RoboCop, Astartes, Dredd, and the superhuman dystopia

Film reviews


I'm an avid fan of speculative fiction (SF), and have been for my entire life. I like a lot of different kinds of SF, but I do seem to have a preference for dystopic science fiction, specifically. In my exploration of that genre, I've noticed a sub-genre within it, which I'll just call superhuman dystopia. In superhuman dystopia fiction, the dystopic sci fi setting is held together by figures who are something more than an average human. The unavoidable questions in the genre are how these superhumans are "more" than human, and are they preserving or reforming the broken world around them? I've identified a few exemplary realisations of the genre, which I'll describe in this blog post. In all examples, I'm considering only the precise media I'm describing and not any sequels or alternate versions.

RoboCop (1987)

In the original RoboCop, lawlessness is tearing Detroit apart. In response, OmniCorp develops the ED-209, a mechanised police robot that malfunctions the moment it's demonstrated to the company board members. In a rush to get a product on the market, they take a cop who's recently been shot down in the line of duty and turn him into a cyborg cop. They wipe his memory, load him up with police data, and send him out onto the streets. It's an instant success, until RoboCop starts remembering parts of his previous life as a human, and starts to uncover corruption within OmniCorp.


The setting is a dystopia, with brilliantly exaggerated scenarios designed to emphasise a bro ken society. When ED-209 malfunctions, it's not just a sub-optimal reaction time or a loose screw. It shoots and kills a board member. The crime gang that plagues Murphy both as a human, and who are then hunted down by Murphy in the superhuman form of RoboCop, have a hand in practically every crime you can think of. When one of them gets shot, they throw him out the back of their van to slow the police pursuing them.


RoboCop is a human, made "super" through cybernetic augmentation. He's visually striking, with chrome that gleams in the city lights, but don't let the visuals fool you. Sure, he can draw his weapon before the bad guys. And he's got thermal vision so he can shoot bad guys hiding behind walls. And he's got instant access to police databases. But RoboCop isn't superhuman just because he's half robot.

RoboCop is superhuman because he's inscrutable.

There are plenty of moments in the RoboCop movie that show the disconnect between RoboCop and the humans around him. Obviously criminals are in awe of him, but that's founded in simple terror. Watch, instead, the faces of RoboCop's own creators, station superiours, fellow officers, and his own former partner.

