Editing the original RoboCop for a PG-13

Is it possible to tame the infamously violent RoboCop for a PG-13 rating, like next year's remake? And if so, what would be left of it?

NB: This article contains strong language and references to violent scenes, and is therefore rated R.

“Lose the arm”. If there’s one moment that, for me, sums up the tone of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, it’s this one. Having been shot to death by a gang of sociopathic criminals, the still-twitching remains of Detroit cop Alex Murphy are swept up by the Omni Consumer Products Corporation, who begin the process of turning him into a cyborg.

During the latter stages of the procedure – shot entirely from Murphy’s point of view – we see OCP exec Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) strut into view and begin arguing with a scientist over the specimen lying before him. The scientist is enthusing that one of Murphy’s arms is functioning, and doesn’t have to be amputated.

“I thought we agreed on full body prosthesis,” scolds Morton. “Now lose the arm.”

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“He’s sign the release forms,” agrees another OCP suit, Donald Johnson. “He’s legally dead. We can do what we want to him.”

“Lose the arm.”

It’s telling that, in this scene and elsewhere in the movie, the real madness and inhumanity comes not from a typical wild-eyed scientist, but a corporate executive. It’s an illustration of the biting satire that lies at the heart of 1987’s RoboCop – whether in its sometimes shocking violence, or in the often hilarious interplay between its grey-haired bosses and preening yuppies.

When a RoboCop remake was announced a couple of years ago, many wondered aloud whether a modern movie could recapture that same bitter, sharply satirical tone. Then it was revealed at 2013’s San Diego Comic-Con that director Jose Padilha’s Robo remake would be aiming for a PG-13 or 12A certificate, which begs the question: will the 2014 RoboCop movie be as aggressively dismembered as Murphy was at the hands of OCP?

This in turn raised another question, at least in our tiny minds:  how much modification would the original RoboCop require before it could qualify for a 12A certificate? As this summer’s major films have proved, you can get away with a surprising amount in a family film these days. Could it be that, with a few trims here and there, RoboCop could  be tamed for a broader audience?

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To answer that question, we first have to work out what we can and can’t show in a PG-13 or 12A film. Get yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit – this could take some time…

The boundaries of PG-13 and 12A certificates

Although defined in different terms, there are plenty of similarities between the UK’s 12A certificate and that of the PG-13 in the US. Both allow a certain amount of violence, so long as it isn’t deemed to be too graphic. The BBFC’s website states that, “At 12A, moderate violence is allowed but should not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood, but occasional gory moments may be permitted if they can be justified by their context.”

Similarly, the MPAA states that, “There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence”. A look at individual ratings for recent films suggests a similar stance to the BBFC: movies such as The Wolverine, Red 2 and The Lone Ranger are both described as containing  “pervasive action and violence”, and something called “frenetic gunplay”.

The MPAA and BBFC are okay with brief nudity in a PG-13 movie, so long as it isn’t lingered on and not shown in an explicitly sexual context. Drugs are allowed to be referred to or shown, as long as it’s infrequent and unglamorised. As for swearing, the BBFC states that it allows the use of the word ‘fuck’ in a 12A, but again, “it must be infrequent”.

The MPAA is a little more strict on such language, with a PG-13 film allowed a “single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words”. More than one sexual swear word, and the film’s slapped with an R.

So with all that established, what does that mean for our old friend RoboCop? Let’s find out.

Cocaine and nudity

Let’s get two easy categories out of the way first. Although exceedingly violent, RoboCop doesn’t offer too much in the way of drug taking and nudity. In fact, the only proper bit of nakedness appears at the four minute mark, where we see a few breasts and bottoms in a police locker room. At a push, we’d probably get away with those. If the MPAA got squeamish, we could probably edit them out without too many people noticing the difference.

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Next, drugs. At around the 55 minute mark, we see Bob Morton snorting cocaine with a pair of prostitutes like a true 80s yuppie, but even this scene doesn’t dwell too much on the mechanics of drug-taking. The fact that he’s murdered a few minutes later may also be enough to convince the censors that, with a bit of liberal trimming, the scene isn’t glamorising drug use, and would therefore qualify for a 12A or PG-13 rating. Things are looking good so far.

Swearing

On our repeat viewing of RoboCop, we tried to note down the number of times someone uses the word “fuck” or its derivatives. We got to 22 before we gave up – at which point, we were nearing the final act, where there were too few characters left to utter any more naughty words.

In most instances, the various swear words could probably trimmed out or carefully dubbed over – just us they were when ITV screened a specially edited version of RoboCop in the early 90s, and an armed robber, instead of crying, “Fuck me!” over and over, instead whined, “Why me? Why me?”

If we follow the MPAA’s rules, and restrict ourselves to only one use of sexual swearing, we’d have to chose our moment very carefully. If they’d let us, we’d go for the moment when Bob Morton, as thrilled as a small boy at Christmas at the unveiling of his beloved new RoboCop, says to the cyborg lawman, “You’re going to be a bad mother fucker!”

As for that potentially difficult scene where the robber in a liquor store swears repeatedly, we have a solution: hire an Irish actor to redub all his dialogue, so that, when RoboCop makes his dramatic entrance, the robber instead exclaims, “Feck me! Feck me!”

