EXCLUSIVE: MGM is developing a new installment of RoboCop and has set District 9 director Neill Blomkamp to helm the picture, which is titled RoboCop Returns. The studio hopes to revive a franchise that began with the Paul Verhoeven-directed satirical sci-fi action thriller that Orion released in 1987. Original writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are producing and exec producing, respectively. Justin Rhodes, who co-wrote the Terminator film that Tim Miller is shooting, will rewrite the script that Neumeier and Miner wrote years ago as a planned sequel to Verhoeven’s hit, an installment that never happened. That duo is creatively involved in moving forward their creation for the first time since the original.
The original starred Peter Weller as a badly wounded cop on death’s doorstep who is turned into a cyborg law enforcement officer tasked with wiping out crime in an out of control Detroit, but who is plagued by submerged memories of his previous married life. MGM revived the concept with a Jose Padilha-directed version that starred Joe Kinnaman in 2014. That film didn’t do so well domestically, but grossed $240 million worldwide and was particularly strong in China. MGM exec veep Adam Rosenberg is overseeing the new one for the studio.
The plot: anarchy reigns and the fate of Detroit hangs in the balance as RoboCop makes his triumphant return to fight crime and corruption.
The original film was a formative touchstone for Blomkamp, whose District 9 grossed $210 million worldwide, got four Oscar nominations and who followed with several science fiction films that carried a polemical message under the surface, including Elysium and Chappie. He has spent the last few years building Oats Studios in Vancouver, where has been producing short form content he has written, directed and self-financed. Blomkamp jumped at the chance to do a RoboCop that harkens back to and picks up the story line from the original film. His own films have highlighted themes like immigration, exclusion and the haves and have nots, and while RoboCop — made in the Reagan era and focused on corporate greed — a different part of the original story has become most important to him.
“The original definitely had a massive effect on me as a kid,” Blomkamp told Deadline. “I loved it then and it remains a classic in the end of 20th Century sci-fi catalog, with real meaning under the surface. Hopefully that is something we can get closer to in making of a sequel. That is my goal here. What I connected to as a kid has evolved over time. At first, the consumerism, materialism and Reaganomics, that ’80s theme of America on steroids, came through most strongly. But As I’ve gotten older, the part that really resonated with me is identity, and the search for identity. As long as the human component is there, a good story can work in any time period, it’s not locked into a specific place in history. What’s so cool about RoboCop is that like good Westerns, sci-fi films and dramas, the human connection is really important to a story well told. What draws me now is someone searching for their lost identity, taken away at the hands of people who are benefiting from it, and seeing his memory jogged by events. That is most captivating. The other thing I am excited by is the chance to work again with Justin Rhodes. He has added elements that are pretty awesome, to a sequel that was set in the world of Verhoeven. This is a movie I would love to watch.”
Why wasn’t this sequel story told years ago?
Neumeier and Miner sold the original as a spec script and Orion’s Mike Medavoy, emboldened by the success of Platoon, got heavily behind it. Neumeier and Miner got paid a paltry sum upfront, but eight points of producer profits fattened their wallets. The inspiration was classic Westerns with leading man of few words, namely John Wayne in The Searchers and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. “There were four or five things RoboCop couldn’t do, including no talking on the phone, no kissing the girl, and he couldn’t fly and would be limited to four or five signature phrases,” Miner recalled. “Ed and I became zen like in writing that dialogue, which had to be like sharp spears that punch you, in dialogue form. We would labor a whole day over one line. When you recall the way Ethan (Wayne) spike in The Searchers, or Clint in Dirty Harry, they were like zen poems in an action culture.”
The original grossed over $50 million and got three Oscar noms including a win for Best Sound Effects Editing. Despite this, and even though Neumeier and Miner had written a worthy followup in the spirit of the original, their sequel didn’t happen for several reasons.
“Verhoeven felt at the time that making one would be de classe and he wasn’t interested in the politics of a sequel, “Neumeier told Deadline. “Then, the writers strike came along in 1988 and we were force majeured off the project. They brought in Frank Miller on a waiver. He wrote a draft and then another with Walon Green, and it got made by Irvin Kershner, who directed The Empire Strikes Back. I went off and did Startship Troopers with Paul.”
It came back around when he got a call from MGM president Jon Glickman, tasked with creating franchise material for that studio. “Right when Trump was about to be elected president he called me and said, ‘Did you actually predict in your sequel script that a reality star would run for president and win?’ We had. So Mike and I wrote a draft and gave one interview in Barbados and I think the only person who read it was Neill Blomkamp, and that set this in motion.”
Blomkamp is represented by WME; Rhodes is WME and Madhouse; Neumeier and Miner are APA.