Due to open in theaters nationwide today, Sony Pictures’ RoboCop remake has divided fans of the original from the get-go. Particularly contentious has been the reimagining of the RoboCop suit, which turns the original into sleek, stealthy, almost ninja-like armor. But while this new suit might look like it was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, especially when compared to the hulking chrome original, it presented a singular challenge for the makers of the film. How do you stay faithful to a classic, much beloved costume design when people’s ideas about what technology is capable of have completely changed?
First released in 1987, Paul Verhoeven’s original RoboCop was a movie very much of its time: a hyperviolent, razor-sharp satire of ’80s capitalism, media, and consumerism. Taking place in a dystopian Detroit, RoboCop was about a police officer brutally slaughtered by violent drug dealers. He was then recreated as a cyborg by Omni Consumer Products, a hostile mega-corp that acts like it sprang right out of Lee Iacocca’s rampaging id. Because the film took place in a near-future contemporaneous to the era in which it was made, the design of RoboCop reflected a lot of the design trends of 1987 technology: bulky, silver and boxy, he looks like a cyborg made by engineers who listened to Walkmen, not iPods, and drove Hondas, not Teslas.
For the remake, set in our near-future, director José Padilha felt that a new design was needed. Padilha turned to Martin Whist for help. A production designer who has previously worked on J.J. Abrams’s Super 8, Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield and the Joss Whedon-penned Cabin in the Woods, Whist was enlisted to come up with a new suit for RoboCop: one that was loyal to the original film, but looked like it was technology from 2014’s dystopian near-future, not 1987’s.
“It was really important to us to get the design right because we’re fans. It’s this iconic suit, but many of its elements would appear dated to the eyes of a contemporary audience coming to the franchise for the first time,” Whist says in an interview with Co.Design. “At a time when Apple sets the bar when it comes to design, we wanted to stress the sleekness of 21st-century design as contrasted to the boxy technology of the 1980s.”
The suit’s design even helped shape the film’s story. The new RoboCop includes three different suits (the original film has one). The first is a prototype, and it looks much like the costume from the original film, but is upgraded over time as the technology within the film advances. Why three? Padilla wanted to stay loyal to RoboCop’s beloved look, but also to include enough leeway for an updated design.
“For the Version 1 suit, we went with a design with the original color scheme and more rectilinear lines as a nod to the original suit,” Whist says. “There are markings on it that are direct lifts from the original design. In the story, this is Omni Consumer Product’s first stab at creating a fusion between the human, the robotic and the digital, so it starts out boxier, but throughout the film, it gets updated so that it becomes less funky and more streamlined and athletic.”
The upgraded suit is black, and looks much like a stealth bomber version of RoboCop, complete with a gleaming red visor. “It’s a suit that looks as efficient and tactile as possible, created by this company, which is a leader in cutting-edge military technology,” Whist says. It’s a sleeker, more dexterous design, which Whist says was inspired, in part, by real-world materials like graphene. “As technology advances, it becomes less physical,” he explains.
Once the designs were finalized, Whist and his team meticulously modeled the two suits on computers, then “grown” on high-definition 3-D printers. “Three-dimensional design was critical,” says Whist. “It allowed us to make sure that we were getting back exactly what we had envisioned.” Once the elements were printed out, Whist’s team handed them over to special effects company Legacy Effects to paint them and assemble into the final suit.
Although fans might balk at RoboCop’s new look, the 2014 version is actually more faithful to the original vision of its original designer, special effects master Rob Bottin, than what actually ended up on screen in 1987. In an interview released in the late 1980s, Bottin explained that RoboCop was originally designed to look “very speedy and aerodynamic,” until director Paul Verhoeven came onboard the project and the cyborg took on his famous tank-like bulkiness.
From that perspective, the 2014 RoboCop suit isn’t an update on a classic costume’s design. It’s actually a return to form.