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Solo falls completely flat in android-movie doldrums

Solo

Directed by Norberto Barba.

Starring Mario Van Peebles, Barry Corbin, Jaime Gomez, and William Sadler.

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

He's pumped, he's primed, he's ready for carnage: Meet Solo, the government's latest weapon in the war on evil. And get ready for the worst android movie ever.

The film starts out promisingly enough - a new ultra-expensive military project, an android named Solo (Mario Van Peebles), is sent out on his first mission to destroy a rebel group in South America that has been terrorizing the locals. There, despite his preparedness for the mission, he fails on his assignment because he has been programmed not to endanger the lives of noncombatants. The evil military brass in charge of the Solo project headed by Colonel Madden (William Sadler), decides this is unacceptable and, against the wishes of Solo's creator, Gen X hacker Bill Stewart (Adrien Brody) decides to deconstruct Solo and have him reprogrammed. Solo learns of this plot and because self-preservation is his prime directive, he is forced to flee the army base in a daring escape sequence. He literally crashes into a small village in an unnamed South American country, the same one where he had earlier been sent to.

Up until this point, the movie is fairly awash in the clichs of the genre - the evil military leader - as well as his sidekick, the bumbling General Haynes (Barry Corbin) - is an unsmiling, unblinking, short-fused tyrant, showing perhaps a touch more humanity than the android itself. And Solo has a Terminator-like computerized view of the world, although, in this case, one so primitive it seems straight out of Windows '95. And, as androids always do, he grapples (with little success) with the concept of humanity throughout the movie, especially with the touchy subject of humor.

Solo takes an unexpected turn, however, after he meets with the natives. For a week he stays with them, and the movie slows down as it shows us the mutual friendship that grows between them. Solo teaches them how to defend against the rebels, and they do. Some of the scenes here in which the villagers' suspicions are slowly broken down are touching, in a manipulative kind of way.

The military, still set to get its android back soon realizes that human forces are no match for this man of steel and sends out (you guessed it) another android to finally put an end to Solo, this one reprogrammed to lack the pangs of conscience that Solo was mistakenly equipped with. In a bizarre decision by the filmmakers, this second cyborg is an exact duplicate of Madden. Obviously meant to achieve an ironic doppelganger effect, this double casting technique falls flat because Sadler plays both with the exact same lack of humanity.

At this point, the film devolves into your typical one-on-one duel between good and evil (think Universal Soldier or Terminator II), pitting the second android's ruthless intensity against Solo's newfound capacity for creative thought.

The best part of Solo is undoubtedly Peebles himself, who also helped to produce the film. He is believable and physically imposing, a credit to his months of physical training for the part. He plays the part honestly, partly a credit to the screenplay, and manages to elicit sympathy without giving up credibility as a silicon-based life form. Solo shows concern without actually reciprocating the love the villagers have for him, most notably when he ignores the advances of an amorous teenage girl from the village (Seidy Lopez).

Solo never really takes advantage of its heavily technological premise; even the final battle amounts to not much more than a well-choreographed kickboxing match. And the one fatal weakness in Solo's otherwise indestructible armor, pointed out early on, is never exploited.

But the big flaw in the movie, the one that really renders it a waste of an evening, is that we are never given an opportunity to care about the characters or their struggle. The central villains are the nasty military commanders, but other than the fact that they scowl a lot, what reason do we have to hate them? Solo is, after all, their rightful property. True, they show little regard for the lives of the South American civilians they are jeopardizing, but then again, they represent the U.S. government and presumably know what they are doing. We are never made to feel the pain of the villagers at their hands.

In the end, we are treated to a climactic death struggle between one ultra-powerful military machine and another, with the only difference between them one of priorities with which they were programmed. Even the future of the army's android program will remain unaffected by the outcome, all of which forces the question: Why should we care who wins this battle?

And the answer is, we don't. In the end, Solo is done in because its motivations and plot seem as machine-generated as its title character.