How a low budget sci-fi satirising Reagan’s America busted blocks and spawned a movement.
Star Wars. The Avengers. Harry Potter. When we think of entertainment empires an inexpensive, ultraviolent sociopolitical satire from the late 80s doesn’t immediately spring to mind. But like its hero Alex Murphy, RoboCop is very hard to kill.
From screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, the story of a cybernetic cop built using the body of an officer slain on duty latched onto fears about runaway Reaganomics, the overturning of ideals about the common good and uncertainty about robots and computers.
As Neumeier tells SFX from his home in suburban Los Angeles, they were themes he was surprisingly knowledgeable about growing up. “1970s Northern California was pretty liberal. It was infused with those ideas so I wanted to poke fun at them,” he says. “It was nice when audiences were in on the joke. Paul [Verhoeven, director] identified it in the script and made it even clearer.”
Working as a studio development executive at the time, Neumeier wrote RoboCop together with student filmmaker Michael Miner. It found its way to producer Jon Davison, flying high at the time. “He’d had success with Airplane! so he wasn’t afraid of the humour,” Neumeier says. “Everybody was iffy about it, but not Jon. He understood you could make something funny, political, dramatic and exciting at the same time.”
Davison took it to iconic production stable Orion and RoboCop had a green light. Some directors wanted it bu couldn’t schedule it, others didn’t feel like a good fit to Davison, and a Dutch director known for very adult European dramas didn’t seem at all suited. Initially, Verhoeven agreed.
“I read about 15 pages and threw it way, it was so far away from the films I’d made. They were much more based in reality and certainly not science fiction,” the director says from his home in The Hague. “That subtitle, ‘the future of law enforcement’, seemed completely alien to me.”
Verhoeven passed… until his wife reconsidered. “She read it in a completely different way, she felt there were elements that weren’t so far away from me, like [Murphy] losing his past, the philosophy of losing your memory.”
A quick phone call to his US agent and history was written. “Even my films in Holland, if they were about a war, none of them were action movies. I was more interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the script. I saw RoboCop a bit like a futuristic Jesus.”
A pre-internet mash-up
The result is a seeming contradiction between brawny action and high-minded comment on social dangers. “I wanted a movie you could see at eight and think it was the greatest robot movie ever, then at 28 and see it was about other things,” Neumeier says.
He adds that he’s always ‘hidden behind’ genre to comment on the world, something that’s easier to swallow with the genre tropes of action or laughs. “[Characters] are exhibiting certain behaviours that are amusing but can also be dangerous, evil and corrupt. It was a difficult tone to describe to people.”
Neumeier says Verhoeven’s relaxed attitude towards the violence was another plus. “There’s a torture-murder on page 22, the script always had that edge. At first Paul wasn’t sure about it being funny, but I gave him a bunch of comic books by Frank Miller and he was able to embrace the humour.”
Another unexpected motif Neumeier and Verhoeven bonded over was the chapter-ending Media Break segments (visually inspired by the blockish geometries of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian), featuring the irrepressibly perky Casey Wong (Mario Machado) and Jess Perkins (Leeza Gibbons). “By the time we did them in Starship Troopers [in the form of the Federation announcements] it was something we knew how to do together,” Neumeier says.
We’ll buy that for a dollar
Neumeier remembers how Starship Troopers’ military fascism satire was almost snuck through the studio [Sony] unnoticed, subsequent executives missing the subtext but figuring they might have another Star Wars on their hands. But how did the Hollywood powers that be – drunk on the success of ghostbusting, time-travelling DeLoreans and cops in Beverly Hills – absorb RoboCop’s more cerebral politics?
Thankfully, Orion had the habit of hiring interesting people and letting them work. “They had opinions but they got it,” Neumeier says. “The other nice thing was they had big hopes for other movies so it was an inexpensive, middle-range picture.” Audiences lapped up the US$13m movie to the tune of $53m, plus a further $24m from home video.
And while Verhoeven, Davison and Orion can take credit for gambling on it, RoboCop sticking to its original remit is mostly down to Neumeier. Realising it was his ticket to a movie career, the former script reader ingratiated himself into every step of the process.
