Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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It’s been 400 years since a virus wiped out most of the planet. All that’s remains is a small walled-in community of sorts Bregna run by the Goodchild Regime. Most of the citizens have no choice but to put up with their quasi-Totalitarianism. But Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) a top operative of the underground Monican rebellion has had enough and seeks revenge on the government she believes destroyed her life. At the behest of the Handler (Frances McDormand) who gives out the orders to the few do-gooders of Bregna she aims to sabotage the Regime. Little does Aeon know however that there is already unrest within the Goodchild clan between brothers Trevor (Marton Csokas) and Oren (Jonny Lee Miller). When Aeon arrives to carry out her revenge she unlocks a number of secrets and finds out who’s really on her side. There are a heap of objectionable themes in Aeon Flux but the real shame is that these actors willingly took part in this film. Granted Theron looks stunning steely and sultry all at once but we thought her Monster Oscar would afford her more meaningful roles so her looks wouldn’t be the focal point. Her acting is hard to gauge here because her stark beauty is accentuated. It’s a step back for her even if taking the role must have padded her wallet. McDormand--who was so good just months ago in North Country with Theron--looks like Tim Burton’s twin sister in Flux with her outlandish makeover. It is only slightly more ridiculous than the robot-like character she’s supposed to be playing. And Sophie Okonedo who plays Aeon’s partner-in-crime is worthy of praise but after her Oscar-nominated performance in Hotel Rwanda you have to wonder what made her do Flux. Aeon Flux just might do in director Karyn Kusama whose only other credit is the 2000 indie darling Girlfight. Most directors work a lifetime to get a big-budget monster like this but unfortunately for Kusama she can’t quite carry the torch. The film looks like Tomb Raider’s jealous younger sibling who still has much to learn. There’s non-stop action in exotic locales smoldering lead actress in skin-tight wardrobes etc. but it leaves you feeling dizzy more than anything else especially since the death-defying action is constantly cutting back and forth between Theron and her stunt double. And everything is only grossly accentuated by awful dialogue that sounds like a satire of an over-acted heavy drama. The film’s set design is spectacularly elaborate and breathtaking but it unfortunately can’t redeem the rest of the film.