The Art House: Who Cares if it Worked Or Not! The Movie Posters of 'Robocop'

The Art House

Alex Murphy has a problem: he’s been crucified by a group of vicious criminals, resurrected with modern medicine, and rebuilt as a cybernetic product with software. He can’t remember his family, but can feel them. Lucky guy.

There are a few things I wouldn’t mind forgetting. Standing in front of my first grade class nervously clutching an action figure of RoboCop, fumbling to explain why an R-rated film featuring mechanized law enforcement from the future was appropriate classroom discussion would be one of them. I was five, trying to carve out a story at the drop of a dime based only on what I’d seen of the poster. My parents bought me the toy but patently barred the film from entering the household, leaving me to drum up a half-spun tale of an iron-clad police officer’s heroic resolve to protect the innocent and preserve the public trust. Not bad for a child, right?

Except if you’ve seen RoboCop, you know that the story is far more complex. It manages to act as a scathing satire of media and American culture while simultaneously casting a light on the ill-effects of unrestrained corporate power, mixing religious allegory with Frankensteinian themes to round out its core. The ideas themselves almost betray the image advertised to audiences of at the time: a strictly no-nonsense, faceless action hero committed to the law. And not unlike the narrative given to the citizens of Old Detroit within the film, the poster presents that shallow image rather than give any hint at a thickly layered story underneath. Murphy’s humanity, unceremoniously stripped away and repackaged as a product, is sold to the public as a corporate-funded supercop. He’s Omni Consumer Products shining example of capitalist innovation, paraded around schoolchildren as a role model ripped straight from a comic book and brought to life. Missing is the backstory of an an officer brutally gunned down in the line of duty and reconstructed with titanium and robotics.


B.D. Fox Independent, 1987

We’re presented with much of the same. Bathed in exaggerated blues and reds ripped from the heart of the 1980s print culture, RoboCop is the focus. He stands larger than life, with his design reflecting back at us the widely held notions of modern, sleek sophistication endemic of the era. The imagery itself is uncomplicated, but its treatment creates an energy of such magnitude that even the patrol car he’s next to - a run down Ford Taurus LX assigned to the entire police force of Detroit - feels like a sleek vehicle from the near-future. This is an image that oozes cool, taking the raw might of idealized fantasy and welding it with reality. Kids have their comic books, adult males have their sports cars, and much like the merging of flesh and metal, the poster makes an uncompromising effort to marry the two together.

It’s brilliant in its execution, and a wonderful reflection of the shallowness of American consumer culture energized during Reagan's presidency. The audience is sold a narrative designed to sell a product as simply and as enticingly as possible, and it’s box office gross is a reminder that sometimes the most direct way into the hearts and minds of people rests purely on aesthetic terms. Sure, the end result for anyone going in expecting an epic action rollercoaster is a film that that serves up a story more complicated and tragic, one that plunges head first into the loss of one’s identity and the corrosive effects of unrestrained corporate power. But aiming to bring thematic subtleties to the surface doesn’t necessarily make for a good poster. Believe me. I’ve tried.


Personal project, 2011

We’re twenty-six years past the release of RoboCop and just now beginning to see advertising for the remake marching its way into theatres early next year. It seems silly to point out that the culture of 1987 was vastly different than the one we inhabit in 2013, regardless of how influential it’s values have become. But the original film’s presentation of a free market without barriers feels prescient with the way power and influence are exercised by corporations today. They steer the direction of our society, with the most profitable having helped us to sacrifice some of our own humanity in exchange for technological efficiency at the consumer level. Year after year we’re allured with the promise of the familiar but better: the tools we’ve bought and brought into our lives are now sleeker, shinier, and more user-friendly than before. Our advertising makes no effort to hide this, stripping away any visual affectations in favor of a sterile environment that won’t detract from the product itself.


BLT Communications LLC, 2013

That’s what we’re being given today. Alex Murphy is once again the product, front and center, but he stands alone on a background devoid of frills. RoboCop for the 21st century see’s its first poster constructed much like an ad for the latest smartphone, aimed at convincing consumers to upgrade their bulky, chrome clunker to a polished, streamlined model. Whereas the one-sheet of the 1980s reflected back at us our cultural excesses and idealized fantasies in a simple, eye-catching way, 2013 gives us nothing more than the black shine of our mobile devices. This is an ad that does very little work on its own, relying more on our past sense of familiarity with the armored public servant to draw us in and switch over. The tagline hits this key perfectly: we’re familiar with it’s origin, but “creep” has been lopped off, leaving us with copy that manages to smooth out the edges while being less abrasive than before.

There’s little doubt that what we’re seeing is less visually engaging, but could all of this add up to a poster that is executed just as purposefully as its predecessor? Whether or not this teaser is playing the same trick on us as the original by avoiding complexity by aiming for something much more straight forward remains it be seen. We’re being sold an updated model of what we’ve danced with before using a visual language as uncomplicated and unimaginative as much of what we’re fed today, and through that prism, it feels at least like a considered response to the brief of selling RoboCop in the new millennium.

At the very least, a round of applause should go out to whomever was responsible for the first piece of key-art ushering in the resurrection of a beloved character for 2014. We can all agree that, despite everything else, they were at least successful in stripping away the humanity from the poster and replacing it with something closer to a computer. The shareholders of OCP would be proud.