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Eyes widened when it was revealed that RoboCop 3 was set to scale back its violence in order to get a softer rating – a good decade before others started doing so.

It was the early 2010s when the 20thth Century Fox – remember that name? – has earned a bunch of new friends among British moviegoers. Back then, and it felt a bit different back then, his quest was to trim a number of hard-edged films to give them softer ratings from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). As such films like 2 taken, 3 taken and A good day to die – a trio of films I certainly don’t take a bullet for – have been hacked to get 12A certificates in the UK (although they’re uncut elsewhere in the world). After all, what parent wouldn’t want to take their kids to see Liam Neeson growl into a phone?

Fox took a lot of criticism for his choices, but the harsh truth was that his approach was validated. The universally slandered A good day to die underperformed in most areas of the world, but not in the UK where revenues were high. And indeed even movies like The equalizer – in this case by Sony – the violence was reduced to 15 instead of 18. That also seemed to work.

By this time, of course, Hollywood was in the midst of its 12A/PG-13 obsession. With very few exceptions, every major blockbuster had to conform strictly, and woe to any director who delivered an edit of his expensive film that received an MPAA R-rating in the US. Finally, the belief backed by many numbers was that with a weaker rating, you had more chances of making more money. Not Too Soft: Nobody wants to see a PG-rated action movie, so the theory goes. But 12A/PG-13 becomes the sweet spot. It’s really just the rise of streamers that has allowed us to have a good fight/curse/bonk in a movie again.

It’s hard to say where Hollywood has headed, but perhaps Fox’s decision (again) to do the fourth Die Hard Shooting a PG-13 in the US was a pivotal moment. The 2006 sequel muted John McClane’s famous one-shot payline, and the Bruce Willis-captioned picture duly received its US soft rating. In Britain, ironically, swear was not subdued and the film was released as the 15th. At Zack Snyder’s Guardian Adaptation, a film that cost nine figures to make and earned an R in 2009, failed at the box office but blamed its R rating. Studios would not produce that mistake again.

Bring the kids! Let’s get some popcorn!

However, had history taken a slightly different turn, perhaps the 1990s would have been the rise of the PG-13/12A land rush rather than the 2000s. Because in the early 1990s came the announcement that Orion Pictures – by then desperate for a hit to stay in business (he had to sell The Addams family film months before release just to stay afloat) – wanted a family audience for his new one RoboCop Movie. The violence should be pushed back and a more family-friendly film should be made.

What could go wrong?

“The Da Vinci Code” doesn’t even begin to cover the reaction that announcement received, and that was before the World Wide Web was a thing. It’s hard to imagine a more violent major franchise that can take such an approach. Paul Verhoeven’s original from 1987 RoboCop eventually endured cuts only to get an 18 in the UK and an R in the US. 1990s Robo Cop 2 showed no signs of pacifism either, and the heavy violence and drugs in this film meant the rating was never in doubt. Against the backdrop of two brutal films, Orion wanted to increase the appeal of his next sequel and almost torpedoed the franchise.

In truth, the film that became Robo Cop 3 had much objection before it became clear that Orion was turning left. The studio was pretty bankrupt when the film was greenlit and wanted to make it on a smaller budget. Given that ambitious flight effects were planned for the film, it seemed like a bit of a dice roll.

Then Peter Weller decided not 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 be postponed as part of necessary austerity measures, and Orion’s bankruptcy in turn delayed its planned summer 1993 release. In the end, the film would not land until November of that year. It should have been a decent release slot nonetheless, but the story was one of delay.

Still, there were small glimmers of light. A deal signed in late 1992 at Iwerks Entertainment, Orion saw the license RoboCop Character for a theme park ride. Meanwhile, in April 1993, Orion also signed a deal for a television series. And then there was the bold plan to tone down the violence in the upcoming film itself and engage younger audiences. Surely that would make more money?

To be fair, the crowd was interested after all. RoboCop Computer games were big sellers, especially among the under-18s, and a whole generation seemed to be getting a copy of the 1987 original just to watch as a minor anyway. Few secondary school yards at that time had few people who had seen the film, which they were not supposed to watch for many years.

So a kid-oriented robo (an idea originally teased on a video game box set)? That seemed like a gamble worth taking, at least commercially. And I still wonder what would have happened if the resulting film had actually been a lot – arf – cop.

Robo Cop 3

Best put that away…

looking back Robo Cop 3 After all, nearly three decades later, it’s not the lack of blood and guts that’s the film’s most striking takeaway. It’s more the fact that it’s just not very good. It’s not without some decent ideas, but the implementation of those ideas is kindly on the cheap side and is struggling to hold together. Director Fred Dekker has given interviews that say pretty much the same thing, and it’s hard to disagree.

Back then, it was easy to blame for eliminating the bloody violence mentioned above. To claim that the studio didn’t understand the film’s core audience (and wasn’t it the fact that many of us were seeing something we weren’t actually expecting to be special?).

But what about stripping away the satire? The black humor? Those were factors that helped draw in the initial audience, and reducing it to a standard sci-fi action film – again, albeit with some interesting ideas – felt like aiming the film at a target audience , which already favored previous films. The fact that it had to pick up the plot from the first two films didn’t help either. A bit like asking How to Train Your Dragon 4 connect to a game of Thrones Consequence.

had Robo Cop 3 but met? Was the movie good? Imagine what the ensuing decade would have been like if Hollywood had theorized that PG-13 was a pot of gold sooner. Would we have seen that Con Airs, the Face/Offseven Die hard with revenge? what would Alien: Resurrection have been? or Deadly weapon 4? Silly hypotheses, perhaps, but at least—for better or for worse—Orion’s thinking was well ahead of the metaphorical curve. It would take the rest of Hollywood over a decade to catch up, for better or for worse.

Instead, the film flopped, Orion went under, and other studios were prevented from making big blockbusters for a few more years. And of course the RoboCop The series itself never fully recovered either.

Not for lack of trying. I personally liked the 2014 reboot, but it’s telling that it had to come out as PG-13 and that people were pointing fingers at each other rather than guns. Maybe the talk Robo Cop returns Film will correct all of this should it ever make it through the system. Ironically, in this case it will follow a trend rather than try to lead it when it comes out with a harder rating. With the money from Amazon, MGM is now also supporting the current rights holders for RoboCop, the film could also get a decent budget, with the security blanket of a prominent spot on Prime Video’s menu screen. This could be the place for Robo to thrive again.

Well, that and the big screen. Because personally I’m currently more interested in the The 1987 original returns to theaters next month. The 18 Certificate Cut, back in theaters, and the one that got all the kids interested in all that stuff in the first place…

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