“To be anything in this business, you have to be a producer. You have to work with other people and they have to look good so you look good. I’ve always tried to stay on set with the project and the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve come to respect the different parts of the craft.”
Verhoeven confirms Neumeier was on set throughout RoboCop and Starship Troopers – often right beside his director. “I think he protected me from my European principles and thinking. [Along with] Phil Tippett, who made all the animals for Starship Troopers, Ed was basically a co-director.”
The first animated series was made and released, but owing to the film’s box office, a live action movie sequel was a given. Neumeier and Miner couldn’t return because of the 1988 WGA writer’s strike but Orion, in financial trouble, needed to get moving – three big successes in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Dances With Wolves (1990) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) hadn’t countered a string of flops.
They hired comic book legend Frank Miller (who’d play drug scientist Frank), then had veteran screenwriter Walon Green (The Wild Bunch) do a rewrite. 1990’s RoboCop 2, directed by The Empire Strikes Back’s Irwin Kershner, was fun, looked great and built on the mythology and characters, but barely doubled its $25m budget.
Miller and writer Fred Dekker tried again in 1993’s RoboCop 3 (Dekker directed), but it jettisoned all the other characters and recast Murphy – Peter Weller was shooting William S Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch for David Cronenberg. It also shaved off all the hard edges thanks to Orion wanting a PG-rated RoboCop movie and (somewhat deservedly) didn’t even return half the budget.
But the RoboCop name wasn’t done with yet. A family-friendly live action series was shot in Toronto but not renewed, proving too expensive. A second animated series aired in 1998/1999, abandoning almost all the supporting characters and beset by laughable continuity errors in the writing.
In 2001 a four part live action miniseries aired called RoboCop: Prime Directives, which deals with RoboCop 10 years after the first film (it ignores the sequels) having outlived his usefulness after cleaning up Detroit.
And so, apart from near-continual appearances in comics from publishers as varied as Marvel, BOOM! Studios and Dark Horse and at least eight video games, that seemed like the end of the franchise on screens.
That was until José Padilha, newly hot after the Brazilian thriller Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, was called in to MGM, who acquired Orion’s library after the latter’s bankruptcy sale in 1997. “They asked him what he wanted to do and he pointed to a picture of RoboCop on a boardroom wall and said ‘how about that?’,” Neumeier recalls.
Neumeier and Miner initially had nothing to do with the 2014 reboot, but the Writer’s Guild determined the new script was sufficiently based on their original work and awarded them shared credit with the new writer, Joshua Zetumer.
Fun but lightweight, merely nodding to themes of identity and technology, RoboCop ’14 was slick but so-so. Audiences agreed, returning $242m (a lot of it in China) from a budget of $100m. Fun side note; Joel Kinnaman, who played the new Murphy, told Neumeier how uncomfortable the suit was. “I said ‘Yeah, but it’s the suit that makes the performance’.”
Several big names had flirted with RoboCop in years past. Darren Aronofksy signed on but left a year later, opting for a solid green light for Black Swan rather than deal with MGM’s precarious financial situation, which could see his RoboCop offer go up in smoke at any moment (although rumours persist it was over plans for 3D and the excessive use of CGI).
But MGM’s chairman asked Neumeier what a new RoboCop might look like during a meeting and the result was RoboCop Returns, based on the sequel script he and Miner had written years back, after the first film. In July 2018, an official sequel was announced with Neill Blomkamp and writer Justin Rhodes (Terminator: Dark Fate) behind it.
Blomkamp made some tantalising promises, saying it would be like Verhoeven himself had directed it. Even the iconic suit would be the same. Then, in August 2019, he abruptly tweeted that he was off the project to work on a horror movie.
Neumeier is circumspect and tactful when asked what happened. “Neill’s a very robust talent and everyone at MGM was very happy because the project had snared a big director. But he wanted to do his own version of our story. As producers, Michael and I read the script draft by draft. The first draft was promising enough but somehow got grimmer, more horrific and kind of exhausting for three more drafts until even Neill thought we should start over.”