He saves lives, and affords no succor. He doesn't accept reverence or thanks. He protects. As the audience, we see what RoboCop doesn't perceive. We see the mix of emotions flashing across the faces of RoboCop's allies. There's apprehension, confusion, probably a little fear. But there's also wonder, admiration, and hope. It's not because RoboCop (initially) lacks human emotion, it's a recognition that RoboCop is an advanced form of the human model. He's an all-powerful demigod, or an angel of conquest and protection. But the setting is a dystopia. When RoboCop defends the innocent, he's definitely fighting the good fight. And yet he's doing it on the behalf of an evil mega-corp, driven by greed and corporate career advancement. The product manager of the RoboCop program is a self-serving businessman interested exclusively in his own career. OmniCorp itself is as much an enemy of the police department as it is of the common citizens of Old Detroit. In dystopia, even a superhuman is just a pawn in somebody else's game. ## Warhammer 40,000 The **Warhammer 40,000** media franchise spans books, boardgames, video games, TV, and more. Its most iconic character are the superhuman Adeptus Astartes, commonly known simply as Space Marines. They're each a hulking example of a military man, clad in ceramite armour, wielding chain swords and bolter guns, and you don't have to know what any of that means to be impressed by the sound of it. The Astartes are genetically engineered products of a powerful psychic called the Emperor. He's catatonic, kept alive by consuming the souls of other psychics throughout the galaxy. He's revered as a literal god. And the Astartes are known as His angels. You'd be excused for thinking, at first glance, that a Space Marine was just a bloke in a comically oversized suit of armour. But in the early **Horus Heresy** novels, Gavriel Loken encounters the human journalist (a "remembrancer" in Warhammer terminology) Euphrati Keeler. She's one of the few humans to see an Astartes out of his power armour, or to talk to one about his thoughts, aspirations, his dreams. They confide in one another on several occasions. Through their attempt to connect, we see just how different they are. An Astartes outsizes even a large human, and has a life expectancy of hundreds of years or longer. The Adeptus Astartes don't consider themselves human, because they're not. They're enhanced well beyond the human form, but they're enhanced exclusively for the reason to protect and preserve humanity. The divide is vast, and it's simultaneously bridged and deepened by the moments when human and superhuman desperately try, and inevitably fail, to empathise with one another. To an Adeptus Astartes, a human is a weak and ephemeral dream, and to a human the Adeptus Astartes is a literal angel, a great and terrible force of unknowable divinity. It's a dystopia, though. More than any other fiction I've ever experienced, Warhammer makes it clear that there is no "good" and "bad" in its universe. For every book with a space marine as its hero, there's another with a space marine and everything it stands for as the villain. ## Dredd (2012) It's arguable that Judge Dredd is not superhuman. RoboCop was mechanically enhanced, and Adeptus Astartes are genetically enhanced. In the comics, Judge Dredd is initially "enhanced" only by Lawgiver, his computerised gun. That hardly counts as superhuman. Comics being what they are, though, Dredd goes through changes over time, so he could lay claim to superhumanity from bionic eye implants or from rejuvenation treatments he receives. It's debatable, and that's part of the reason I include it in the sub-genre. Sometimes all that makes a superhuman is a unique systemic advantage over others. In the 2012 movie, though, two things qualify the protagonists as superhuman, in my opinion. Before he acquires the trainee he spends the rest of the movie with, Dredd rescues a woman from a thug. It's almost the exact setup and resolution as a scene in RoboCop (1987). A thug is holding a gun to his hostage's head, and there's no rational way to diffuse the situation aside from acquiescing to the criminal's demands. Instead, Judge Dredd issues a command to Lawgiver to use a specialised (notably different from its equivalent in the comic) heatseeking round to target and then cook the criminal from inside. Judge Dredd departs, his duty done. The crime victim, left with the roasted body of her captor on the ground before her, ventures only to call after him "Thank you, judge." Judge Dredd, sworn to protect the humans of Mega-City One (or at least to uphold the law) shows no sign of understanding them, and they don't appear to know what to make of him. In the movie, Dredd has a trainee. Psi-Judge Anderson easily qualifies as superhuman. In the terms of the setting, she's a mutant, which is an abomination, with strong psychic powers. She uses her powers in the movie as an interrogation technique and to gain insight from citizens. Interestingly, the human protagonist (Judge Dredd) doesn't take his helmet off even once throughout the entire movie, making it outwardly difficult to connect with him. The superhuman (Psi-Judge Anderson) doesn't wear a helmet at all because she says they interfere with her psychic ability, making it easier for the audience, and probably the in-world citizens, to identify with her. It's a fascinating and unexpected dichotomy, and it's one of the many reasons I include this movie in the sub-genre. ## Superhuman dystopia Superhumans of dystopic worlds have powers that are generally used for actions that render immediate benefit to apparently innocent citizens. Whether this ultimately reinforces the very system that's driven the "bad" people to crime isn't a question that can be asked of the setting. The implication in this sub-genre is that things have just gotten too bad to be solved. Certainly there's no singular Dr. Evil to foil or Death Star to blow up. You can't go on a quest to suddenly drain all of the evil from the world. A true state of dystopia has been achieved, and everyone contributes to it. Every conversation is misaligned, every point of view is maligned. There's no absolute moral compass. The protagonists in this sub-genre are superhumans, not superheroes. ## More There are other series that fit into this sub-genre, but these are the ones I think exemplify it. I think the defining traits are: * Dystopic setting * Power imbalance between theoretical allies * Emotional disconnect between theoretical friends * Mutation or enhancement See if you can spot any other fiction that fits, and let me know about them because I'd probably love to see them.

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