It’s a nice 70 degree sunny day in La Vista, Nebraska as my mother gathers her things and leaves for the store. I rush up to my father who is sitting watching TV, “Can we watch it? Can I put the movie in?” I shout. My father smiles, “Well, since your mother is gone, let’s do it!” I run over to the entertainment center and file through all of our VHS tapes, most of them in black cases and not their original covers. I pop the VHS into the VCR and sit back with my father as the opening city shot of Detroit (which is actually Dallas) and then the title of the film comes on in metallic form: ROBOCOP. This film truly captivated my love for film without my knowing until I became much older and attended Arizona State University to study film. As raw and violent it may have been back in 1987, this film was not only a stepping stone for director Paul Verhoeven, but brought the conversation about violence and ethics in film to the forefront.
I was only five years old when I first viewed Robocop (1987) and it will always remind me of not only my childhood but my father as well. My father had seen so many movies as a kid, and he knew about completely random films I had never even heard of, but eventually became a huge fan of, such as the infamous Lindsey Anderson films If…(1968) and O Lucky Man (1973). Looking back at Robocop, you immediately think of the over-the-top violence. After re-watching this film many times along with the sequels (except the third) and the remake, you can see through the history of film how far along the original concept of Robocop has come with the aspect of violence in film. In this day and age, violent crimes have never been higher amongst the U.S and the world. As of January 2016, there have been more than 300 shootings in the city of Chicago. Directors and screenwriters alike are coming together to create more action packed films with mild violence, but on a much bigger scale. No longer are we seeing characters on-screen being riddled with bullets, or body parts being ripped from their body. During the 1980’s filmmakers brought violence that escalated the action of the film, and Robocop, along with a few other films, is the best example of this.
In Robocop, a regular cop is brutally murdered after a patrol and voluntarily selected for the Robocop program, which will reconstruct him as a cyborg. Through the trials and tribulations the man who has become machine puts pieces together of his past to avenge his death. The audience is introduced to sleazy business men, distrustful criminals, and loyal partners who fit into this futuristic version of Detroit. Director Paul Verhoeven cleverly disguises violence upfront in the beginning of the film with a news segment called “Media Break” with world events, but it’s not until about ten minutes into the film we get our first taste of blood and gore.
In this scene we are introduced to ED-209, a militarized machine used for law enforcement. Before this introduction, the Vice President of security concepts Dick Jones is presenting to the board of OmniConsumer Products (OCP) with his 24/7 version of a police officer. To demonstrate the capability of this machine, he presents a test to show how this would solve a typical arrest problem. Unfortunately, due to lack of production, it goes terribly wrong and a volunteer, Kinney, is shot to death in violent nature. In the director’s cut of the film, there is an added five seconds to Kinney’s body getting shot over and over again with an additional scene of Dr. McNamara pulling the circuits from the control board to shut down ED-209.
The Director’s Cut adds violence into the film but is it necessary? Until recently, I was unaware of additional footage to the original but I was interested in what was added. Seeing for the first time, I wasn’t shocked, but intrigued. More like “Holy shit!” versus “Oh my god, how terrifying!” When reviewing this scene, you have a clear idea of what Verhoeven was wanting to accomplish when it comes to the tone of violence. Established at the beginning of the film, the audience is aware that even outside of our home country, poverty and war are inescapable throughout the world. Verhoeven is clearly telling the audience within the first five minutes of the film that what he is presenting is a truthful take on normal, everyday life. After our protagonist is transferred from the adjacent precinct, he immediately engages in a high profile chase which ends in his untimely death. Along with the close-up of ED-209’s machine guns and Kinney’s death, Verhoeven set the stage of what’s to come. He established the violence, but included tones of comedic relief throughout to ease the tension of the film.
In other violent scenes such as Murphy’s death, the coke lab shootout, and the final battle, we must ask “Is this too violent?” During my time as a film student at ASU, I studied films that explored violence or ethical situations in their subject matter. From a creative standpoint, a director will convey their idea to the best of their ability using cinematography, editing, or visual effects. If we take a look at other films from the 1980s such as Predator (1987) and The Terminator (1984), each director had a distinct style of capturing the violence portrayed in the film. While the violence in them may be gratuitous, all films were successful within their own right. A scene which stands out in The Terminator is when the cyborg confronts Sarah Connor at the Tech Noir nightclub. A violent shootout erupts with a few civilian casualties. Director James Cameron does not shy away from placing the audience in the center of the violence with the clever placement of the laser-sighted pistol aiming right into the camera.
