There Was Never a More Out-of-Place Sequel Than RoboCop 3

If you revisit RoboCop 3 ... there ... will ... be ... trouble.

Robert John Burke fires a flamethrower in a scene from the film 'RoboCop 3', 1993. (Photo by Orion/G...
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In 1987, Paul Verhoeven dropped a sci-fi masterpiece with RoboCop. In 1990, Empire Strikes Back maestro Irvin Kershner, made an okay sequel with RoboCop 2. And then on April 18, 1993, the world got RoboCop 3. It’s not the worst sci-fi sequel of all time, mostly because it’s so hilariously instructive. If you only have a vague idea of what RoboCop is, RoboCop 3 will scan as an inoffensive low-budget ‘90s sci-fi movie. It works as its own, fairly by-the-numbers dystopian sci-fi movie. What makes it so interesting is how incongruous it is with the rest of the franchise. Other than perhaps the various Highlander sequels, there’s never been a more out-of-place sequel than RoboCop 3.

In his 2021 book The Joy of Trash, critic Nathan Rabin sums up a lot of the problems with RoboCop 3 with this sarcastic observation: “Who needs Peter Weller when you’ve got a jet-pack?” Because Peter Weller played RoboCop/Alex Murphy in the first two films, his absence in RoboCop 3 is keenly felt. Because the character is primarily known for his helmet, you’d think director Fred Dekker would have just not revealed his face at all. But oddly, the movie goes harder on delving into Alex Murphy’s quasi-humanity than perhaps any other entry in the series. And yes, he’s got a jet-pack too, which, will hopefully really, really distract you from the fact he’s not Peter Weller.

This isn’t to say if Peter Weller had been in this film, it would have made more sense, even if there are some good ideas here. Infamously, the screenplays for RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 were written by legendary comic book writer Frank Miller. But, Miller complained more than once that his ideas were butchered, and the overall feeling of RoboCop sanitized for a more family-friendly audience. The basic plot of RoboCop 3 involves him almost getting his emotions and memories erased, but also going rogue and hanging out with a little girl who loves him.

To be clear, this little girl loves him before the movie starts, which, in the hands of a satirist like Verhoeven probably would have been spun as a kind of social commentary about how kids idealize cops and how that’s a little unhealthy. But, in RoboCop 3 the little girl Nikko (Remy Ryan) is basically a knock-off Newt from Aliens. The idea is that this movie decided that the universe of RoboCop is one that’s great for selling toys to little kids. The thing is, this assumption is not wrong, and in 1993s, no kids who saw this movie would dislike it. Did we mention RoboCop has a jet-pack now?

RoboCop 3 was a critical and financial failure. It currently has a 6 percent rating on Rotten Tomotates. But, it did successfully transform the franchise utterly. Verhoeven’s 1987 original was an unique, bizarrely subversive arthouse movie that was aggressively anti-violence despite being over-the-top in its violence. The 1990 sequel didn’t exactly harm its reputation, but it certainly didn’t top the tone of the first film either.

And it’s here where RoboCop 3 is such an interesting case study. After this film, a 1994 TV series followed, which was very clearly aimed at children. The show’s opening credits featured RoboCop breaking open a heavy door, which aped an iconic scene from the first movie. But, in the context of that film, RoboCop was busting a cocaine production plant. In the live-action TV show, he’s just busting down a door.

Robert John Burke at the premiere of RoboCop 3.

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Saying you shouldn’t watch RoboCop 3 would be a lazy way to review this movie. Instead, you should watch it. It was a sequel to a great sci-fi franchise, with a screenplay written by one of the greatest genre writers of all time. The film tried to say something about the economic class divides that destroy the world, not to mention the dangers of over-funding the police. If RoboCop 3 were remade now as a prestige TV series, it would probably be better than most things on TV. The problem with this movie was that it misunderstood its audience, and pivoted to the mainstream in the hopes of getting more money. After RoboCop 3, the hardcore, adult context of the franchise was utterly gone, and in RoboCop 3 that transition was as easy as putting on a jetpack.

RoboCop 3 is streaming on Tubi.

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