RoboCop first clanked across the big screen in 1987. Two rather disappointing sequels followed, in 1990 and 1993. And then, that was it. No more films … until now. How did a franchise left to wander the box office wilderness for 21 years remain such a strong brand?
On first impressions, Paul Verhoeven's science-fiction thriller appeared to be destined for the video rental bargain bin, nothing more than a schlocky and disposable exploitation flick of blood and bullets. To be fair, it does have an awful lot of both, but the pulpy, ultraviolent premise belies the depths of its intent. Part social satire, part Mary Shelley tribute, it's a deceptively cerebral film – it just happens to be one in which quite a lot of people get bits of themselves shot off and/or burnt with toxic waste.
The original branding for the film struggles to get all of this across. But it got audiences into seats, that was the important thing. It was strong, and remains recognisable to this day.
The strapline on the poster gets the high concept down to its basics: "Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop" (what more do you need to know?), but visually, the brand comes down to two strong images that have remained at its core: the logotype and the costume.
The type is mechanical and cold, all angular and bevelled. It's part machine-readable type, part death metal, and owes quite a lot to the branding of those other 1980s robots, Transformers. In fact it's so excessively robo-embellished, it's a little hard to read at distance – the B and the Os get a little lost in their own counters, and the R tries so hard to stick to the 45º strokes motif that it becomes a tad deformed. But the shape of the word, led by those two uppercase characters and the bolt of black sticking out of the C, is well defined.
This reflects the sleek abomination that is the title character. Talking about the design of that suit, visual effects artist Rob Bottin could almost be describing the process of designing a typeface:
"It's meant to look very speedy and aerodynamic. All the lines are measured to go on a slant – forward, forward, forward! All the lines were geometric, and complement every shape on the body from all angles. Robocop looks the way he does because that's the way a man's body works! Although we went through fifty different variations, developing his character, everything came back to man-like. It's definitely a guy in the suit, which doesn't belittle it any."
RoboCop appeared at the tail end of a cycle of genre films that have gone on to become massive brands, spawning numerous spin-offs and sequels and merchandise. Alien, Terminator, Predator, all guys in suits, all characters for sale – he was right at home in this company.
This was essentially a rerun of Universal Studios' stable of monsters from the 1930s and 40s. Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Dracula, etc. Rather than discrete films, these particular guys in suits became brands, perpetuating and reinforcing one another with crossovers and team-ups. The film portrayal of these literary characters became so iconic that they could be extended as brands in other areas of merchandise: Halloween masks, action figures, coffee mugs, jigsaws, Pez dispensers, lunch boxes, everything.
The modern franchises have followed the Universal template and been repeatedly recut, rebooted, cross-overed, sequelised and prequelised on the big screen. Decades after their conception, the guys in suits are still big business. Somewhere along the way, RoboCop got left behind.
Not that it vanished completely, far from it. Despite the bloody adult bloodiness of the original film, the brand survived on a life-support of comics and games and cartoons aimed at younger boys, most of whom probably hadn't been anywhere near the films themselves. There were even toys labelled "for ages three and up" – this for a character who's seen shooting a rapist in the genitals.
Throughout this rather morally-questionable post-film existence, the core elements of the brand were maintained … mostly. RoboCop Archive has a fascinating chronology of the variations, deviations and corruptions of the logotype.
And now there's a new version to add to that list, with RoboCop once again on the big screen.
It's a depressing thought for some of us, but the truth is that 1987 is now a long, long time ago now. RoboCop was given an 18 certificate in the UK, so the original intended audience for the film would be pushing fifty now. Like the return of the Mini and the VW Beetle, reviving this brand is a tricky balancing act – rejuvenating an ageing brand for those with nostalgia for the original while still bringing on board that generation's offspring for whom the character is something new, merely an echo of a legend of a guy in a suit.
Will José Padilha's sleek and sanitised RoboCop replace the original as the recognised image of the brand? Or simply become another extension of it? Probably the latter: the new version invokes enough of the original 1987 design elements to acknowledge its debt to the brand.
The logotype may be bluer and shinier and covered in obligatory lens flare, but it's still the same old bent-out-of-shape R and awkward counters (and once again draws comparison to recent Transformings). The costume is a bit more figure-hugging and familiar now (it's not a million miles away from a cape less Batman), but the hefty side-arm and horizontal slash of a visor remain. It's a different story, but it's just one within a larger franchise, one in which the films are only a small part. He's may not be the first guy in the suit, but he certainly won't be the last.
Part man, part machine, all on brand.
Written for Monotype