But with 30 years of fandom and such a strong premise, MGM seems determined to keep trying until they get it right, and the latest effort is in the works with Aussie director Abe Forsythe (Little Monsters). Forsythe is doing his own pass on the script, which is a rewrite of the work done by Rhodes and Blomkamp, which is all building on Miner and Neumeier’s original 1988 sequel script.
But if that sounds like a tangle, Neumeier has complete faith in his new director. He’s on board as a producer, and has treated Forsythe’s arrival with his philosophy of letting talented people do their best. “He has something really interesting, very relevant,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to tell him to do his own thing with confidence.”
He’s careful not to give anything away, but is his praise of Weller’s original performance and his floating the idea of the now 73-year old returning a clue? What’s more, it’s not the only familiar face he mentions. “I’d love to see Nancy Allen in it,” he says. “It’d be lovely if you could do at least something for the original fans with those two characters. Nancy is one of the most popular female characters in those kind of movies.”
Allen herself tells SFX RoboCop’s partner Anne Lewis was one of her favourite roles. “I fell in love with the script and character from the first read,” she says, “she’s a strong woman with passion and purpose. Playing Anne was a welcome change from the other kinds of women I’d played throughout my career.”
Because Allen’s father was a cop, she felt she understood the character and culture she’d be depicting, and the experience didn’t disappoint. “Every day was exciting. Everyone was exceptional at their jobs. The shooting moved at the same nonstop pace as the final product. There was never a doubt in my mind it’d be a great film.”
But to the crucial question, Allen says although she hasn’t been approached, she’d be very open to reprising her role for RoboCop Returns. “Many young women have expressed great admiration to me about Anne and I think they’d be thrilled to see her on screen again.”
One name that won’t return however is Paul Verhoeven. The director hasn’t worked in the US since 2000’s Hollow Man, and even though he’s developing a new movie with Neumeier (see sidebar ‘What Ed and Paul did next’), he says RoboCop would be psychologically ‘difficult’.
“I was not happy with Hollow Man,” he says. “I was making a studio movie under supervision. I wanted to do what I liked, not what the studio liked. I got to do that in Holland with Black Book and in France with my last two movies, Elle and Benedetta.”
So far, RoboCop’s fortunes have been as varied as the Detroit Police Department, but with Neumeier back and hope building, there’s only one thing left to say (with utmost respect); ‘Your move, creep’.
Sidebar – What Ed and Paul did next
There’s been a Starship Troopers reboot in the works since 2016 (2020 saw the news that Tron: Legacy and Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski is on board to direct), and with Verhoeven happily enjoying creative freedom in Holland, he’s not involved with RoboCop Returns.
But Neumeier and Verhoeven both spoke glowingly about working together, so a new project was almost certain. “We’re working on a spy thriller,” says Neumeier. “Whether it’s funny or not is always up for debate, but it’s set in Washington DC, about a young woman who’s spying on a congressman.”
Verhoeven describes it as having an element of film noir and being (perhaps unsurprisingly given his oeuvre) ‘very sexual’. “We’re basically outlining it, it’s something new, but it will also refer to the situation today, like RoboCop was about the politics of the Reagan era.”
Sidebar – Beyond ridiculous
A blowhard reality TV star sitting in the Oval Office who’d be hilarious if he didn’t wield so much terrifying power, the media clogged with vitriolic right wing drivel, kindness and decency feeling like anachronistic concepts and political and corporate leaders using absurd Orwellian doublespeak sound like elements Neumeier considered and rejected in an old script.
And even though the runaway capitalism and abandonment of community in the body politic were prescient in 1987, they were exaggerated for the sake of parody. Would something with such incisive sociopolitical comment even work today, where we’ve been living in a bad parody? “Right now, we live in a time where it’s not that it’s not amusing, it’s just on steroids,” is how Neumeier puts it.
“Yes, that would be difficult,” Verhoeven adds. “It’s already such a strange time, and an exaggeration of that seems to be impossible. I think we need more time before we can react to what’s happened in the US over the last three, four years. It’s already basically RoboCop, there’s already a certain political right-wing thinking.”