Film Review: RoboCop

A high-octane yet lifeless remake that delivers a standard-issue superhero origin story embellished with superficial social commentary and bloodless CG action.

Director José Padilha’s reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 genre classic RoboCop is a dull do-over that ditches most of its source material’s sharp social satire by reimagining its tale in more traditional superhero-style fashion. Verhoeven’s original adhered to comic-book traditions while also slyly skewering them (and their fascistic Dirty Harry fantasies of lone-man justice) through over-the-top violence, sexuality and comedy. Padilha’s version, however, is merely a straight-faced, standard-issue saga of a good cop learning to come to terms with his newfound mecha-abilities.

After a horrific car bombing in 2028 leaves officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman of “The Killing”) all but dead, multinational titan OmniCorp converts him into a crime-fighting cyborg that they hope will sway public opinion enough to repeal a law that bans robotic military hardware from patrolling American streets. That restriction is championed by liberal lawmaker Senator Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier), who wonders why robots should be able to take a human life when they feel no human emotion—a failing that OmniCorp president Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) attempts to rectify via Murphy, who’s created by Sellars’ kind-hearted Doctor Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) as a do-gooder with the skills of a machine but the conscience of a flesh-and-blood man.

Working from Joshua Zetumer’s script, Padilha equates OmniCorp’s robot peacekeeping products with America’s current drone program; that theme, as well as clips of Fox News-ish conservative TV blowhard Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) admonishing the country’s anti-robot crusaders, prove to be satirical topics of only passing concern to RoboCop. Whereas its predecessor used its tale to amusingly critique the growing influence (and nasty consequences) of the military-industrial complex and its infiltration into public services, Padilha’s update lacks almost any humorous incisiveness, and ignores completely the subject of escalating urban collapse, for a plethora of wan familial drama involving Murphy’s awkward rapport with wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and their son, as well as regular doses of bloodless, computer-generated mayhem. Still, while training-session and real-world shootouts are of a hyper-kinetic, visually incoherent shaky-cam variety, at least the director elicits some early chills from the haunting sight of Murphy watching his new exoskeleton disassemble before his eyes, revealing a head, lungs, heart and hand to be the only remnants of his former, fully organic self.

Kinnaman has a scruffy, streetwise toughness and sexuality to him that makes RoboCop’s fits of fury seem natural. Yet by depicting its cyborg protagonist as fundamentally human from the outset, the film saps the character of any true transformative arc. Similarly, though Murphy and Norton share an empathetic surrogate father-son relationship, that dynamic is ultimately in service of a plot that becomes sloppier the further it proceeds, culminating in a finale that hinges on a twist—borrowed from Verhoeven’s original—that’s both abruptly introduced and then illogically and unbelievably resolved. Lacking Verhoeven’s underlying spoof of the commercialization of warfare (something presented as both absurd and terrifying), this RoboCop increasingly comes to operate as merely a variation on countless recent comic-book adaptations, with its hero slowly but surely coming to learn how to harness his amazing powers for good. Designed to be the story of the human element triumphing over corporate programming, it instead proves to be merely the latest assembly-line Hollywood offering that’s all CGI, no soul.