Alex Murphy has had a rough life, and it can’t be easy when your sequels keep going downhill… Check out our lineup of the RoboCop movies, ranked worst to best to see what we mean.
The original RoboCop celebrated its 35th anniversary this year, coming to fans after trials, tribulations, nearly running out of money, and the fact that many who worked on the film laughed at the title. Still, the movie remained stalwart and delivered sci-fi action like no other. The tale of Alex Murphy: one good cop in a sea of corruption, who became part man and part machine, dealing out all the justice, created the spark of a legendary franchise.
This was a series about an uncomfortable dystopian future that showed the price of big business and unchecked capitalistic greed, a world rich in satire and violence, while balancing the themes of good versus evil, the corruption of power, and man against machine. RoboCop was a hero who deserved better over the years.
His legacy became about toys, action figures, cartoons, video games, and cameo appearances during wrestling shows. The more RoboCop there was, the weaker the message became. Even as the stories and characters began to feel watered-down, fans were eager for more of their chrome-plated hero. We’re so eager to discuss his movies, in fact, that we’re counting the televised mini-series as one, just so we have more than four entries to discuss some of Robo’s work.
Now, let's get into our rundown of the RoboCop movies, ranked worst to best. Come quietly, or there will be trouble.
5. RoboCop: Prime Directives (2001)
- Release date: July 16, 2001
- Cast: Page Fletcher, Maurice Dean Wint, Maria del Mar
Prime Directives never received a theatrical release and it wasn’t deserving of one, but this little expedition into Delta City gave fans a collected extra six plus hours of RoboCop. The television mini-series aired as four films that ignored much of the two previous sequel outings, but sought to bring some of that grit back that fans loved about the original. Robo must deal with new enemies, more corrupt businessmen, an evil AI, his son being a part of OCP, and an upgraded model with two pistols that is looking to put him out to pasture. It’s an ambitious journey for the character that attempts to capture some of that old spark while adding new thematic layers, but it’s a project that doesn’t stick the landing.
It’s odd to say that a story and characters needed more time to breathe, and then also point out that a series meanders, but both things are true here. These ideas and new additions aren’t bad, but they should have focused more and trimmed the unneeded scenes in weaker areas. Acting-wise, no one is horrible, but there are bad moments.
Page Fletcher, who portrays Robo this time around, does a decent job, but he feels like someone else’s shorter, stranger version of the hero. He shines the most while playing Alex Murphy in flashbacks, however, and some of the sillier moments aren’t his fault, but have to do with the budget and costuming decisions. At times, the action and visuals are good, but it isn’t too consistent where quality is concerned.
Most fans will want to ignore this entry. Prime Directives is arguably worse than the live-action television show from 1994, but for those who just want more RoboCop, the four films are almost a must. At least it attempted to give Murphy a happier ending.
4. RoboCop 3 (1993)
- Release date: November 5, 1993
- Cast: Robert John Burke, Nancy Allen, Mario Machado
It’s usually not fair to point at a single movie as the one that ruined a franchise, but it’s understandable in the case of RoboCop 3. Even though the studio brought in a solid director for the time, Fred Dekker, and a comics legend in the form of Frank Miller to co-write the script, something went horribly wrong early on in this one, as the studio crumbled financially alongside the project.
RoboCop was becoming more popular with younger audiences and his cartoons and merchandising most likely made those calling the shots believe they needed to get more families in the theaters watching their metal-clad hero, which led to the franchise’s first PG-13 rating. The familiar violence, any signs of nudity, and some of the overall bite felt absent from the film, while a younger kid sidekick character entered the spotlight.
On top of that major tonal problem, the original actor who played RoboCop faced a scheduling conflict and would be replaced by Robert Burke. It wasn’t so much that the rookie was bad in the role, but he had some bulky metal boots to fill, and Murphy’s longtime partner, Officer Anne Lewis, once again played by Nancy Allen, is killed off in a lackluster fashion early in the movie. It feels like his partner’s death was supposed to be an incredible motivator within the story, but comes across as more of a robotic whimper.
The rest of the plot revolves around OCP trying to forcibly relocate citizens, a resistance group, and a child hacker who makes dispatching major foes look a little too easy. RoboCop 3 did throw in two things that every young viewer should have loved, robot ninja enemies and a jetpack, but not even those could help this third installment get off of the ground. This one is only slightly better than Prime Directives and that is mostly because of the shorter length.
3. RoboCop (2014)
- Release date: February 12, 2014
- Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton
There’s no way that this film ever gets away from the extra baggage of being a reboot of a beloved classic. No matter what good it accomplished, that fact will always weigh it down. This reimagining of RoboCop takes so much from the original but cannot seem to reproduce it in the same way, while also not fully realizing the new ideas and concepts it wants to add to the man versus machine scenario.
