Shiny Yet Empty: A Review of the RoboCop Remake

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

While José Padilha’s update of RoboCop doesn’t attempt to replicate the satirical, violent tone of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, it’s ultimately a bland action movie that tries and fails to privilege its heart over all else. In the year 2028, multinational corporation OmniCorp supplies the U.S. military with “robot soldier” technology to fight conflicts overseas. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) wants to sell this technology to civilian law enforcement agencies within the United States, but public opinion, and the vague yet somehow ironclad Dreyfus Act, prevents him from doing so. Sellars tasks his marketing team and scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to create a new product that combines human and machine to sell the American public on robot technology and to find an incapacitated police officer to act as a prototype. After policeman Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is gravely injured by a car bomb planted by a notorious crime boss, OmniCorp convinces his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) to give consent for Alex to be their prototype and thus giving him a second chance at life. However, problems ensue when Alex’s human emotions resurface after he’s been outfitted with RoboCop body and software, threatening to ruin OmniCorp’s scheme as well as destroy Alex’s humanity.

It’s clear that Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer are most interested in the questions about humanity that lies at the center of RoboCop’s premise. Does a person require a human body to be human? Does the mechanization of an individual nullify any and all existing humanity? Do corporate interests always run counter to human concerns, especially if said corporation owns and treats you like a product? These were questions that ran through the original film as well, and while it’s admirable that Padilha and Zetumer want their version to pivot on this conflict, they dramatize it unsubtly and without any sense of style. Instead of visually communicating this crisis of humanity, the film relies on clunky, obvious writing to do the heavy lifting. At one point when Alex’s software is flooded with images of his traumatized son and distraught wife, RoboCop feels its necessary to redundantly explain that his emotions are overriding his programming by placing it in the mouth of a character. Like many Hollywood films in recent memory, RoboCop doesn’t trust its audience to come to fairly obvious conclusions on their own. It’s overwritten with explanatory, expositional dialogue that talks down to its audience and ultimately renders the direction inert.

RoboCop is also bogged down by standard-issue problems that keep recurring in big-budget Hollywood fare, specifically superhero films. It’s obsessed with all aspects of the creation and origin of RoboCop—the mechanized suit, the “science” behind all the technology, the intricate computerized interface—so much so that we barely even see RoboCop actually fight crime, the film just asks us to simply accept that he’s responsible for a drastic reduction in crime because a character tells us this. There are way too many characters, especially villains, to service that sketchy characterization is pretty much inevitable. The action moves locations so frequently that the film has to constantly remind us whether we’re in China or Detroit or the police station or OmniCorp headquarters. RoboCop also attempts to traffic in half-hearted, surface-level commentary on government drone programs—the film tries to connect “robot soldiers” with the current debate on the United States’ use of drones overseas—that just pales in comparison with the original’s satirical attack on capitalist greed and 1980’s consumerism.

However, by far the most disappointing part of RoboCop is its action scenes, which are dull and entirely unengaging. In a rote, poorly paced action film such as this, the very least it could do is provide some actual action, but instead the scenes when Alex fights robots, people, or crime are tedious and predictably staged. There are little stakes in any of the fight scenes because RoboCop never convinces us that Alex is in any actual danger whatsoever. It’s a shame that RoboCop drags the most during its fight scenes against one-dimensional villains simply because neither the director nor the writer tries to get the audience invested in them.

There are a couple bright spots here and there, such as Gary Oldman’s performance as Dr. Norton, which is based in grounded emotion as the character struggles with purposefully eroding Alex’s humanity for a faceless corporation, but RoboCop is ultimately content with being a mediocre, forgettable film that never engages its audience beyond the surface. Remakes have absolutely no obligation to be faithful to the source material, but the worst offense a remake can make, next to a cold duplication of the original, is not to have any point of view. RoboCop fails not because it doesn’t live up to the heights of the original, but because it has nothing new to say.


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