io9’s Meredith Woerner sat down for an interview with José Padilha about his remake with Robocop, and when she asked him if the fear of crime in Detroit that was the animating anxiety of the original was still relevant today, she got a revealing answer. Padilha explained that, living in Rio, he’s still personally quite anxious about crime, but in the movie, he wants to get at a different fear: the anxieties about drones that have been a major feature of this summer’s action movies. But, Padilha explains, he wants to look at how those drones might be used at home, rather than overseas:
I think we are afraid of drones. I think more and more drones are being used in wars and there is a host of consequences by the use of drones. You can kill people from far away, without running any risks. And we’re going to take a step beyond drones. Because we’re eventually going to run into autonomous drones, which means drones don’t even have people piloting them — they’re just complex software, running the machine. They’re like, let’s say, Terminator. And waging war or enacting law enforcement and when that happens everything changes because you no longer have accountability. If a cop pulls the trigger, because a cop is a human being you can question his choice. You can say “you made a mistake.” When a drone pulls the trigger and makes a mistake, whose fault is it? Is it the drone’s fault? Is it the guy who built the drone’s fault? Is it the cops that put the drone out there? Is it the software designers? Accountability goes out of the window. And that opens a lot of questions. We should be worried about that. I am.
A plot detail before we dig into this, because there’s a lot there. Padilha told io9 that in his movie, drones would have been outlawed in the United States, but as a way to keep their profits up and circumvent the ban, drone manufacturers would have moved towards building robotic suits, combining the software sophistication and hardware lethality of a drone with the judgement of a person, much like the fantasy of a drone with a conscience that could avoid killing civilians that was all over Iron Man 3.
The scenario that Padilha’s set up here is fascinating, and, given that he’s coming from Rio and shot the film in Canada, maybe even more timely and cutting for American audiences than he anticipates. When he says that “If a cop pulls the trigger, because a cop is a human being you can question his choice,” that’s actually a statement that would sound quite optimistic to many Americans.
George Zimmerman’s trial in the shooting death in Trayvon Martin revealed to many people who might not have understood otherwise, that in many states, the law is tilted to make it extraordinarily difficult to impose consequences on people who shoot other people and claim self-defense: those of us on the outside could question Zimmerman’s judgement every step of the way, but that doesn’t mean we could actually do anything about it, or that the jury could find him guilty in a way that might ripple outward to affect the decision-making of other gun owners. And even in the absence of Stand Your Ground laws of the kind that helped acquit Zimmerman, who was, after all, a night watchman rather than an actual law enforcement officer, having the status of a police officer makes it extremely difficult for anyone to effectively question your judgement, even when someone else ends up dead. All four of the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant who was just reaching for his wallet, in 1999 were acquitted. In 2006, when Sean Bell was shot to death in Queens the day before his wedding, by uniformed and undercover police officers who fired more than fifty shots, three of those five men went on trial, and all of them were found not guilty. When Oscar Grant was shot to death on a BART platform on New Year’s Day 2009, Officer Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who shot him, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but not of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter: Mehserle maintained that he’d intended to use his Taser instead.
In other words, the idea that we’d add theoretically infallible technology to bolster the credibility of a police force to which our society already extends a worrisome amount of deference, isn’t a nightmare Padilha’s dreamed up out of the whole cloth: it hits all too close to home. And I’ll be fascinated to see a Robocop movie that acts sort of like an interim step towards the dystopia from 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd comics, but where the differentiating factor is technology, rather than a coup by the Justice Department that gave police officers absolute discretion.
Dredd almost certainly didn’t get the audience it deserved in theaters last year, but I do think that the filmmakers might have had a more relevant movie if they’d chosen a different scenario, or picked a different story from the Dredd canon. Setting up a scenario where an extremely violent (and I’d note female) drug lord with the nasty habit of skinning her enemies has taken over an entire, enormous apartment building and put a bounty on the heads of the two cops trapped inside it is a scenario where even I’d be inclined to cut the cops in question an awful lock of slack in a court of law. But picking a case where Judge Dredd and Judge Anderson were using their authority in a scenario where it was less clearly necessary to prevent the deaths of a lot of innocent people and their own truly awful fates, or where their exercise of their full authority produced a more ambiguous outcome might have have made for a more interesting movie, and gotten at the nuanced relationship of Dredd to his own extremely broad power.
io9 may have declared drone fatigue, as Woerner does at the end of her interview, but I think that’s an unfortunate attitude. Drones may have become a way to wave at relevancein movies like Man of Steel. But both Iron Man and Star Trek Into Darkness raised interesting questions about how it feels to be sent off to kill people who turn out to be sweatshop workers, or what it means to be ordered to kill someone against your own principles. It will be exciting to see Robocop bring a dilemma that’s been able to dismiss as a problem of “over there” home.