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Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 12:01 am

Not your father’s RoboCop

Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy in RoboCop.


When Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop burst onto screens in 1987 it caused a sensation, primarily because of its excessive violence but also because of its cutting edge special effects. It also played out as a right-wing fantasy in which law and order was dispensed with impunity, with the title character serving as judge, jury and at times, executioner, cleaning up the crime-ridden streets of Detroit with an efficiency that Rush Limbaugh and his ilk look back fondly on.

The new remake from director Jose Padilha (Bus 174) tones down the violence (a bit) and devotes much more time to the moral and political implications of melding man with machine, foreseeing a future in which it’s uncertain who has the upper hand – us or them. Obviously this is hardly a new concept; however, in the hands of screenwriter Joshua Zetumer, the film ends up being an unexpectedly intimate look at the loss of humanity in the name of scientific advancement.

In the near future, OmniCorp, a technology firm at the forefront of robotics, is on the verge of making grand social change. They’ve devised a drone that’s in use in Iran to help “keep the peace,” though intimidating the locals is far closer to the truth. As seen in an opening sequence that shows them cleaning up an uprising of insurgents with extreme prejudice, there’s no question they’re efficient and Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp, is eager to get them on the streets of America to help and eventually replace traditional police officers. With a potential revenue stream of $600 billion if this goes through, who can blame him? However, a law has been passed prohibiting this from happening. Robophobic citizens are afraid these machines lack humanity.

However, fate drops a sack of meat at Sellars’ feet in the form of police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who has been critically injured in the line of duty. There’s really not much left after the assassination attempt on him that was ordered by Detroit crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) but there’s enough for Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to integrate the man with a machine of his own making. The result is an automated cop with a touch of humanity that could pave the way for Sellars to reap the billions he craves. However, the cyborg must prove he’s worth the investment so he’s set loose to clean up Motor City and along the way, bring down those who wished to kill him.

To be sure, the film isn’t short on action and while at times it suffers from the modern tendency to edit everything together in a seizure-inducing flurry, overall the gun violence, bloodshed and pyrotechnics should satisfy the adrenaline junkies in the audience. Yet, there’s more at play here as Padilha focuses on Murphy’s emotional turmoil regarding his wife Clara (a strong Abbie Cornish) and their son David (John Paul Ruttan). Murphy’s guilt is palpable knowing that his zealous approach toward his job has made a normal family life impossible. But when Norton surgically alters his brain (during a gruesome open-skull procedure David Cronenberg would be proud to call his own) to eliminate almost all emotional responses, this casts Sellars and his crew as being far colder than the machine they’re manipulating.

The symbolism is obvious. Our consciousness being consumed by technology is the theme that drives the film. (Notice how Padilha’s camera circles characters in tech settings to underscore this.) Equally frightening is the reminder that our privacy is becoming more endangered each day. What with technology on all fronts having grown by leaps and bounds since the original’s release, what this Robocop can do is, without question, pretty cool but he’s also the embodiment of all the worst aspects of the Patriot Act. With access to all security cameras in the city, as well as phone records, arrest histories, outstanding warrants and everything the internet can provide, this metallic lawman is a worthy adversary that not only deters the criminal element but also stokes the paranoia of citizens, liberal and conservative, alike.

Though the film’s climax hinges on a plot development that springs more from wishful thinking than the movie’s internal logic, Robocop is a worthy update of Verhoeven’s original. It wisely takes that production’s premise and updates it to reflect geopolitical and domestic concerns in the post 9/11 world. That the film has a heart and conscience in this era of vacuous entertainment is some kind of miracle.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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