“I’d buy that for a dollar!” Encompasses Everything Brilliant About ‘RoboCop’
The ironically silly tagline has become shorthand for a film, about to celebrate its 35th anniversary, that satirizes our distracted, dazed, consumerist society.
On Sunday, RoboCop will celebrate its 35th anniversary, no doubt having fans repeating the film’s memorable dialogue.
“Dead or alive, you come with me.”
“Nice shot, son – what’s your name?”
And then, of course, there’s the most quoted line from the film: “I would buy this for a dollar!
Even if you’ve never seen RoboCop, you probably know this line just by being around someone who has seen the film: it has become this strange form of greeting between admirers of the film, a way of proving that you are part of a not exactly exclusive club from people who love Paul Verhoeven’s satirical/gore/inspired action flick about ordinary Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who is sadistically shot in the line of duty, only to be reborn as RoboCop , a cyborg built by an evil technology company, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), who leads the impoverished city’s police force. None of this has anything to do with “I would buy this for a dollar! — except, sort of, the iconic line of dialogue from what remains so prescient about a sci-fi movie released in the summer of 1987. It’s a throwaway joke that underscores all that’s brilliant about the Verhoeven’s gloomy view of society.
The line is spoken by Bixby Snyder, the fictional protagonist of a deeply silly sitcom that the film’s characters watch. The show is never named in RoboCopbut the original script lists the program as It’s not my problem!, which is sure to look like the kind of brain-dead comedy you’d expect to see in a dystopian near future like Verhoeven’s envisioned. (Fundamentally, It’s not my problem! is the precursor of Idiocracyit is Asswhich wins a ton of Oscars despite being just an entire movie about one guy’s butt, with the occasional fart.) The script isn’t clear. It’s not my problem!but in the brief scenes we see, Bixby is surrounded by buxom women, his response to their titillating appearances is a euphoric, lewd “I’d buy this for a dollar! or “I will buy this for a dollar!
The show looks terrible, but the people in RoboCop love it — especially that line, which is quoted ironically later in the film when one of cocky executive Bob Morton’s (Miguel Ferrer) co-workers responds approvingly to his pal having a date with two models. Within the world of RoboCop, “I would buy this for a dollar! is an understatement for hookup – it’s the mating call of the horny – and as such it’s a perfect shorthand for a movie that’s about a society that turns into fascism, rudeness and cruelty.
“Because we were in the middle of the Reagan era, I always characterize RoboCop as comic relief for a cynical time,” co-writer Michael Miner would later say, and indeed the film sees corporations as inherently corrupt, the ruling class as hopelessly rotten, and law enforcement as a tool for powerful to subdue the powerless. When it comes to the entertainment industry, silly hits like It’s not my problem! are a metaphor for the endless bewilderment of the population, which has been reduced to sneering morons who mindlessly repeat the slogans of the sitcom.
Too much stretch? Whether it’s Fonzie’s “Aaay,” “Did I do that?” from Urkle. or the recent legacy sequels that regurgitate famous lines from the original hits – people actively moaned during my screening of Ghostbusters: Afterlife when a secondary character asked, innocently, “Who are you going to call?” – we have been trained in Pavlov’s way to respond favorably to quotes we recognize, applauding our ability to recognize what is referenced. In RoboCopthe elite are terrible, but so are the ordinary people, who just sneer and say “I’d buy this for a dollar! (Naturally, there was a callback to the tagline in the bad 2014 RoboCop remake.)
The actor who played the fictional Bixby character, SD Nemeth, didn’t have much of a film career – he returned for 1993 RoboCop 3 – but that didn’t stop the obsessives from quenching their favorite bespectacled slimy horndog. (Fun trivia: Apparently, a cut scene involved revealing that Bixby had been, according to the script, “brought to justice in higher court for accepting sexual favors from his underage co-stars in exchange for job security. “.) The fact that RoboCop screenwriters Miner and Ed Neumeier had envisioned in their rejected sequel that Bixby would run for President of the United States only proved how insightful the original film was: Neumeier said he viewed Bixby’s character as a “reality TV star,” and his tacky, crass attitude certainly makes him look like a glimpse of Donald Trump’s own White House ambitions. Bixby is a jerk, but popular enough to be dangerous.
Verhoeven, a Dutch director who made the leap to Hollywood with his first American film, 1985 flesh and bloodwas a master at mixing commentary and thrills in movies like Primary instinct and Starship Troopersthe latter film including the equally tongue-in-cheek slogans “I do my gone!” and “Would you like to know more? As an outsider, he has been particularly singled out in his attacks on the United States, viewing our country as an ugly, fascinating, despicable and incredibly attractive place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the masses tend not to be very bright in his movies, and so “I would buy this for a dollar! feels like a particularly arrogant way to poke fun at the intelligence level of the average American viewer. Long before The Lego Movie gleefully skewered the baseness and numbing groupthink of sitcoms with Where are my pants?, RoboCop let viewers know how stupid we were getting.
Last year, the good folks at RoboCop Archive released a helpful explainer video that further explained the origins of “I’d Buy this for a dollar! – including its roots in Cyril M. Kornbluth’s 1951 science fiction short story “The Marching Morons”, which also seems to have a direct influence on Idiocracy in his portrayal of a world overrun by idiots. The video also shows some of the ways the RoboCop slogan has seeped into our world – completely stripped of its original irony, of course. There’s no better example than this goofy clip from Hooters for its “Tough Guy Tuesday Movie” promo, in which the hosts try to work “I’d buy this for a dollar! in their jokes.
But plenty of other people are just as quick to say that six-word phrase whenever the movie comes along, even if it’s just in connection with the recent announcement of a new RoboCop-themed video game that will be released next year. Intentionally or not, each of these fans validates the dark power of “I would buy this for a dollar! which has become an inescapable euphemism for our insatiable desire to own things – consumer products, sex, etc. Give it to us. Give it to us now.
Of course, “I would buy this for a dollar! is only a small part of RoboCop, which is mostly about our fear of losing our souls to technology, while also discussing the rise of a militarized police state and the increasing privatization of public services, widening the gap between rich and poor. (Also, worth mentioning: the movie is really funny and incredibly, almost obscene, violent.)
But you can encompass the whole movie’s cynical worldview in this knowingly stupid tagline. People love to repeat it, but one thing I don’t think we’ve ever considered: the things Bixby so desperately wants to buy only cost a dollar. The shit we’re addicted to is certainly cheap.