The objective viewer can clearly access a great deal of merit in OmniCorp’s business stratagem — of financial and social advantage to both its progressive corporate architects and society as a whole. The film miscasts the company as a strawman for the Obama Administration’s drone strike policies, when in reality what they propose is a discriminating, impartial, and mutually beneficial solution to the many failures of the human condition.
The film’s greater failure is that in its heavy-handed attempt to pin the story to a political agenda, it ignores a perfectly fascinating reality just under its nose: the very real contemporary dystopia of Detroit itself.