Hang on… I don’t remember it happening like that!

August 5, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 8 Comments

Robocop 1987 Paul Verhoeven 15 seconds to comply

I’ve been watching Paul Verhoeven’s ace sci-fi satire Robocop for the first time in yonks, as research for a piece on how the Robocop reboot could be resurrected in light of the announcement that Darren Aronofsky’s long-anticipated take has been cancelled.

But if you think my daft ideas about the franchise are wrong-headed, spare a thought for how I felt watching the original. Because that didn’t feel right either. Was it because I was watching it on a scratchy, ancient VHS copy? No, because Robocop‘s pulp friction suits the 80s ‘video nasty’ look. No, it was more to do with the fact that I’m still so used to seeing Robocop on telly back in the early 1990s that I had forgotten just how graphic and gratuitous the film’s hardcore violence is.

Victims aren’t just shot; they’re strafed to shreds by machine-gun fire. The hero’s hand gets blown off. Most memorably, a villain gets drenched in toxic waste and then – as he’s melting in agony – is decapitated by a passing car. D’oh. I don’t remember Robocop being that gory, because my memories of the film are inextricably tied to the sanitised cut ITV used to show, which was so extreme in its attempts at protecting us sensitive flowers that it was barely over an hour long. And, of course, it made fuck all sense: the violence is woven so tightly into the DNA of Verhoeven’s film that major narrative beats get lost once you chop out the “bad” bits.

I’m sure I’m not alone. A whole generation was raised thinking that Melon Farmers were a profession to be sneered at, or that John McClane’s immortal catchphrase was “yip-ee-kay-ay kemosabe.” One of the reasons I get such a kick out of Midnight Runis that its imaginative expletives were absent the first time I saw the film, so it still feels a wee bit naughty and transgressive to watch now.


But a swear-removal dub isn’t nearly as jarring as visual changes. When the rhythm and order of much-loved scenes alters, it feels like a violation. Especially if the editor uses a bludgeon instead of scissors. The BBC once went through a phase of banning the Nazis’ melting faces and Belloq exploding at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The cuts were so abrupt it felt as if we had temporarily shut our eyes (like Indy and Marion) and missed out on all the Biblical excitement.

Once you’ve viewed a film enough times, it’s impossible to remove the traces of what you expect to see. I’m sure there are people who still hum Henry Mancini’s jazzy music at the beginning of Touch of Evil, or mentally add those outtakes from The Shining onto the end of Blade Runner, despite the fact that the theatrical versions of those films never get shown on telly anymore.

Speaking of The Shining, I first saw Kubrick’s house-of-horrors masterpiece taped off a late night ITV screening, and that’s the version I knew and loved for over a decade. Imagine my surprise when I bought the DVD to find a much shorter film. It took me a lot of digging to work out that, yes, two versions of the film exist. The shorter, ‘wrong’ cut is Kubrick’s favoured version, rejigged for Europe after the lukewarm U.S. release. But somehow ITV had gotten hold of the original, longer U.S. cut, which includes more background on Danny’s clairvoyant powers and Jack’s drinking problems. Objective, the shorter film is leaner and subtler, but I still yearn for the longer take, whose slow-burn seems so much more anxious and creepier.


But the weirdest changes occur on planes, where there’s a blanket ban on showing anything that might upset passengers. Even if it happens to be one of the most famous and iconic sequences in movie history. A few years ago, I chose North By Northwest for my in-flight screening. Things were going swimmingly until the crop duster attack, when suddenly Cary Grant went from being in dire peril to – CUT! – escaping unharmed and unscatched, as if by magic. The censors had clipped the shot where the plane plunges into the ground and explodes…but they’d also removed any later shots of the burning wreckage. As a crowd gathers on the road, we never see what they’re looking at…and as Grant slips away unnoticed, it looks for all the world like he’s trying to get away from a gang of highway fetishists who have arrived to stare at an unseen stretch of tarmac.

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  1. Tim LambertAug 5, 2010 at 2:54 pmReply

    Every time I watch Blade Runner, I expect it to fade to the Central logo when Roy asks where he "can find this… JS Sebastian."

    Also, ITV used to show a version of Ghostbusters with a really crap substitution for the dickless gag.

  2. Matt PackerAug 5, 2010 at 3:13 pmReply

    Re: your Total Film piece – Murphy is not "chosen at random" to become RoboCop.

    Bob Morton clearly tells The Old Man, "We've restructured the Police Department and placed prime candidates according to risk factor. I'm confident that we could have a prototype within 90 days."

    The upshot: Murphy's transfer from Metro South was rigged in order to place him in jeopardy and put the raw material of his body on OCP's production line.

  3. Simon KinnearAug 5, 2010 at 3:20 pmReply

    Hi Matt,

    Hmmm… I'd not interpreted the dialogue like that, but I think you're right. For all its directness, there's plenty of nuance in that script. Cheers for pointing it out.

    At least my essential point stands: in the original, Boddicker and Jones don't want a Robocop – in my twist, they're deliberately getting a rival neutered!

  4. Matt PackerAug 5, 2010 at 4:27 pmReply

    There’s a lot to recommend your version (Julia Roberts as chick-with-a-Dick Jones in particular), but although I enjoy a bit of moral ambiguity as much as the next man, I think that part of what makes the original work is Murphy’s status as the ultimate Slain Innocent.

