Welcome back to We Can Fix It, where Hollywood’s biggest mistakes come to be reborn. This week we’re taking our eagerly awaited look back at Robocop 3, the film that effectively killed the popular movie franchise. With the series now getting a new reboot from Brazilian director Jose Padilha, there’s no better time to examine how the first franchise went horribly wrong in order to prevent such nonsense in the future.
First, a bit of history: The first Robocop (1987) was on the surface a straightforward science fiction action flick about a cop (Peter Weller) who is killed in the line of duty and then converted into a cyborg before going on a roaring rampage of revenge. That’s probably what the studio heads thought they were making, but under the satirical direction of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (making his second English language film after the Medieval immorality tale Flesh & Blood) the film became an instant science fiction classic, considered by many to be among the best films of the 1980s. Although the film works as a simplistic action tale, and an ultraviolent one at that, Verhoeven also had a lot to say about urban corruption on every level, capitalist dehumanization of the masses and the glorification of violence in the media. Robocop still holds up to this day. In fact it’s as good as ever.
A sequel was inevitable, and a sequel we got in 1990 from Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner. Widely criticized upon its release for its over-the-top violence, it nevertheless earned back 400% of its budget and is, when watched today, a somewhat underrated movie. While the characters of both Robocop and his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) take a bit of a back seat this time out, Kershner’s film is less about them than the dystopian future city of Detroit that they inhabit. Early in the film there’s a clever one-take shot of a series of citizens – none of whom are seen again – committing felonious acts against each other in a chain of events that clearly and humorously establishes the hopelessness of the world Robocop inhabits. Knowing subplots include a prepubescent child becoming a drug kingpin and Robocop himself falling victim to a board of censors who program him to be a G-rated – and thoroughly ineffectual – version of his old, violent self. And the mostly stop-motion final slugfest between Robocop and the amusingly titled Robocop 2 is still damned impressive.
A sequel was inevitable, but this time something went horribly wrong. Orion Pictures wanted Robocop 3 to aim for a PG-13 rating, apparently having realized that the merchandizing possibilities to little kids were endless but with the “Hard R”-rating of the first two films, such toys would be difficult to sell. Out went sci-fi mainstays Verhoeven and Kershner and in came cult horror comedy director Fred Dekker, whose earlier films Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps are genuinely exceptional entertainment. But with the focus taken away from the darker subtexts of the Robocop universe, a new pre-teen protagonist and an overall hokey tone, Robocop 3 failed to connect with new fans and completely alienated the old ones, grossing only $11 million out of a $22 million budget. The franchise continued on television with a string of live-action and animated series, but never recovered on-screen.
A reboot was inevitable, but given Hollywood’s fear of hard-hitting material these days it seems likely that MGM will want to scale back the gore and cynicism the next time out. That would be a mistake. Without the tone of the original Robocop, any future movie bearing the name will be a pale imitation of the original, as Robocop 3 proved. The time has now come to take a hard look at Robocop 3 and see what went wrong, and how it could have been avoided while still potentially leaving the franchise open to a PG-13 rating (but only if absolutely necessary).
1. DON’T MAKE A MOVIE FOR KIDS, MAKE A MOVIE FOR TEENAGERS
A PG-13 rating means that kids under 13 aren’t supposed to see it, you guys. It also means that it’s appropriate for everyone over the age of 13, so it has to appeal to adults as well… especially since all the existing fans of the franchise were in the R-rated crowd. Robocop 3 inexplicably gears itself towards an elementary school audience, despite the constant hails of gunfire. Boy howdy, was this a mistake, and boy howdy, did they pay for it.
Cutting down on the squishy squibs and prostitution and drug use is one thing, and perhaps forgivable, but Robocop 3 makes the inexplicable decision to focus on a small child as the protagonist, and Mary Sue them right up the Ying-Yang. For the record, a “Mary Sue” is a character in a story who is distractingly perfect. The character of Nikko Halloran (played by future The Lost Room star Remy Ryan) is an annoyingly wide-eyed elementary school hacking expert to whom adults come for advice. She provides no particular service to the plot except as a vessel from which to view the film from new, innocent eyes. She is a mistake, pure and simple, if for no other reason that she shouldn’t be the target demographic. Robocop is still a series about a robot cop who shoots people. That’s 13 and up material, and if you absolutely had to make the protagonist a kid, then that’s the age range you should have gone for: on the cusp of adulthood, a little geeky (they’re into Robocop, after all) and dramatically coming of age in a dystopian world as opposed to innocent child in need of constant moral protection.