Horror films from the 1980s are associated with scare tactics that play into violence, but those films were successful as well. For example, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) depicts teenagers battling against a man who kills in their dreams. Here, violence is used to shock the audience. Pulling victims through beds and being hung by your own bedsheet are a few examples of the deaths portrayed in the film. This film was rated-R not for the violence on film (as graphic as it is), but for the gore and blood that pushes the boundary of the rating.
Let’s jump almost 30 years forward to the remake of Robocop (2014) and visually compare the two films. Instead of a deadly shootout with the main antagonist, Murphy is killed in a car explosion. Murphy mostly battles robotic droids rather than human villains while putting the pieces together of his murder. As this film is rated PG-13, I was instantly turned off to ever seeing the film. Just watching it recently, it reaffirmed my fears that it does not compare to the original. There are many concepts that are changed/altered and like most reboots, story changes have been made to attract a much wider demographic. For example, OCP is the same corporation, however they have already put in place ED-209 models for policing purposes. The opening scene details ED-209 units and other prototypes placed in the Middle East to show the world (through news broadcast) how safe the United States can be. Instead of humans fighting humans, it has transformed to humans fighting machines. The violent acts being committed against humans has been reduced to emphasize more action. The film suffers from other problems, primarily that the antagonist is never clearly distinguished until the end of the film. It is assumed that the criminal leader is responsible for Alex Murphy’s death, but no character development or emotional attachment is given to said character. After discovering who killed the man he used to be, Robocop sets sight on ending the antagonist once-in-for-all in a pitiful action scene with little to no violence portrayed. By the end of the film, Robocop confronts the OCP president after battling more robots in a simplified action-packed sequence that would please any teenager seeing the film. With recent reboots after the 1980s leading into the 90s and 2000s, violence has been immensely downsized in more action packed blockbusters.
A perfect example of how contemporary action movies have simplified violence over time is the Alien and Predator franchises. All of these films leading up to AVP: Alien vs Predator (2004) were rated-R films; each film having a degree of violence to an extreme extent to garner that specific rating. In the films from Alien to Alien 3, the audience was shown different versions of the infamous chestburster scene; an alien exploding through a human chest which showcased the birth of a new creature. In Predator, every character is killed in a violent nature from an arm amputation/impalement to an exploding head. After years of box office success of the franchises, studios decided to take a less violent approach and enhance the action by combining both franchises. A Forbes article in February 2014 written by Scott Mendelson, states that PG-13 rating may have been the reason why the remake of Robocop did so poorly in the box office. 64% of the ticket sales were over 25 years old, while 62% were male. Mendelson also states, “As a broader point, it’s worth pointing out how obsessively Hollywood chases an age demographic (12-17 year olds) who bought just 15% of frequent movie tickets in 2012. But more specifically, the PG-13-ization of Robocop points to a quasi-trend. It’s not just Robocop or Sony, but of studios tailoring what should technically be adult-skewing films to a younger audience that ends up seeing something else anyway”. Even though the violence is being toned down to reach a younger demographic, audiences are not showing up to watch these films.
The one outlier is the infamous Quentin Tarantino and his entire filmography. Every film of his is rated-R for graphic violence and vulgar language (Jackie Brown being the exception to the violence). Never has he sacrificed his own stories (as he writes all of his own films) to appeal to a mass audience. Tarantino has established himself for the cinephiles to cherish his work as art and not just substance. In the article titled Pulp Friction: Two Shots at Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction Pat Dowell states: “Tarantino’s stylish presentation of violence has been the predictable subject of greatest controversy in the mainstream press. He unabashedly loves the stuff, and presents himself in an off-screen image that might be termed geek macho, a blend of seen-it-all posturing and avid fanzine enthusiasm.” In Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), a heist-gone-wrong shows the gruesome side of violent action taken by partners who have to resolve the simple problem of trust through violence. Tarantino emphasizes this style to progress his story-telling and filmmaking capabilities. Does Mr. Blonde truly need to douse a police officer in gasoline and cut off his ear to make him talk? No, because that is how the character of Mr. Blonde is written: sarcastic, sadistic, and egocentric.
Since the 1980s, violence in films has decreased and become more stylized to mask the sense of reality. Audiences see more graphic violence on TV than in film, with shows like The Walking Dead and the American Horror Story anthologies. Studios are making safe bets by using the rating system to their advantage, but there is an audience for ultra-violence to be portrayed on film. PG-13 rated films could be as violent as a rated-R film but disguise that violence through unconventional ways i.e. robots versus humans. Don’t shy away from the rated-R features because you may see a film that could change your life, just like Robocop did for me at just 5-years old.