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The first apparent change between the original and its reboot is the replacement of a sly grin with a thoughtful frown, the kind that an academic might sprout while working on a paper tiled Heavy Metal: Geopolitics, animatronics and family values in José Padilha’s RoboCop.

The wicked wit that marked Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop survives only in Samuel L. Jackson’s ultra-conservative television show host, whose enthusiastic cheer-leading of a corporation-backed proposal to replace police officers with robots to ensure better public safety is delivered with an unmistakeable twinkle. Otherwise, Padhila’s version of the movie that spawned a profitable franchise, including two sequels, takes very seriously its central question—you can make a machine out of a man but can you take the man out of the machine?

Joel Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish in a still from ‘RoboCop’
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Joel Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish in a still from ‘RoboCop’

The dystopian future imagined in 1987, in which a nuclear holocaust is the theme of a video game, is gone, but the anti-corporation feeling survives the reboot and is now embodied by Michael Keaton’s slimy Sellars, who persuades his chief scientist (Gary Oldman) to alter his research and make a robot out of Murphy. The ethical issue of scientific intervention in law and order is replaced by another interesting, but under-explored idea: can technology come to the aid of the severely disabled? That question is stoked in a scene in which a hand-less musician is given a pair of robotic appendages to help him play the guitar again, but is soon forgotten, just as is the early hand-wringing about American military intervention in foreign countries.

This is a film that relies heavily on family values to complain about a technology that could ensure the protection of the basic social unit, which deploys technological progress in special effects to protest dehumanisation, relies on video game technology—inspired action sequences to leaven its sombre tone, and cautions us about nasty corporations while inviting us to gawk at their seductive slickness. In the middle of the muddle are well-judged performances, richly atmospheric cinematography, attractive production design, and further proof that advances in computer-generated imagery tend to make human beings redundant.

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