‘Robocop’ sci-fi with a message — but will it be heard?

Movie: Robocop; Director: Jose Padhila; Studio: Sony Pictures Releasing; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 3 out of 5 stars.

While lacking some of the gore and blood-drenched fun of the original 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed original, this remake is surprisingly good relative to other remakes of classic science fiction and on its own merits.

The original film was submitted and resubmitted to the ratings board over and over to get that coveted “R” rating instead of the nearly lethal “X” rating its original violence had in store. But this “PG-13” remake takes a different approach to telling its story of thankfully still very fictional trans-humanism and the never-more-real-than-now battle between liberty and security.

And that’s what good science fiction is supposed to do.

Good science fiction, which the original was, cloaks a message on the times we live in by basing its story often in a seemingly distant future and by veiling its inspirations in metaphors.

The year is 2028, a mere 14 years in the future, and what are now drone strikes in the Middle Eastern desert have become full-scale deployments of robot taskforces designed to patrol the streets of war-torn cities like Tehran, as we learn from an unbelievably excellent opening scene.

In the scene, Samuel L. Jackson plays a take on a right-wing news commentator who values safety and iron rule over personal freedom and civil liberties. The way he talks is compelling, he’s charismatic and ideological and his show, the “The Novak Element,” is extremely high-budget. His show is seen time and again to comment on the developments in play.

“Why is America so Robophobic?” Novak asks his audience, later on asking if the U.S. Senate has become pro-crime, largely just because they don’t see fighting crime in the same way he does.

Novak wants the U.S. to bring these robots home to its own urban streets, particularly cities like Detroit (which seems to have experienced a resurgence in population and influence in the 14 years between now and then), but the government is holding back the plan in favor of civil rights and due process.

Cue Alex Murphy and his partner, who roam the streets of Detroit making undercover weapons deals and drug busts while looking very much the part. They’re the good guys, but local crime lord Antoine Vallon seems to have an inside track into the Detroit PD’s evidence locker with some new “clean” high-powered weapons on the street.

As always, when dealing with crooked cops in the movies, death and destruction for the do-gooders isn’t too far around the corner.

And when Murphy is very nearly killed in an explosion, powerful Omnicorp president Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) thinks Murphy is the perfect candidate to be rebuilt with heavy prosthetics and supercomputers. The goal is to create a cyborg to test out a robot policeman and possibly greenlight the prospect of bringing Omnicorp’s security bots stateside.

To do this is Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman), a kindly doctor working under Omnicorp’s umbrella in the design of extremely complex and beneficial prosthetics.

And there’s the moral dilemma.

As (the few remaining parts) of Murphy are brought back, the debate of trans-humanism comes to the forefront. Does a largely robotic person have any human rights? Or is he property of a seemingly benevolent corporation who foots the bill in bringing him back the only way they can?

Norton feels for the human side, but Sellars sees profit.

The plot is basically the same as the original and that’s all well and good. But whereas the original felt like a violent satire of American urban life, this reboot feels much more serious and the film may be the less for it. If it weren’t for Jackson’s character lightening the message of humanity and restraint, the movie would be much less.

But he isn’t the only great performance.

It’s a crime against the filmgoing audience that Michael Keaton,

with all his boundless energy, isn’t seen more on screen. He’s very unlike the corporate overlord in the original film. You really feel that he intends good things with his products and vision – but he gets so sucked up into that vision that he can’t see anything else, and has lost his humanity for it.

It’s the opposing forces between the good but weak Dr. Norton and the conniving robot tactician Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) that inform Keaton’s Omnicorp CEO. And because there are greater dollars and global brand dominance in Mattox’s advice, he tends to go in that direction, despite Mattox obviously being a petty man.

There is fun to be had here with well-choreographed action sequences, and there is a message to be learned, but only if you want to accept it.

When Novak closes out the film in his final scene, he says some pretty despicable things about the state of American domestic and foreign policy with a giant American flag waving behind him, and then says that America is the greatest and will always be the greatest country in the world. He’s obviously trying to elicit some deeper thought into what we as a nation would actually like our legacy to be. But at least one man in the audience ignored the context and shouted out “Hell, yeah!”

And, with a movie with very little subtlety behind it in imparting its message, it left me a little sad that it hadn’t been heard.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)