But the baby-fication of Robocop 3 doesn’t end with Nikko Halloran, it infests every frame of the film. The lighting is now higher key, giving the film a very wholesome look compared to the first two films (even Robocop 2, which had already lightened the color scheme by a wide margin, making Robocop bright blue), the villains have gone from plausibly corrupt capitalists to cartoonish pawns of a foreign superpower (frustratingly deflecting the series’ criticisms of America to Japan) and the hero is forced to undergo such indignities as performing a high-speed car chase in an over-the-top pimpmobile.
Don’t make a stupid Robocop movie. If you must take out the extreme violence and corruption, do so without replacing what’s left with silliness and pandering.
2. SHOW US THE DAMNED TITLE CHARACTER
Here’s a weird one: Robocop 3 is only 104 minutes long (a perfectly respectable length, mind you), but the title character doesn’t show up for sixteen minutes. And that’s just a shot of his iconic visor. He doesn’t actually do anything until closer to 20 minutes. You know it’s called “Robocop” 3, right?
I suppose there was a way to do this in an interesting fashion, building suspense as to when Robocop will show up and do his heroic thing, but Dekker doesn’t play it that way. Instead the film focuses entirely on the young, fairly annoying Nikko Halloran that entire time as the androgynous character loses her parents while Omni Consumer Products (OCP for short) routes low income families from their homes after legally acquiring the entire city of Detroit at the end of Robocop 2. We see her team up with the idealistic rebel leader C.C.H. Pounder (The Shield), reprogram an ED-209 so it becomes “as loyal as a puppy” (there’s that kiddy crap again) and so forth for almost a third of an hour, and when Robocop finally shows up they aren’t even on-screen together, resulting in a first act that feels like it was a complete waste of time (apart from the aforementioned unnecessary need to pander to pre-teen audiences).
If your film is called Robocop, make sure we actually see the guy before the first reel change. Odd that we should need to remind anybody of this.
3. ENOUGH WITH THE DAMNED INNOCENCE ALREADY
The one thing you couldn’t find in either of the first two – financially successful, if you’ll recall – Robocop movies is “innocence.” This relates to our first suggestion about refiguring the target audience, but it’s so pervasive a problem that it deserves its own category. This is the fundamental reason why Robocop 3 no longer even feels like Robocop.
The world of Robocop is a profoundly cynical one, in which all the worst aspects of humanity can be found on every single street corner: moral ambivalence, corruption, crime, self-centeredness, unchecked capitalism (perceived as a negative in the Robocop universe, regardless of your political affiliations) and blasé attitudes towards violence are the norm. There are no “innocents” in the world of Robocop, unless they’re hopeless victims, and even those are judged and often punished harshly. In Robocop 2 even the children of Detroit are portrayed as hopelessly corrupt, committing crime sprees as reprehensible as any the adults in the film can think up. In Robocop 3, the bad guys and good guys are clearly labeled, with the “good” people committed to lofty moral ideals which, sadly, are lived up to in the end with the entire dystopian city of Detroit rallying behind them.
I say “sadly” because that kind of flagrant soap boxing has no place in the world of Robocop, which was founded on a fundamental cynicism that precluded it. In the first two Robocop movies, the overt bad guys die but the world that created them is always preserved. There is no hope for Detroit, only a possibility of righteousness on an individual level, as demonstrated through Robocop’s repeated success in maintaining his identity despite his reclassification as a product and the constant manipulations of a corrupt system. Hope for the individual is possible, but the world itself is so thoroughly decayed that any degree of innocence comes across as naïve in Robocop 3, so the pervasive innocence of the entire film feels wrong at best, and like a betrayal at worst.
4. DON’T TURN THE BAD GUYS INTO A JOKE
The corporation O.C.P. is a great villain: powerful, kinda funny, ambitious and well outside the purview of the law. Most importantly, their goals were deeply insidious. Their endgame was to throw Detroit so far into debt that they were able to buy out an entire American city to create a capitalist utopia with which to exploit the masses. Damn, that’s evil. Plausible too.