The movie had the chance of truly updating the story or adding layers to the conflict, but it instead backs down from pushing any boundaries and stifles its own evolution. Had RoboCop (2014) been a bit more daring or even just narrowed its focus, audiences could have seen another truly great RoboCop story, but instead, this re-tooled shell made itself bland and forgettable.
The true crime was how much wasted potential was on display. Most of that comes from the cast, all of whom were fantastic with what they were given, when the actors weren’t forced to squeeze in key lines from the first film. Even the new Robo, Joel Kinnaman, has a few moments where he seems like a solid choice to play the cyborg, but his Alex Murphy is almost completely emotionless and unmoved before the accident, so that’s no surprise. There are excellent visuals at some points as well as a couple of entertaining action sequences, but the film takes its time getting there.
This remake was already outdated when it rolled off the assembly line, because there was no way for it to find the soul in the machine the original had. It couldn’t match the satire, sadistic humor, or even the gore with its PG-13 rating, all while being unable to reach out and do something new or different enough to truly separate the movie and gain a new audience. One of the few things worse than being offensively bad is to be safe and boring.
2. RoboCop 2 (1990)
- Release date: June 22, 1990
- Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Belinda Bauer
It’s always hard for the sequel to surpass an original, and many times when it does happen it takes years to be noticed. This is not to say that RoboCop 2 is a better film than its predecessor, but that it comes so close to achieving that status. At the end of the day, it isn’t as tight of a story, there are some odd pacing choices, and a little studio interference probably hurt more than most realize.
For some viewers, however, much like Aliens is the more exciting version of Alien, RoboCop 2 isn’t weighed down by its need for an origin story and jumps right into the already established playground. In some cases, it might be nostalgia or simple preference, but there are RoboCop fans that hold this entry right up there with the first, and for good reason.
This plot continues with the corruption of OCP and their plan to control Detroit and build the city of the future. The story does a good job of showing why RoboCop hasn’t just been able to clean up the streets the way he wants to and introduces the war on drugs, with Nuke. Part two also gives us a better secondary villain and it keeps the violence and solid action for the most part. Tom Noonan is incredibly entertaining as Cain and his transformation helps build to an exciting final battle, but maybe the company shouldn’t have called him RoboCop 2. Smaller side characters are explored well here, and the kid crime lord, Hob, is remembered as one of the best uses of a child actor and perhaps the most touching death scene in the series.
On top of all those elements, we also get more scenes showing the chemistry between Robo and Anne Lewis, as well as diving deeper into Murphy’s character while he still contends with his former humanity, as well as his wants and needs, showing that Weller seems more comfortable in the role this time around. Although the sequel didn’t match the tone exactly, what it develops is fantastic, keeping hold of the biting satire and delivering jarring commercials, like the Sun Block 5000. It isn’t better, but the argument is there for RoboCop 2 being just as good.
1. RoboCop (1987)
- Release date: July 17, 1987
- Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy
It’d be tough to put anything else at the top of this list. While this iconic movie is the the origin story for our cyborg hero, it’s almost a miracle that RoboCop was even made. Looking into all of the pains the production crew went through with locations, stunts, actors, props, and finances, there were several times this classic movie almost died on the operating table. It was even deemed too violent at first – one of its shining attributes – and risked the dreaded X-rating before a few key bits were removed, and thankfully, added back in later. Once RoboCop rolled off the assembly line though, its momentum could barely be slowed.
Much of the praise belongs to the director, Paul Verhoeven, who came across as a mad genius putting this together, while the memorable commercials came about because of scheduling conflicts and other juggling acts on the developmental side. At the same time, for as much trouble as Peter Weller, the actor who helped define Robo, was to work with apparently, he gave the character a life that no one has been able to duplicate.
The movie also offered us some incredible villains, memorable violence, scathing commentary that still holds up in many ways, and many of the effects and actions scenes are just top-notch. There may be some signs of aging, but it isn’t hard to see why so many claim that the original still holds up and stands above all the imitators.
RoboCop left a legacy, one not easily matched. No matter what changes in the various incarnations that came afterward, he remains the constant, while companies try to reproduce his greatness and fans wait patiently for Murphy to patrol the streets once again. This icon may be a little old and tarnished in the eyes of some, but as long as there is a desire for stories about justice in a dystopian world, there’s a place for RoboCop.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Stephen Wilds is a freelance entertainment writer whose work you'll see pop up in various entities (Looper, Polygon, Coming Soon, Playboy). When he's not writing about sci-fi shows, you can usually find him struggling with commas, broken controllers, and nightmares of Borg invasions. Wilds earned a BA in English Lit, but his real education came from the Sci-Fi channel in the early morning hours when all the really bad shows aired.