The RoboCop 3 PG-13 experiment: ahead of its time?

RoboCop 3
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Eyes were raised when it was announced that RoboCop 3 was to have its violence stripped back to get a softer rating – a good decade before others started to do it.

It was in the early 2010s that 20th Century Fox – remember that name? – earned itself a string of new friends amongst UK cinemagoers. Its wheeze at the time, and it felt just a little bit different back then, was to trim back a series of hard-edged films to earn them softer ratings from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). As such, movies such as Taken 2, Taken 3 and A Good Day To Die Hard – a trio of movies I certainly ain’t taking a bullet for – were hacked down to get 12A certificates in the UK (in spite of being uncut elsewhere in the world). After all, what parent didn’t want to take their kids to see Liam Neeson growl into a phone?

Fox took a lot of flack for its decisions, but the hard truth was its approach was vindicated. The universally-vilified A Good Day To Die Hard underperformed in most territories around the world, but not in the UK, where its takings stood up. And in fact even films like The Equalizer – from Sony in this instance – had violence trimmed back to get a 15 rather than a 18. That seemed to work too.

By this time of course, Hollywood was in the midst of its 12A/PG-13 obsession. Every major blockbuster, with very few exceptions, had to firmly toe the line, and woe betide any director who delivered a cut of their expensive film which attracted an R rating from the MPAA in the US. After all, the given belief, backed up in fairness with a lot of numbers, was that you stood more chance of making more money with a softer rating. Not too soft: nobody wants to see a PG-rated action film, went the theory. But 12A/PG-13 become the sweet spot. It’s only really the rise of streamers that’s allowed us to have a good fight/swear/bonk in a film again.

It’s hard to pinpoint just where Hollywood turned, but perhaps the decision by Fox (again) to make the fourth Die Hard film a PG-13 in the States was a key moment. The 2006 sequel muffled John McClane’s famous payoff line with a gunshot, and the Bruce Willis-headlined pic duly got its soft US rating. In the UK, ironically, the swear wasn’t muffled and the film was released as a 15. When Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation, a movie that cost nine figures to make and earned an R back in 2009, failed to deliver box office gold, the blame was pinned on its R rating though. Studios weren’t going to be making that mistake again.

RoboCop 3

Bring the kids! Let’s get popcorn!

Yet had history taken a slightly different turn, maybe the 1990s would have been the rise of the PG-13/12A land rush and not the 2000s.  Because in the early 1990s came the announcement that Orion Pictures – at that stage desperate for a hit to stay in business (having had to sell The Addams Family movie months before release, just to stay afloat) – was going for a family audience for its new RoboCop film. The violence was going to be trimmed back, and a more family-friendly movie fashioned.

What could go wrong?

‘Sacrilege’ doesn’t begin to cover the response this announcement got, and that was even before the world wide web was a thing. It’s hard to think of a more violent major franchise to take such an approach with. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original RoboCop had after all endured cuts simply to get even an 18 in the UK and an R in the US. 1990’s RoboCop 2 showed no signs of pacifism either, and the heavy violence and drugs in that movie meant the rating was never in doubt. Against the backdrop of two ultra-violent films, Orion wanted to broaden the appeal of its next sequel, and nearly torpedoed the franchise as it did so.

In truth, the film that became RoboCop 3 had plenty going against it before it become clear Orion was taking a left turn. The studio was pretty much bankrupt when it gave the film the greenlight, and was going to be making it with a lower budget. Given that there were ambitious flying effects planned for the film, that seemed a bit of a dice role already.

Then Peter Weller elected not to return to sit in a tin can for a third film (due to commitments to David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch), and the role of RoboCop/Murphy was recast. Enter Robert Burke. Filming had to move as part of the necessary economies, and Orion’s bankruptcy held up in turn the planned summer 1993 release. In the end, the film wouldn’t land until November of that year. It still should have been a decent release slot though, but the story was one of delay.

Yet there were small glimmers of light. A deal inked in late 1992 with Iwerks Entertainment saw Orion licence the RoboCop character for a theme park ride. April 1993 meanwhile saw Orion do a deal for a TV series too. And then there was the bold plan to soften the violence in the upcoming film itself, and interest a younger crowd. Surely that’d bring in more cash?

In fairness after all, the crowd was already interested. RoboCop tie-in computer games had been huge sellers particular amongst under 18s, and a whole generation seemed to get hold of a copy of the 1987 original to watch it underage anyway. Few secondary school playgrounds at the time were short of people who’d seen the film they weren’t supposed to watch for many more years.

As such, a kid-focused Robo (an idea originally teased on a videogame box)? That seemed like, commercially at least, a gamble worth taking. And I still wonder what would have happened had the resultant movie actually been much – arf – cop.

RoboCop 3

Best put that away…

Looking back at RoboCop 3 nearly three decades later, it isn’t, after all, the lack of blood and guts that’s the most striking takeaway from the film. It’s more the fact that, well, it’s just not very good. It’s not without a few decent ideas, but the execution of those ideas is, kindly, on the cheap side, and it struggles to hang together. Director Fred Dekker has given interviews that say pretty much the same, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

It was easy at the time to blame this on taking away the aforementioned bloody violence. To claim that the studio had failed to understand the core audience for the film (and arguably, wasn’t the fact that lots of us were watching something we weren’t actually supposed to part of what made it special?).

But what about the stripping away on the satire? The dark humour? Those were factors that had helped draw in the initial audience in the first place, and paring it down to a standard sci-fi action flick – again, albeit with some interesting ideas – felt like bending the movie towards a target audience that already preferred the earlier films. The fact that it had to accommodate the storyline from the first two movies didn’t help either. A bit like asking How To Train Your Dragon 4 to follow on from a Game Of Thrones episode.

Had RoboCop 3 hit, though? Had the film been good? Just imagine what the following decade might have looked like if Hollywood arrived earlier on the theory that PG-13 was a pot of gold. Would we have seen the Con Airs, the Face/Offs, even Die Hard With A Vengeance? What would Alien: Resurrection have been? Or Lethal Weapon 4? Silly hypotheticals perhaps, but at the very least – for better or worse – Orion’s thinking was very much ahead of the metaphorical curve. The rest of Hollywood would take over a decade to catch up, for better or worse.

Instead, what happened was the film flopped, Orion went under, and other studios were discouraged from messing with major blockbusters for a few more years. And, of course, the RoboCop series itself has never fully recovered either.

Not for the want of trying. I liked the 2014 reboot personally, but it’s telling that had to go out as PG-13, and that people pointed fingers at each other rather than guns. Maybe the mooted RoboCop Returns film will put all this right, should it ever make it through the system. Ironically, in this instance, it’ll be following a trend rather than trying to lead it if it comes out with a harder rating. With Amazon’s money now backing up MGM too, the current rights holders for RoboCop, the film might get a proper budget too, with the safety blanket of a prominent spot on the Prime Video menu screen. That may yet be the place Robo can thrive again.

Well, that and the big screen. Because personally, I’m currently more interested in the 1987 original’s return to cinemas next month. The 18 certificate cut, back in cinemas, and the one that got all the kids interested in the whole shebang in the first place….

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