On Sunday, RoboCop will be celebrating its 35th anniversary, no doubt prompting fans to repeat the film’s memorable dialogue.
“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
“Nice shooting, son — what’s your name?”
And then, of course, there’s the most quoted line from the movie: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
Even if you’ve never seen RoboCop, you probably know that line simply by being around someone who has seen the movie: It’s become this weird form of greeting between the film’s admirers, a way to prove you’re part of a not-exactly-exclusive club of people who love Paul Verhoeven’s satiric/gory/inspired action movie about an ordinary Detroit cop, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who’s sadistically gunned down in the line of duty, only to be reborn as RoboCop, a cyborg built by an evil tech company, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), that runs the impoverished city’s police force. None of that has anything to do with “I’d buy that for a dollar!” — except, it sorta does, the line of dialogue emblematic of what remains so prescient about a sci-fi film that came out way back in the summer of 1987. It’s a throwaway joke that underlines everything that’s brilliant about Verhoeven’s bleak view of society.
The line is spoken by Bixby Snyder, the fictional protagonist of a deeply asinine sitcom that the movie’s characters watch. The show is never named in RoboCop, but the original screenplay lists the program as It’s Not My Problem!, which sure sounds like the sort of brain-dead comedy you’d expect to see in a dystopian near-future like the one dreamed up by Verhoeven. (Basically, It’s Not My Problem! is the precursor to Idiocracy’s Ass, which wins a ton of Oscars despite being just a whole movie about a guy’s butt, with occasional farts.) It’s not clear what the storyline is in It’s Not My Problem!, but in the brief scenes we see, Bixby is surrounded by buxom ladies, his response to their titillating come-ons a euphoric, lewd “I’d buy that for a dollar!” or “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”
The show seems terrible, but the people in RoboCop adore it — especially that line, which is quoted ironically later in the film when one of snotty OCP executive Bob Morton’s (Miguel Ferrer) colleagues responds approvingly to his buddy having a date with two models. Within the world of RoboCop, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” is a euphemism for hooking up — it’s the mating call of the horny — and as such, it’s a perfect shorthand for a film that’s all about a society devolving into fascism, coarseness and cruelty.
“Because we were in the midst 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 movie views corporations as inherently corrupt, the ruling class as irredeemably rotten and law enforcement as a tool for the powerful to keep the powerless down. As for the entertainment industry, fatuous hits like It’s Not My Problem! are a metaphor for an endless dumbing-down of the population, which has been reduced to giggling morons who repeat sitcom catchphrases mindlessly.
Too much of a stretch? Whether it’s Fonzie’s “Aaay,” Urkle’s “Did I do that?” or the recent legacy sequels that regurgitate famous lines from the original hits — people actively groaned at my screening of Ghostbusters: Afterlife when a side character asked, innocently, “Who you gonna call?” — we’re been trained Pavlov-style to respond favorably to quotes we recognize, applauding our ability to recognize what’s being referenced. In RoboCop, the elite are terrible, but so are the common folk, who just snicker away at “I’d buy that for a dollar!” (Naturally, there was a callback to the catchphrase in the bad 2014 RoboCop remake.)
The actor who played the fictional Bixby character, S.D. Nemeth, didn’t go on to have much of a film career — he did come back for 1993’s RoboCop 3 — but that hasn’t stopped obsessives from stanning their favorite bespectacled, slimy horndog. (Fun trivia tidbit: Apparently, a cut scene involved revealing that Bixby had been, according to the script, “arraigned in superior court on charges that he accepted sexual favors from his underage co-stars in return for job security.”) The fact that RoboCop screenwriters Miner and Ed Neumeier had envisioned in their rejected sequel that Bixby would run for U.S. president only further proved how insightful the original film was: Neumeier has said that he considered the Bixby character to be a “reality show star,” and his tacky, uncouth demeanor certainly makes him seem like a preview of Donald Trump’s own White House ambitions. Bixby is a fool, but one who’s popular enough to be dangerous.
Verhoeven, a Dutch director who made the leap to Hollywood with his first American film, 1985’s Flesh and Blood, was a master of blending commentary and mainstream thrills in movies like Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, the latter film including the equally ironic catchphrases “I’m doing my part!” and “Would you like to know more?” As an outsider, he’s been especially pointed in his attacks on the U.S., viewing our country as an ugly, fascinating, vile, impossibly seductive place. Perhaps not surprisingly, the masses tend not to be very bright in his movies, and so “I’d buy that for a dollar!” feels like an especially snotty way to mock the intelligence level of the average American viewer. Long before The Lego Movie cheerfully skewered the baseness and numbing groupthink of sitcoms with Where Are My Pants?, RoboCop was letting viewers know just how stupid we were getting.
Last year, the good folks at RoboCop Archive put out a helpful explainer video that went into more detail about the origins of “I’d buy that for a dollar!” — including its roots in Cyril M. Kornbluth’s 1951 sci-fi short story “The Marching Morons,” which also seems to be a direct influence on Idiocracy in its portrait of a world overrun by idiots. The video also shows some of the ways that the RoboCop catchphrase has seeped into our world — completely shorn of its original irony, of course. There’s no better example than this awkward Hooters clip for its “Tough Guy Tuesday Movie” promo, in which the hosts try to work “I’d buy that for a dollar!” into their banter.
But plenty of other folks are just as quick to blurt out that six-word phrase whenever the movie comes up, even if it’s just in connection to the recent announcement of a new RoboCop-themed video game that will be released next year. Intentionally or not, each of these fans are validating the dark power of “I’d buy that for a dollar!,” which has become a go-to euphemism for our insatiable desire to possess things — consumer products, sex, you name it. Give it to us. Give it to us now.
Of course, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” is just one small part of RoboCop, which is chiefly about our fear of losing our souls to technology, at the same discussing the rise of a militarized police state and the increasing privatization of public services, widening the gap between rich and poor in the process. (Also, worth mentioning: The film is really funny and incredibly, almost obscenely, violent.)
But you can encompass the entire movie’s cynical worldview in that knowingly witless catchphrase. People love repeating it, but one thing I don’t think we ever consider: The stuff Bixby so desperately wants to buy only costs a dollar. The shit we’re hooked on sure is cheap.