In 2018, Steven Spielberg made his long-awaited return to action blockbusters that weren’t based in the world of Tintin with Ready Player One. This CG-heavy explosion of pop culture references was a far cry from the kind of movies Spielberg primarily helmed throughout the 2010s. Throughout this chapter of his career, Spielberg went into “Dad Mode” to direct superb period piece dramas like Lincoln or Bridge of Spies. They were thoughtful titles that demonstrated Spielberg’s mastery over this genre. However, Ready Player One showed that the filmmaker was also hankering for something a little more lighthearted and escapist.
Interestingly, the man behind Jaws didn’t always plan on fulfilling that need with Ready Player One. Just a few years prior, a different film adaptation of a modern science-fiction novel was preparing to return this filmmaker to the domain of big-budget thrillers. That project was Robopocalypse, one of the costliest Spielberg directorial efforts to never see the light of day.
First published in June 2011 by author Daniel H. Wilson, Robopocalypse was a book that chronicled human survivors of a robot apocalypse taking a final stand against their mechanical enemy, who are led by an A.I. system named Archos that was created by human scientists. The text didn’t exactly become a household name, but it’s easy to see how the basic concept would seem like an appealing floorplan for a big-budget blockbuster. Plus, it carried over several details that correlated with Spielberg’s interests in sci-fi entertainment.
After all, Spielberg had explored the world of robotics with A.I.: Artificial Intelligence at the start of the century while his early 2000s efforts like Minority Report and War of the Worlds showed that Spielberg was more than comfortable handling bleak visions of sci-fi storytelling. Even the rise of robots overthrowing humanity occurring because a scientist just wanted to explore the potential of robotics feels reminiscent of the tragic obliviousness that informed the creation of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
With all these familiar ingredients on the table, Robopocalypse not only fit the bill as material that could be adapted into a big sci-fi action extravaganza but, like Ready Player One, it could harken back to earlier periods of Spielberg’s filmography. It also didn’t hurt that Robopocalypse also filled a need for Spielberg’s film company DreamWorks. Spielberg signed on to direct this project just four months into Disney’s Touchstone Pictures division kicking off a long-term distribution agreement with DreamWorks with the release of I Am Number Four. Everyone at the Mouse House would have just been overjoyed for one of the initial DreamWorks titles to be not just a Spielberg movie but a Spielberg blockbuster.
Through making Robopocalypse, Spielberg could hit a lot of birds with just one stone. Thus, work began promptly on the title. Soon, a 2014 release date was snagged for the film while 20th Century Fox came on board as co-financier and international distributor. By the end of 2012, a pair of big names were even snagged to star in the project. Chris Hemsworth and Anne Hathaway were attached to headline the film. This was a major get for the production that, much like snagging Tom Cruise for War of the Worlds years earlier, ensured that Spielberg wouldn’t be the only famous name on the poster enticing moviegoers to come to the theater.
With financing all lined up and principal cast members assembled, all looked well for this feature once set for an April 2014 debut. Then, in January 2013, it all came crashing down. News broke that Spielberg was putting Robopocalypse on hold, with the director’s spokesperson attributing the delay to concerns over the quality of the screenplay. No further explanations were given for why a project that had been humming along was suddenly no more. However, the same month this project sputtered out, The Hollywood Reporter observed how a clip from a 60 Minutes interview with Spielberg saw the filmmaker noting how he could do an action film “in his sleep.” Had boredom with the blockbuster genre caused Robopocalypse to abruptly vanish?
Whatever the reason for its demise, it quickly became apparent Robopocalypse wasn’t likely to get revived anytime soon. Though Spielberg said shortly after the initial news of the project’s demise that the delay would only be for “six or eight” months, 2013 came and went without any major updates on Robopocalypse. In the spring of 2014, Variety reported that Robopocalypse was one of a handful of potential projects Spielberg was keen to direct next, but they all eventually got pushed aside for Bridge of Spies. By 2015, concept art for the film leaked online, an indicator that it was well and truly dead.
Not helping matters was that one of the impetus’s for Robopocalypse to even exist, to provide a surefire blockbuster for the new Disney/DreamWorks distribution partnership, was no longer a factor. Initial grand plans for the Disney and DreamWorks union were scaled back drastically to two movies a year starting in 2012 and by 2015, the deal had dissolved entirely. It’s not like nobody in Hollywood would want a Spielberg-directed blockbuster about robots attacking humanity. However, with the specific studio-based circumstances making Robopocalypse look extra appetizing now wiped out, there was even less of a reason for Spielberg to hurry up and make this adaptation.
By 2018, Spielberg’s version of Robopocalypse was officially shelved once it was announced that the project had been passed on to director Michael Bay, a filmmaker Spielberg had worked with on the original Transformers movies. With his extensive experience in bringing CG robots to life and connections to Spielberg, Bay was an obvious choice to tackle the project. However, even this director shift hasn’t led to Robopocalypse getting a new lease on life, with no further updates emerging on this iteration of the production as Bay has opted to focus his time on 6 Underground and Ambulance instead.
Though Robopocalypse never came to fruition, that doesn’t mean it didn’t influence the career trajectories of its creative participants. For one thing, this was the film that established a relationship between Robopocalypse screenwriter Drew Goddard and 20th Century Fox. In the years since this film failed to get off the ground, Goddard worked for the studio as a screenwriter on The Martian as well as a writer/director on Bad Times at the El Royale. It’s hard to imagine those collaborations being possible without Goddard first connecting with Fox through Robopocalypse.
Speaking of Fox, Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson sold the film rights to another one of his novels, Automatic, to that very same studio in 2015, presumably building upon the relationship he’d developed with them through working on that now-defunct Spielberg movie. Two years later, Fox would once again show its interest in Wilson’s work by picking up the film rights to his tome The Clockwork Dynasty. Several years after Robopocalypse was supposed to hit theaters, that film’s co-financier was still pursuing big-budget movie adaptations of Wilson’s sci-fi works.
As for Spielberg, committing to this project established his desire to create a blockbuster that could simultaneously explore how technology, an everyday component of the modern world, could adversely impact humanity as well as provide a throwback to his days as a filmmaker who regularly cranked out beloved blockbusters. Eventually, Spielberg would fulfill this creative itch by embarking on Ready Player One, which turned into a worldwide box office hit. But in some alternate timeline, Spielberg’s big return to being the granddaddy of blockbusters came instead through an adaptation of Robopocalypse.
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