    I defy anyone to look over the landscape of 80s Hollywood actioners and find a scene more shocking than Murphy’s execution. It still roars out of the screen now, because some part of me always wishes I could help him. It’s as nasty as anything in Platoon or the opening of Saving Private Ryan, because there’s no euphoric pleasure to be had in the violence – it’s pure, numbing horror.

    Story-wise, the great thing about that is that it gives you a stake in the logic of the plot. You spend most of the rest of the film waiting for that guy to come back, and even though Robo unmasks himself before the steel mill showdown, Murphy never really returns until he’s safely defenestrated Dick Jones from the OCP boardroom.

    That would definitely change if Murphy were portrayed as a shady character to begin with. If the punters think that he’s somehow getting his just desserts via full-body prosthesis, they may not be terribly interested in his subsequent voyage of discovery.

  5. Simon KinnearAug 5, 2010 at 9:33 pmReply

    Cheers, really appreciate your taking the time to dissect my ideas. Most of the other comments I've seen haven't got past first-base "Robocop's a classic! How dare they reboot it!" anger, but my brief was to throw out some hypotheticals to see what might work and it's nice to see somebody engaging with it on those terms.

    I take the point about the original – I was deliberately trying to think of a different angle so as justify a 'reboot' rather than a straight 'remake.' No idea if it would work, but it's a twist, isn't it?!

  6. Matt PackerAug 6, 2010 at 2:59 pmReply

    It certainly is, and I think it could work with the correct bait for audience sympathy. Something I’ve always found fascinating about the original is how it savages the capitalist ethic by portraying OCP’s corporatism and Clarence’s brutalism as one and the same. Meanwhile, Murphy is an altruistic ‘everyman’, trying to do the best job he can to support his family.

    Pitching that dynamic into your version, you could position Murphy as a bent, but not broken, cop who uses his criminal links to sustain an underclass community he’s befriended…perhaps a group that has been shunted out of a housing project to an even worse slum in preparation for the build of Delta City. Murphy already has passionate disdain for OCP’s politics and the means by which they are enforced, and any criminal action he undertakes aims to supply the displaced community with medicine, food and technology.

    This leads him to clash with the decidedly non-altruistic Clarence – who has often seen some of his biggest cash wins siphoned off by the errant cop – and chick-with-a-Dick, who sees Murphy as an obstacle to progress… a man who has fuelled an underclass resistance to Delta City in which a number of OCP surveyors and contractors have been maimed or killed.

    Murphy has the dirt on chick-with-a-Dick’s ties to Clarence, and seems untouchable at first. But then he is all but destroyed in a car bomb – a Clarence-rigged blast that OCP’s media outlets attribute to ‘terrorist elements’ in the Delta City resistance. OCP takes Murphy’s ruined body and resurrects him as RoboCop: a symbol of OCP dominance in the law and order stakes. Controlled by a central computer – which has absorbed memories of Murphy’s associates – RoboCop is set to work as a brutal assassin, dedicated to wiping out key players in the resistance movement in order to clear the way for Delta City. The cops that sympathised with Murphy’s criminal schemes despise the cyborg and what he stands for. Meanwhile, in Murphy’s absence, Clarence prospers – consolidating his vice empire with healthy doses of OCP collusion.

    During one of his sorties, though, Robo is downed by a female, underclass tech-whizz who has always suspected Robo’s true identity due to the pattern of the killings. Robo’s link to the OCP central computer is severed, and his higher brain functions are restored. Dismayed and horrified at the death spree he has unleashed, Murphy teams up with his backers on the force and what’s left of the resistance movement to launch a full-scale citizens’ revolt against OCP.

    Old Detroit has a cancer. The cancer is capitalism.

    Tipped off about the encroaching threat, chick-with-a-Dick unveils a warehouse-load of new combat droids – codenamed ED-209 – and orders Clarence and his gang to lead them into battle. The objectives? Protect OCP at any cost – and eliminate Alex Murphy.

    Cue carnage.

  7. Simon KinnearAug 6, 2010 at 3:20 pmReply

    Matt, you have taken my idea and run with it. That synopsis is absolutely inspired.

    I really want this to get made!

  8. Matt PackerAug 6, 2010 at 5:34 pmReply

    I've got Greengrass on speed dial. Sadly, it's the codename of a local pot dealer, so we're still some way short of our goal.

    Seriously, though, thanks for your kind words. I can't get my head around forum responses that are all fury and no imagination, and your piece was designed to spark off creative vibes. I've seen a lot of online coverage about when the remake might go into production, but none at all speculating on what kind of tale it could tell, so hats off to you.

    Cards on table: I'm completely obsessed with Verhoeven's original and nurse a powerful grudge against everything else bearing the Robocop brand for not even attempting to be in the same league. It ties with Highlander as the most recklessly abused 80s action franchise… reinterpretation after reinterpretation, all by people who seem hell-bent on missing the point.

    That said, I do think that the reason it's carried on in one form or another is because the core concept is so tasty. All it needs is someone to make it real again, with high stakes, high tension, high impact and a cynical smirk on its face. I can't believe that in the world we're in now – with Big Money acting like it's above the law right in our faces – that the concept couldn't make a few interesting points about that.

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