This year there were not one, but two science fiction works involving a future society with robot policeman. The FOX television program Almost Human was cancelled in April after a 13 episode first series that followed the cases of a human cop and his android partner. The typical conflicts of ‘mismatched’ partners were augmented by Dorian, the android partner, being one of a model that was decommissioned for reasons that the show only hinted at in the first season.
Aside from the new technology and how it affected the city where the show took place, Almost Human had the larger stories that are almost expected in American television these days. Regrettably, the 13 episodes aired managed to just raise a bunch of meaty policy questions around technology, law enforcement, and notions of self and justice. Certainly it’s the first purpose of television programs to entertain (even the news), but a frustration I had watching the program was seeing a host of interesting scientific and technological changes influence this world, with little effort to dive into them.
Back in February an update/reboot of the 1987 film Robocop premiered to some interest, but less box office pull. Like the first film, this movie follows Alex Murphy, a policeman who suffers a serious accident in a crime, and is converted into a cyborg. In both films Murphy’s new technology allows him to function as an incredibly efficient (if overzealous) cop and each film explores how much of Murphy remains human. There is also an element of social satire – primarily about corporations – in each film. The later film is much more muted in this than the original, perhaps because of how the 2014 film globalizes aspects of the plot in ways that recognize the broader world of the film (and today) but undercut the tension of introducing military-grade technology into a civilian setting. Had the film came out closer to this summer’s unrest in Ferguson, Missouri (arguably escalated in part due to the presence of military grade hardware used by the police), perhaps this year’s Robocop would have garnered more interest.
One major difference between the two Robocop films is this year’s version included two scientists as notable characters in the film. This allowed for one character’s arc to focus on the consequences of scientific research, and its impact on the humans affected by it (directly and otherwise). That Gary Oldman plays the main scientist makes it easier to watch.
Arguably the 2014 film is well-cast, and well-acted. But it lacks the broad social satire of its predecessor, pulling punches in places about the motivations of businesses seeking to ‘help’ law enforcement with their products. To be sure, it’s fair to consider some of the 1987 film cartoonish – especially 27 years later. But sometimes satire needs to be outrageous – either in tone or in difference from the ordinary – to effectively make the point.
As entertainments, both Robocops and Almost Human certainly have their flaws. But each provide ample opportunity to take the scientific and technological leaps presented and explore how they might affect the societies that use them. They are certainly worth exploring from that perspective. But if you’re looking for something to while away a few hours with some popcorn and beverages, seek out the 1987 Robocop. It’s not for the squeamish, but it still grabs you and takes you for a ride.