Hell, Father Ted got away with it for years.

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Violence

Ah. Now we come to the difficult bit. From about 15 minutes into RoboCop’s lean 93-or-so-minute duration until the final frame, Paul Verhoeven splatters the screen with generous dabs of gore. Many of these could be carefully got around by cutting away from exploding squibs and sprays of pink mist, and focusing instead on blazing gun barrels and roaring faces – if we were to do this, much of it could probably qualify for a PG-13, like the acceptable “frenetic gunplay” of Red 2.

This is certainly the case with the legendary, blackly funny scene where a young executive is blasted into a crimson puddle by a malfunctioning ED-209 enforcement droid. Although the overkill on display is sort of the point – the sheer amount of gore and bullets tipping it from horror and into the realms of absurdity – it could be easily excised, simply by showing more of the droid’s chattering guns and less of the victim’s body flying into pieces.

Some scenes, meanwhile, would have to be harshly re-cut, or removed altogether. Not least of these is Murphy’s brutal treatment at the hands of Clarence Boddicker (the great Kurtwood Smith) and his cop-killing gang of goons. It remains the dark heart of the film: a disturbing moment where the villains revel in the torture of a man screaming in pain.

Although it serves a greater narrative purpose – making us root for Murphy, and anxious to see him bring his killers to justice – it would cause a serious problem to editors looking for a softer cut of the film. As it was, both this sequence and the ED-209 attack were already cut for RoboCop‘s theatrical release – it’s only in the director’s cut that we see Rob Bottin’s effects work fully on display, complete with a right arm detached by a shotgun blast and a head torn apart by a deadly bullet.

If it sounds grim, it truly is – as is the aftermath, where we see Murphy’s body carted off to hospital and worked on by paramedics. The rule that injuries and gory details shouldn’t be lingered on would make this entire sequence problematic. To get it past the censors, you’d probably have to do what the editors did to the 90s TV version: cut away from the violence, and focus instead on the faces of the attackers or, later, the paramedics. Or maybe cut to some rabbits hopping about in a woodland or something.

There are plenty of other difficult scenes, too. The bit where Emil (Paul McCrane) is reduced to a groaning zombie by a barrel-load of toxic waste? That will have to go, as will the scene where he’s hit by a car, and explodes in a haze of gore.

It’s likely that Clarence won’t be shown graphically stabbing RoboCop through the heart with an iron bar, and it’s certain that RoboCop won’t graphically stab Clarence in the throat with a spike jutting from his fist – although given the stuff The Dark Knight and Man Of Steel got away with, we might be able to sneak it past the examiners if we could somehow reduce the gore a bit with Adobe After Effects…

Tone

It’s often the case that films are reassessed over time by classifiers – such as Gremlins, which was recently given a 12A by the BBFC. But even 26 years after its first release, RoboCop would almost certainly gain an 18-certificate by the UK board. But assuming you could make all those cuts listed above – and admittedly, some of them would have to be pretty drastic – you probably could sneak RoboCop into the 12A or PG-13 category, even if the final cut did run rather shorter than the original.

In fact, we did sit with a pen and paper and note down the precise timings of all the bits we thought we’d have to cut out, and while the figure we came up with isn’t at all scientific, we think we could keep the run-time to around 91 minutes, once the worst flashes of gruesomeness have been lopped out.

The brutal murder of Murphy aside, RoboCop‘s tone is that of an effervescent action film rather than a relentlessly nasty horror, and there’s much in it that kids would enjoy (like an entire generation of movie fans, we’ll admit to seeing RoboCop long before we were old enough to legally watch it). It is, after all, about the creation of a comic book-style all-American hero – a combination of messiah, lawman and sci-fi robot. It’s this aspect of the film that the producers of the remake have no doubt latched onto.

Re-editing the original RoboCop would, of course, be a travesty. It stands as a classic of 80s cinema, and we wouldn’t want to change a frame of it. But in going through the film again, and looking beyond the searing violence, it’s easier to appreciate the brilliant things Paul Verhoeven does beyond all the gore: the wonderful balance between light and dark. The wittiness of the script. The great acting, particularly from Peter Weller in the title role, and Kurtwood Smith as the utterly irredeemable villain.

Cutting the swearing and bloodshed from RoboCop would be to bowdlerise it, and strip it of much of its transgressive power. But at the same time, a PG-13 RoboCop would still have much of the same spirit, humour and humanity at the heart of it.

Next year’s RoboCop will inevitably be a very different creature from Paul Verhoeven’s. It will be different not just because of its PG-13 rating, but because it’s shot in a different century, with all of its different tastes and concerns, by a different director with his own preoccupations and ideas. But if the remake can take all the things that made the original thing great – the spirit, humour and humanity – it has the chance to be a great film too, even without the extreme violence.

The protagonist of RoboCop had his limbs removed, his life taken and his body taken over by technology, yet he still emerged as Alex Murphy in the end. Even if an over-zealous executive has trimmed the violence out of next year’s remake, like Morton’s demand of “Lose the arm,” there’s still every possibility that it too will emerge as a classic RoboCop film in its own right. 

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