The RoboCop Rule: When Remakes Have More Killing, but Less Gore

Like a lot of films today, the recent update of the 1987 original trades subversive carnage for sanitized violence that asks fewer moral questions.

Columbia Pictures

If you’re just counting the number of rounds expended and bodies (both human and machine) lying at the feet of its famous crime fighting cyborg, the new RoboCop remake is more violent than the 1987 original.

But not all violence is the same. Paul Verhoven’s RoboCop is a far more disturbing film than the one that pulled in more than $100 million worldwide this month. The 2014 version, directed by Jose Padilha, exemplifies a trend in recent cinema, especially in remakes, to up the amount of violence on screen but to downplay its consequences. We’re seeing more death and maiming in the theaters these days, but we’re being asked to think less about what it means.

To understand what I’m talking about, consider one of the most iconic images from the original film.

A young executive is asked by villain Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) to test the prowess of the terrifying ED-209, an “urban pacification” robot. The test goes horribly wrong, and the young executive ends up splattered, in a gloriously egregious sequences of stop motion animation, practical effects, and blood squibs on top of a model of Omni Consumer Products urban-renewal-cum-business-bonanza project.

Even setting aside the obvious corporate satire here, the scene is effective precisely because it’s disgusting. You’re repulsed, as a viewer, as the human body is reduced to nothing more than stuff. The camera lingers on the convulsing body, implicating the audience alongside the OCP executives as spectators to a slaughterhouse.

In an interview Verhoeven gave about his experiences in World War II as a child, he recalled the formative moment of seeing the body of a downed British airman extracted from flaming wreckage in the Netherlands: “When you’re 6 or 7, you think: Oh, that’s strange. The human body is just meat. It comes apart in pieces, and you can put it in little boxes. The emotional truth behind death, you don’t get that as a child, so I think my memories are very cold.” He added, “That might be the reason why I’m always interested in the damage done to the human body.’”

Damage to bodies is ever-present in Verhoeven’s film. RoboCop tends to be remembered as being a campy, ‘80s catchphrase mill, but it actually has a lot to say about how much violence costs. Each character who is killed, no matter how minor to the storyline, spews buckets of gore. And why not? Brutality is brutality, regardless of who it’s against. Every time a random drug-lab enforcer meets his end in repulsive, bloody fashion, it makes the audience think about just how horrible violence is.

The starkest example of this comes when RoboCop shoots an attempted rapist in the genitals. The agony of the wounded pushes the viewer to consider the bad-guy-gets-a-bullet logic of so many action films. The very woman RoboCop rescues looks on in numb wonder, not quite sure if she should side with her attackers or the corporate machine that’s conveniently come to her rescue.

Most of that subversion is gone in the RoboCop remake. Instead of his iconic machine pistol, RoboCop has a Taser. The bulk of the enemies put down are other robots, whose demise raises no pesky moral questions. The dreaded ED-209 is turned into a cartoonish bucking bronco. The humans on the receiving end of RoboCop’s justice are mostly killed in a sanitized, dry fashion. During a mid-movie action sequence obviously meant to invoke first-person shooter videogames—the camera inhabits Robocop’s point of view, complete with heat vision—the flesh-and-blood people dispatched seem like nothing more than CGI baddies.

In 2012, another Paul Verhoeven film, Total Recall, was remade. In terms of pure body count, both the original and its predecessor are somewhat equal. As with the Robocop though, what differentiates the new Total Recalls, besides just being a worse movie, is the cleanliness of the killing: largely bloodless, and largely against robots. Both the Robocop and Total Recall remakes shed the originals’ hard-R ratings for PG-13—an understandable business decision, perhaps, but one with moral and artistic ramifications.

Research has shown that depicted violence does not necessarily lead to real-world violence. But depicted violence can say a lot about the appetites and attitudes of audiences. The Verhoven approach—bloody, unsettling, and confrontational—seems more and more like a relic. What people want now is violence that is clean and quick, provoking no questions.