At the end of Robocop 2 O.C.P. has actually succeeded in its goal and owns Detroit outright. In Robocop 3 we finally see what their goal was: to be Nazis. Well, that sucks. It takes an original, clever and plausible villain and turns it into a cartoon. They’re rousting low-income families from their homes with a Gestapo-like force that even the thoroughly indoctrinated news media cannot support. They went from villains to supervillains, and giving Robocop such obvious “Black Hats” to fight ruined the entire film’s ability to be taken seriously.
What’s more, they’ve been bought out between films by a Japanese corporation, giving the American company a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. They’re now run by the lovable Rip Torn, a pawn in his own company’s shenanigans who gets ordered around by his supposed underlings. And Robocop’s “Big Bad” this time out is a robot ninja – ninjas being very topical after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles boom of the early 1990s – with no personality whatsoever. He literally just wanders the film looking for Robocop, like the actor got lost on the way to the set. Robocop 1 and 2 had nicely characterized supervillains. Even ED-209 had the personality of a pit bull. This guy’s just a ninja, as if that distinction gives him an identity.
O.C.P. is one of the most Machiavellian villains in movie history, and in the last Robocop film they had devolved into Saturday Morning Cartoons. It’s a pity we’ll never see what the “real” O.C.P. from the first two Robocop movies would have actually done with Detroit in their miserly hands. It probably would have been terrifyingly believable.
5. IF YOU HAVE TO RECAST ROBOCOP, GET THE VOICE RIGHT
A simple thing here: Peter Weller did not return for Robocop 3. Recasting the lead is not necessarily the death of a franchise (Tarzan, James Bond and Tim Burton’s Batman series all got away with it to one extent or another) and frankly we have no objection to his Weller’s replacement, Thinner’s Robert John Burke, as an actor. But he’s miscast as Robocop. Why?
Because he doesn’t sound like Robocop.
Let’s be honest here, once Peter Weller got in that Robocop suit, he became the character. Star power wasn’t much of a factor in the original Robocop movies. All that mattered was the walk and Weller’s deep, serious vocal intonations. When they cast Robert John Burke it must be said that his face looks damned close to Peter Weller’s, particularly under the makeup. But we hardly ever see his face, do we? We hear his voice more than anything else, and Burke’s voice is significantly higher than Weller’s. Robocop ceased to be Robocop because he didn’t sound right.
Forget the face: we’ll hardly see it anyway. Make sure that Robocop’s voice sounds right, and we’ll jump right on board.
6. DON’T IGNORE THE LAST FILM
At the end of Robocop, the titular hero has overcome his programming and become an individual again. At the beginning of Robocop 2 he has apparently been reprogrammed into a tool of O.C.P. yet again. At the end of Robocop 2 he has once again overcome his programming, and at the beginning of Robocop 3 he has once again been thoroughly reprogrammed. You see the problem here?
The problem with many sequels is that the protagonist of the first film has usually gone on a complete journey to self-discovery. In order to work dramatically, the sequel has to tear them down again in order to build them up once more. But this only works if they’re not going through the exact same story arc, as Robocop does in both sequels. The de-emphasis on the Robocop character made this slightly forgivable in Robocop 2, but in Robocop 3 the entire storyline feels contemptuously familiar.
We’re not going to dwell on this. If you’d remembered the events of the last film and let Robocop have his own identity, Robocop 3 could have had at least one element that felt original. If letting Robocop be a man again feels like something O.C.P. wouldn’t allow – which it does – you could have used the mass media subtext from the first two films to turn it into a plot point: an ongoing legal quagmire, combined with a sudden celebrity for Robocop as an individual, as opposed to be a nifty product. The dramatic possibilities there are endless, or at least significantly more than doing the same thing over and over again.
As always, we could go on like this, detailing how Nancy Allen’s beloved character died for no reason to protect squatters with a flawless escape route while standing in front of Robocop without a bullet-proof vest while her partner stood unheroically behind her as a team of heavily armed soldiers opened fire (for example), but really, the key point here is tone: Robocop was one of the darkest depictions of humanity of the 1980s, and that cynicism is what made it stand out amongst the other genre movies of the era, and helped elevate Robocop to one of the most beloved science fiction movies ever made. Let’s hope that Jose Padilha remembers that, hmm?
We Can Fix It will be back next week with yet another look back at one of Hollywood’s most disappointing pictures. Which one? We’re not sure. There’s just too many to choose from.