Four years after the live-action RoboCop reboot, Detroit’s finest police cyborg is heading back to the big screen. Earlier this week, Neill Blomkamp signed on to direct RoboCop Returns, from a script by the writers of the first RoboCop, Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner. Before that project starts filming, Justin Rhodes – the co-writer of the next Terminator reboot – is going to take a pass at the script. Reportedly, the new RoboCop will be a sequel to the original and ignore everything that came after it. That’s probably for the best, since the franchise never really found itself after the first movie. But it does make us wonder why Hollywood just can’t let RoboCop go.
The first RoboCop movie is a genuine genre classic, with over-the-top violence, strikingly funny satire, a terrific performance by Peter Weller as the title character, and deliciously villainous turns by Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith. Director Paul Verhoeven and his team created a great ‘80s action film that is very much of its time. But it’s not the ‘80s anymore, and Reaganomics jokes aren’t going to have the same impact today.
Why couldn’t the last RoboCop reboot recapture that magic? Director José Padilha clearly tried to keep some of the humorous tone while offering Joel Kinnaman’s RoboCop/Alex Murphy a chance to give the character more personality. In many ways, Kinnaman’s RoboCop was more human than Weller’s, because he had all of his memories from the start as well as his family. Perhaps that took away too much of the character’s inherent tragedy. The tone of the film never hit the right balance between its comedic touches and its relatively straightforward action story. It was also largely rejected at the box office, with a very disappointing $58 million, which wasn’t much more than the original made over three decades ago. Those aren’t the kind of numbers that scream “sequel.”
What’s the point in revisiting the same territory over and over again if there’s not an appetite for more RoboCop adventures? For a character who has had multiple films, cartoons, a live-action TV series, and video games, there’s not a lot of love for anything beyond Verhoeven’s RoboCop. That’s because Verhoeven understood why this character can strike a chord with moviegoers. At its heart, RoboCop’s story is about a man losing himself to the machine set against the backdrop of a society losing itself to corporate interests. Those are themes that are still very relevant today, now more than ever.
Neumeier and Miner also scripted the last RoboCop reboot, so it’s entirely possible that the early draft of RoboCop Returns may not have applied the lessons learned from that attempt. However, Blomkamp might prove to be an ideal choice to breathe new life into RoboCop. Blomkamp has a clear affinity for the ‘80s classics, and he spent years trying to get an Aliens sequel off the ground that would have brought Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley back while ignoring the other movies in the franchise. More importantly, Blomkamp’s District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, as well as his Oats Studios short films have demonstrated his thoughtful approach to science fiction and flawed characters.
One of the reasons that Weller’s RoboCop felt so poignant was that he could never truly recapture everything that he had before he was killed and transformed. He simply wasn’t Alex Murphy anymore, but he tried to hold on to what little humanity he still had. That’s the struggle we need to see on screen. As terrific as it would be to see Weller reprise his role, that theme can still work with a younger actor taking over the part. With the passage of time, RoboCop may have to face additional challenges. What if RoboCop has become completely obsolete? What if future cyborg police officers are better men or machines than he is?
A satirical touch is still badly needed for any incarnation of RoboCop. The first film’s dark sense of humor went a long way towards making it feel complete. We need to be able to laugh at those moments without undercutting the drama of the film or the story of Alex Murphy. It just can’t simply be the same satire that was used thirty years ago. RoboCop Returns needs to find its own voice when offering new commentary about where society has come and where it’s going. Fortunately, that’s another area that Blomkamp seems well suited for.
RoboCop Returns is far from a guaranteed hit, especially given the dismal response to the previous reboot. But a story that honors the original while providing a timely update could go a long way towards giving us the RoboCop we deserve. We want this to be a great movie, and hopefully the filmmakers are up for the challenge. As Murphy might say, “Your move, creep.”