“Don’t worry Lewis,” RoboCop told his injured partner back in 1987, “They’ll fix you. They fix everything.”
It’s another quotable line in a movie full of them, which is partly why director Paul Verhoeven’s violent, subversive sci-fi film’s still regarded as a classic more than three decades later. But the line also has a poignant edge, particularly in Robo actor Peter Weller’s reading of it: science brought the fatally wounded officer Alex Murphy back from the dead, but only as another of OCP’s consumer products. RoboCop is therefore as much about Murphy reclaiming his humanity as it is about quotable lines and shooting bad guys.
In the wake of RoboCop‘s success, there was something else that was even trickier to fix than Alex Murphy: making a sequel that could match the brilliance of its predecessor. Work began on a sequel to RoboCop within months of its release, with indie studio Orion Pictures commissioning the first film’s writers, Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, to write its script. As we’ll see later, their rough draft, RoboCop II: The Corporate Wars, was soon dismissed by Orion, and the project was turned over instead to comic book writer Frank Miller.
RoboCop 2 remained a troubled production from beginning to end, however, with Miller’s script being heavily reworked by Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon Green and the sequel’s original director, Tim Hunter, leaving on the eve of principal photography. The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner stepped in at the eleventh hour, but the resulting film was something of a disappointment when it emerged in 1990: a stew of interesting ideas in search of a coherent plot.
Similarly, neither the film that followed – the abortive, defanged RoboCop 3 (1993) – nor the Canadian TV series came close the original’s sly intelligence. The 2014 remake, despite some great moments, was similarly compromised in its search for a PG-13 audience (director Jose Padhila described the process of making his first studio film “one of the most stressful experiences” of his life).
We now have word that MGM is currently working on a new RoboCop movie – and not just any RoboCop movie. Rather than a sequel to the 2014 film (which in any case did only middling business) or even a further reboot, this will be a direct sequel to the original, directed by Neill Blomkamp, and with ties to that original RoboCop: The Corporate Wars script.
“We’re not supposed to say too much,” RoboCop co-creator Ed Neumeier told Zeitgeist Magazine last year. “There’s been a bunch of other RoboCop movies and there was recently a remake and I would say this would be kind of going back to the old RoboCop we all love and starting there and going forward. So it’s a continuation really of the first movie. In my mind. So it’s a little bit more of the old school thing.”
That Neumeier, the co-writer of the original, is involved is an attractive enough prospect all by itself. What’s doubly intriguing, though, is the notion of a direct sequel to the 1987 film rather than yet another reboot – before the news broke, we’d have placed money on the latter. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen what form MGM’s RoboCop sequel might take. Let’s face it, there are several ways a “direct sequel” to the ’80s film could take – it’s just a question of which, if any, Neumeier and everyone else involved will choose.
First, the setting. One option would be to take the Blade Runner 2049 approach: set the film in an alternate version of the future where the technology resembles the analogue, 80s near-future of the original RoboCop. That way, the story of Alex Murphy, Old Detroit and the corporate might of OCP could continue much as before – either with new actors cast in the Murphy and Anne Lewis roles or, god forbid, with a CGI likeness of a young Peter Weller applied to a guy in a Robo suit.
The latter approach would certainly fit the current trend for putting de-aged or even deceased actors back into major films – see also Star Wars: Rogue One, Blade Runner 2049, or the somewhat creepy teenage Robert Downey Jr in Captain America: Civil War.
And it sounds like MGM will revive (and rework, via new writer Justin Rhodes) the old RoboCop II: The Corporate Wars script Neumeier and Miner writer wrote back in 1988. Orion’s executives were reportedly unimpressed with the screenplay at the time, though that may have been for two reasons: number one, the expense, since it was set in an exotic-sounding future world, and number two: the script essentially threw out everything from the original RoboCop that wasn’t the title character. (When The Corporate Wars was rejected by Orion, some of its ideas were reworked for the first two episodes of the 1994 RoboCop TV series, though its younger target audience meant that its more violent aspects were severely diluted.)
The Corporate Wars script begins with a rug-pull moment: while foiling an attempted bank robbery, RoboCop’s blasted with a huge cannon. Fatally injured, RoboCop is abandoned as so much scrap – until 25 years later, when he’s suddenly revived by a 50-year-old corporate villain named Theodore Flicker. RoboCop finds himself in a dystopia even more bizarre than the one he left behind: America’s cities are now playgrounds for the rich, hived off under huge private zones where the poor are kept at arm’s length. Bixby “I’d buy that for a dollar” Snyder, a TV comedian a quarter of a century earlier, is now President, which might partly explain why the country’s in such a state that Theodore Flicker hatches a plan to seize control of it.
If the original RoboCop contained distinct traces of Judge Dredd, then The Corporate Wars makes its debt plain. The future cities Neumeier and Miner describe – all martial law, futuristic bordellos and violent criminals – are straight out of a 2000 AD comic, and RoboCop himself is even presented as a Dredd-style judge, jury and executioner in several early scenes (“PlexJury finds you guilty as charged. Selling Smudge is punishable by death,” Robo tells a drug dealer at one point).
The Corporate Wars never got far beyond the rough draft stage, which partly explains some of its glaring deficiencies: the lead character is largely crowded out by all the other futuristic intrigue in the story (including a sentient computer called the Neurobrain and a nuclear bomb), and the dialogue lacks the quotable sparkle of the first film. Oh, and the whole story concludes with a rap by a performer who calls himself Moondog:
Let me tell you all a tale ’bout a man in a machineWell he came into this world without a hope or a dream…
Ill-advised rapping aside, The Corporate Wars screenplay has a number of the same drawbacks as most of the movies and TV shows that followed the original RoboCop. What made the 1987 film work so superbly was the balance between its aggressive black comedy (a satire on everything from commercial television to ’80s Reaganomics) and its broader story about human versus technology. Beneath everything else, RoboCop was about an ordinary guy wresting the remains of his old self from a maze of programming and circuits. It was a violent film, but it was also quietly upbeat: if the first two-thirds of RoboCop ask whether even a person’s soul can become a corporate product -branded, packaged and sold, then the final scene offers an unequivocal answer: no.
Neither The Corporate Wars, nor Kershner’s RoboCop 2 managed to find such a universal, appealing story to tell. In them, Robo is again a terse, marching executioner – the very thing the first film had seen the character succeed in shaking off. Indeed, one of the areas in which the 2014 remake did succeed was in establishing a similar human-machine tension; the scene where Joel Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy wakes up for the first time in his armored life support system was, for this writer, a perfectly effective moment.
It’s the human element that its filmmakers need to rediscover, and that seems to be what Blomkamp is most excited about. Sure, RoboCop will always be remembered for its violence, its grotesque humour, quotable lines and bold characters, but it’s that little sliver of humanity – the humanity that gives a line like “They fix everything” such pathos – that makes Verhoeven’s film a true classic.