Programmed to win

Programmed to win

‘Robocop’ hits all its moral targets with a fresh take on an old story 

By Carl Kozlowski 02/13/2014

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It would be easy to assume that this week’s “Robocop” reboot is just mindless trash eager to make a buck off of people’s fading memories of the original 1987 film of the same name. 

To my surprise, however, the new version is not only action-packed like the original (though considerably less graphic), but actually smart as well, packed with moral, ethical and philosophical quandaries that will keep audiences talking on the way home from the theater. Everything from using drones and robots for national security purposes to issues of artificial life support and how far to push it is addressed. 

Add in a thoughtful exploration of free will and the conscience, and what truly defines a human life — the body, the mind or the spirit — and you’ve got a film that stands out from the pack, one whose director must have really put some thought into it. 

Indeed, this “Robocop” is directed by the acclaimed Brazilian filmmaker Luis Padhila, who has built a decade-long career prior to this American debut on crafting films that explore violence and its consequences, such as the highly acclaimed documentary “Bus 174,” about a Brazilian hostage crisis that went seriously awry.

This story centers on a by-the-book cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) in 2028 Detroit. While in pursuit of an illegal gun-running gang, he is nearly killed by an explosion outside his house and winds up on life support. At the same time, a major industrialist named Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) has invented robots and drones that he hopes can take over security and national defense from humans.  
 
Sellars’ idea is a noble one: Humans will never again have to risk their lives in combat or police work. But the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to the idea, fearing robots won’t know how to assess complex situations or become susceptible to programming by evildoers. To sell the idea, Sellars needs a sympathetic and controllable robot. He realizes the answer might come by testing Alex Murphy as a hybrid of man and machine. 

The problem is this raises all sorts of questions. Is it fair to keep a man alive whose only genuinely functioning body parts are his face, brain, heart, lungs and one hand? And what makes a man truly a man? 

The original film was packed with lurid action and profanity, but had an interesting premise lurking beneath its R-rated surface. The irony is that our present reality — both in terms of what year we’re in, and the technology we have as a society — has practically caught up to the first film. Yet, as loaded with questions as this film is, what’s truly remarkable is that it doesn’t force any of its answers down the throats of viewers, leaving audiences with the excitement of thinking and arguing its points for themselves. 

And in a refreshing change from most reboots, where the new films are dumber than the originals, the new “Robocop” is actually a better and much smarter film than its predecessor. Padhila’s not exaggerating about the immense depth of his new film, which in a refreshing twist from the original has limited foul language and frequent yet non-graphic violence, making it a terrific film for teens and adults. It also has an ace cast with Joel Kinnaman of AMC’s “The Killing” as Robocop, and Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman and Abbie Cornish in support, in addition to Padhila’s crisp direction and its stunning script by Joshua Zetumer.  

Combining exciting action with a thrilling level of debatable issues, the new “Robocop” is a winner on all fronts. 

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