Earlier this week, MGM Studios announced RoboCop would be returning to the big screen, though not in the form of a sequel to the franchise’s 2014 reboot starring Joel Kinnaman. No, the studio has elected to return to the cop-turned-crime-fighting-cyborg’s roots in a continuation film that takes place directly after the Paul Verhoeven-directed 1987 cult-classic, using a script from original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. It’ll be as though the subsequent sequels never actually happened which, as far as we’re concerned, really wouldn’t be a bad thing – especially RoboCop 3.
According to multiple sources, the studio has hired District 9 and Elysium director Neil Blomkamp to lead the project, which is tentatively titled RoboCop Returns, along with the two original writers as producers. Given that Blomkamp’s films are often set in the not too distant future and feature an underlying science fiction theme of robotics and social issues, he might be the perfect director to tackle the next chapter of the RoboCop franchise. At this point in pre-production, there’s very little additional information known, though fans are already clamoring for an “R” rating and the return of Peter Weller, at least in some capacity, though at this point in pre-production, little information is known. So while it appears the studio is making all the right moves thus far, the franchise’s history of failing to deliver a solid sequel, along with an easily forgettable reboot, should’ve been the end of RoboCop and that begs the question as to why we need to delve back into a franchise Hollywood has left in the dust?
A significant reason for the original film’s success was Verhoeven. Although the Dutch director had done other feature films prior, RoboCop was his breakout work – and ultimately one in a list of cult-classics. He managed to blend satire with blood-thirsty violence and an underlying theme of allegory in a move that originally landed the film an “X” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. Every characteristic of the film’s storyline was carefully calculated and crafted by Verhoeven and it showed, from cutting Nancy Allen’s hair to desexualize the character to reworking Miguel Ferrer’s character to be more sympathetic. But with a runaway hit, there’s a certain expectation of the sequel and a bloated budget of $35 million – almost three times the original film – indicated that the follow-up would be bigger and even better. The only problem was that Verhoeven and the studio just couldn’t see eye to eye on RoboCop 2, since the director apparently felt it was rushed, rather than original and innovative like his first effort. And with Verhoeven removed, the studio had to focus on keeping his tone in place, among other things.
RoboCop 2 was an admirable effort on the part of those involved. It retained the violence of the original, though it failed to hit the mark on the satire, proving to be overtly cheesy at times – along with much more comedy than its predecessor. To mimic Verhoeven’s combination of comedy, gore, allegory and action is no simple task and the film proved to be a cheap knockoff, which was abundantly clear from its box office earnings that cemented it as a flop. Having said all of that, the film is a trainwreck, one in which you can’t help but watch, almost amused, to see how it’s all wrapped up in the end. The ideas are there, just a little flawed with poor execution – though Weller once again impresses as the title character. However, when it came time for another sequel, Weller was off doing other things, so he was out.
In to replace Weller was Robert John Burke, a man who doesn’t quite have the mouth for a cyborg – but that was the least of the problems when it comes to RoboCop 3. Straying from the ideas and direction originally implemented into the franchise, the second sequel was a flaming bag of crap, to put it nicely. It jumped the shark, trying to attempt this campy Army of Darkness sort of self-indulgence but falling flat, thanks to ninjas, a Monty Python and the Holy Grail-like limb hacking and a jetpack for our protagonist.
Each film in the trilogy captures a snapshot moment of the time in which it was created and, whether for better or worse, builds the entire foundation with what was available at the time. But like a National Football League coach that returns to lead a team two decades after his departure, the game has based him by – well, Hollywood has passed by RoboCop. These days, outside of certain examples from directors like Christopher Nolan, action films are chock full of computer-generated images (CGI) and that’s not what this franchise represents. We’ve seen films like Green Lantern, The Hobbit and Tron: Legacy feature overwhelming or unnecessary CGI that wound up reflecting very poorly on the finished product. Sure, CGI allows to create worlds and characters never before dreamed of, but RoboCop shouldn’t get the full 2018 rendition, which tends to be in abundance. Just look at the 2014 RoboCop reboot, for instance.
In the reboot, many of our hero’s robotic foes were CGI, much of RoboCop’s movement’s were CGI and the first person fight sequences through his mask were CGI. Put that all together and you get a film that’s focused more on creating visually-wowing moments than, like Verhoeven decades before, creating an emotion that builds to the story and leaves moviegoers invested. Add in the lack of blood – a selling point for the original – to accompany the violence, the fact that RoboCop is no longer special in such a technologically advanced age and a new black suit and it’s no big mystery why audiences didn’t flock to see the reboot – and why it barely broke even at the box office. Don’t forget, it had a cast of heavy hitters that can typically drive audiences to the theaters – award winning names like Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson and Gary Oldman.
These are the kinds of challenges that will face Blomkamp and crew for RoboCop Returns and while it appears that all involved want to stay true to the source material, it just reeks of Hollywood’s lack of developing fresh, original concepts and action franchises. To change nothing to the character and remain true to Verhoeven’s original vision from all of those years ago is a mighty task, one that studios have attempted to recreate more than once, with little to show for it. For those out there who are the uber-fan, or even the casual fan, creating something that is reminiscent of the source material in a similar – albeit more current – timeline, over three decades later, is virtually impossible. Throw heavy-hitting actors in there, bring back old writers with revisionist original scripts – it’s the new Hollywood norm, though those trends have yet to really bare any fruit. One such franchise attempting this very thing is Halloween, with a direct sequel to the original coming later this year. The trailer for it looks intense and captivating, but that’s a completely different animal than a large budget action film like RoboCop. Still, even if it succeeds, that’s just one example to oppose the terrible sequels like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Zoolander 2, Boondock Saints 2: All Saint’s Day and many more.
At its release, RoboCop was – and still remains – a damn fun film, one that embodied what a 1980s action film should be, but times have changed, Hollywood has evolved, and the chance of hitting another home run with this franchise is minimal. Leave it alone and let’s enjoy what we already have.