May 102012


RoboCop Retrospective: From Hyper Violence to Kids TV

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is playing at my local arthouse cinema, the City Screen York, on the 15th of May 2012. The film is also currently being remade by José Padilha, the director of Brazilian crime movies Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within. This has prompted me to look back on how the film, and its title character, have gone on to become cultural icons, and how the film went from being given an X rating 11 times by the MPAA, before eventually receiving the much more commercially acceptable R rating, to this……

The idea behind the film all came from a visit to the cinema by one of the films writers Edward Neumeier. After a conversation with a friend about the plot of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Neumeier had the idea about switching the principle, instead of a cop that hunts Robots, why not have a robotic cop that hunts people. After teaming up with Michael Miner the pair decided that a human element needed to be added to RoboCop to make him more relatable to audiences. This is where the idea came form for having him be a cop that has been killed in the line of duty.

After forging a very strong reputation in the Netherlands for the previous decade, Paul Verhoeven’s English language début, Flesh+Bone, had been somewhat of a flop, having cost a very modest $6.5m it failed massively at the box office, and grossed no more than $200k worldwide. After Alex Cox had first turned down directing RoboCop the script found its way to Verhoeven, who at first binned, literally binned, the script, citing it as unnecessarily violent, and too indulgent and reliant on this violence. However Verhoeven’s wife flicked through the script and convinced her husband that there was maybe more to it than he had first realised.

Verhoeven has since claimed in the making of RoboCop documentary Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop, that he envisioned RoboCop as a christ like figure, that his death, and in death then becoming RoboCop, is very similar to the resurrection. Whether this is a thought after the fact or something he came to in his second reading of the script is unclear, but throughout his career Verhoeven has been a fan of Christian symbolism, and is in fact the author 0f a book on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the imaginatively titled Jesus of Nazareth.

Despite coming in slightly over budget, which resulted in the filming of the death of Officer Alex Murphy being done months after principle photography had wrapped, the film was a huge success, and grossed over $53m, not bad for an R rated film. It was however the titular character that became the star.

Since the release of the first film RoboCop, there has been two pretty poor sequels, RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3, with these the only really interesting things you can take from them are that RoboCop 2 was Irvin Kershner’s final film, and both were written by comic book legend Frank Miller. Other than that they were mostly forgettable, and nowhere near the quality of the first. Both also failed to match the originals success at the box office. RoboCop 2 was, like the first, made for a modest budget of only $15m, and managed to gross $45m, making it anything but a flop, but RoboCop 3 was made for over $22m, and brought in less than $11m, making it a flop, and putting the studio off continuing the franchise into another film.

From here RoboCop took advantage of his iconic status, and went on to star in a TV series and an animated kids TV series, yep the same character from a film that was denied an R rating by the MPAA less than 10 years earlier was now being used to teach kids right and wrong, via the medium of an animated TV show that, of course, had a line of merchandise to go with it, ranging from toys, luchboxes, no less than 6 computer games and a host of RoboCop comics, I know because not only did I have the animated series on VHS, I also had many of the games and a number of the comics, and let me tell you they were all great.

So next year the evolution of one of cinema’s most recognisable characters comes full circle, with José Padilha at the helm and Joel Kinnaman stepping into the iconic suit designed by Rob Bottin, or not if rumours are to be believed, as it appears this new incarnation of RoboCop will be more man than machine. The grayish/blue suit is being ditched, leading us to assume that this is not a remake but more of a reboot of the original source material. Whether that works remains to be seen, the ambiguity of the suit, and the way it hid whoever happened to be inside its face, was what made it a character of its own. Had you been able to see all of Peter Weller’s face in the first two films, would it have been so easy to transfer the character to so many different formats, was RoboCop’s generic-ness essential to its longevity?

Can this remake, or reboot, as it appears is more of an appropriate tag, match the same levels of satire as the original did, or have we as a society become too consumed by the capitalist and media driven musings of the 1987 film? Also can the film be set in Detroit, or has the decay that was hinted at in the city taken all too real a turn for what was once one of America’s most industrial cities, is Detroit too decayed, to predict future social decay?

What is for sure is José Padilha has a hell of a job on trying to match what is a film that many, Mr Noel Mellor (@filmrant) of, especially, claim is a film that could never be made now. Is RoboCop simply one of those films that could only have happened at that exact moment? Was that period in society perfect for this type of half man, half machine hero, maybe? What’s for certain is that, although some of the effects in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film may appear dated, the message and impact of the film still resonates as strongly today as it did 25 years ago, and this is why despite all the sub-par sequels, the toys, the badly made TV series, RoboCop started out life as one of the best, and most important films of its time. And that’s what makes it a masterpiece of hyper-violence.

Anyway I’d buy that for a dollar!