Should we be worried about the new RoboCop suit?

As the recently glimpsed suit from the RoboCop remake causes a stir, we ask, how worried should we be about the film’s chances?

robocop 2014

Was the new RoboCop suit ever going to be anything but controversial? That’s the question I asked myself when those candid images from the set of the RoboCop remake appeared online over the weekend.

Remakes are seldom greeted with much enthusiasm, and when you’re dealing with a movie as admired as Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, it’s unsurprising that the mere idea of a new version of that 1987 action film has been treated with a mixture of apathy, distrust and outright hostility. Nor is it surprising that, when the first glimpses of Joel Kinnaman in what we’re assuming is the final RoboCop outfit showed up on the web, the overall reaction wasn’t favourable, since any redesign of the character’s suit will always be compared to the one Rob Bottin created back in the 80s.

In fairness, my first reaction to the set pictures from José Padilha’s movie wasn’t of dislike or annoyance, but bemusement. I spent several minutes wondering what it reminded me of, and after a while, I worked it out: it reminded me of lots of things mashed together. To save time, here’s a little collage of the suit’s possible design inspirations:

As a devoted fan of the original film, it’s difficult not to feel at least a little ambivalent about the new version of RoboCop. With a relatively lean budget, the makers of the 1987 film created a truly unforgettable character, and playing around with the look of Robo is akin to redesigning the costume of an iconic superhero like Batman or Superman – you can do it, but you’d best be prepared for some stinging reactions in the process. 

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It’s worth bearing in mind, of course, that there’s much we don’t yet know about the RoboCop remake. The images we’ve seen so far aren’t official stills, so it’s likely that, with some CG augmentation, the outfit will look very different in the finished film. It’s also possible that what we’ve seen isn’t the final design, but a prototype undergoing a screen test – the suit does, however, bear a close resemblance to the style and detailing on a recent teaser poster, which appears to prove that what we’ve seen really is the new RoboCop.

Whether you like the new design or not, it’s arguable that the filmmakers behind the remake couldn’t have simply brought back the RoboCop suit from the 1987 movie and its sequels. Not only would this have led to accusations of its filmmakers unimaginatively recycling ideas (or copping out, if you’ll excuse the pun), but it would also have been wrong for a new generation of filmgoers.

Before you fling your rotten tomatoes, allow me to explain. Paul Verhoeven’s concept of RoboCop was based on classic American icons – cowboys embodied by actors such as John Wayne, or invincible, maverick cops like Dirty Harry. His RoboCop is an ordinary Irish police officer transformed by technology into a modern equivalent of an Old West gunslinger; his walk is slow and deliberate, each step highlighted by a metallic stomp, like the spurs of a small-town sheriff. He’s fearless, implacable. He shoots and never misses.

When designing RoboCop’s suit, Rob Bottin had originally imagined a much stealthier character, and thought up a costume with lots of dynamic lines which suggested forward motion. In the end, the concept he came up with based on Verhoeven’s suggestions was much heavier. He took inspiration and styling cues from Japanese animation heroes (just as the designers of the new suit appear to have done), the robot Maria from Metropolis, Star Wars’ C3PO, as well as the comic book character Judge Dredd.

Twenty-five years later, and our cultural touchstones have shifted. A hero based on John Wayne and Dirty Harry wouldn’t mean much to a teenage audience (and lest we forget, this is primarily who the new RoboCop movie will be aimed at). The past decade or so has seen action cinema dominated not by slow-moving, stern men of purpose, but by stealthy characters who leap from rooftop to rooftop, or engage in rapid, close-quarters fights involving pens and rolled-up magazines.

It’s inevitable, then, that a modern RoboCop would be lighter and more nimble – more Jason Bourne than John Wayne. The influence of videogames shouldn’t be discounted, either; since the arrival of games such as Halo and Crysis, many of us have vicariously enjoyed what it might be like to be a half human, half machine hybrid. 

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So while the new RoboCop outfit doesn’t look especially mind-blowing at first glance, we should at least bear in mind that, in the finished film, with all its lighting and CG wizardry, it may look much better – especially when it’s in motion. Just how athletic is the new RoboCop? Can he fly around, like Iron Man? Does he still have the gun stored in his thigh, like the old Robo? 

There’s another important point to consider, too: the suit is only 25 per cent of the character, at most. Fabulous though Bottin’s work was on the original RoboCop, it was Peter Weller’s stunning performance that brought the character to life. His expert body movements truly made us believe that he was a cyborg and not just an actor in a suit, and with only part of his face exposed for much of the film, he nevertheless succeeded in making the plight of his character truly moving.

Even the best costume design in the world wouldn’t have disguised a mediocre performance, and with a lesser actor cast as Robo, the results could have been shambolic. 

It could be argued, then, that it’s actor Joel Kinnaman, the actor inside the new RoboCop, who faces the greater challenge, and not the suit designer. His previous work, in the US remake of The Killing TV series, or 2010’s Swedish thriller Easy Money (Snabba Cash) hint at an actor with great potential.

If Kinnaman can bring strength and humanity to the role, and truly make us believe that he too is the future of law enforcement, then maybe, just maybe, next summer will see the release of a rare thing: a genuinely brilliant big-screen remake.