Law Enforcement in Fantastic Cinema


This topic refers to different type of policing in fantastical scenarios. The bulk of the entries can be divided between two types:-

  • Depictions of police forces in different worlds – be they future settings or dystopian scenarios, outer space or alternate realities. As a rule, there are not a large number of depictions of police forces that operate in fantasy worlds (where it seems assumed that either crime does not exist or these matters are dealt with by soldiery or city militia).
  • Police officers with uniquely different abilities such as cyborg replacement parts or where individual officers are afflicted with conditions such as vampirism or lycanthropy. A subset of these is devoted to Gonzo Buddy Cop films in which a regular human cop is partnered with someone very different such as an alien, an android, a vampire, a gnome or an orc.

For discussion on prisons and differing penal systems as they are depicted in fantastic cinema see the theme Prisons. For extra-judicial law enforcement – individuals or groups who take enacting law and retribution into their own hands – see Vigilantes. The topic also deals only with fantastic and futuristic law enforcement – regular thrillers involving standard law enforcement officials tracking psychos and serial killers is dealt with under Police Procedurals and Serial Killers Thrillers.


Different Police Forces

Law Enforcement of the Future

The archetypal and formative film here was Blade Runner (1982) with Harrison Ford as a 1940s-modeled detective hunting escaped androids in a dark, gritty Cyberpunk future. Since then police thrillers/action films set in gritty, frequently Cyberpunk future settings have become commonplace as in the likes of The Element of Crime (1984), Cybertech P.D. (1995) and the anime Appleseed (1988) and Appleseed (2004) and various sequels and in particular tv series such as Superforce (1990-2), Total Recall 2070 (1999) and Almost Human (2013-4).

Another key development was RoboCop (1987) and sequels, which gave us a regular officer rebuilt in a cyborg body as an emotionless, ultra-tough law enforcement officer. Works set in the future often feature law enforcement officers who are cyborg-enhanced – as in Cyber Tracker (1994) and The Demolitionist (1996), although surprisingly Cyborg Cop (1993) and sequels do not feature any cyborg cops – or are robotic or android as in THX 1138 (1971), the tv series Future Cop (1977), Dead or Alive: Final (2002) and Android Cop (2014).

Peter Weller as Robocop (1987)
RoboCop (Peter Weller), a cyborg cop dispensing tough justice in a future setting, in RoboCop (1987)

On the opposite side of the coin, R.O.T.O.R. (1988), The Last Sentinel (2007) and Chappie (2015) feature robots designed for law enforcement that proceed to go amok. There is also a group of films such as Blade Runner, Runaway (1984), Patlabor: The Mobile Police (1989) and I, Robot (2004) that concern police units tasked with stopping amok robots. Tokyo Gore Police (2008) features a future police force battling bio-mechanoid mutations.

One of the more unique scenarios was Minority Report (2002), which imagines a future where precognitives can see crimes before they occur and suspects are arrested for unlawful acts they will commit in the future. Similar predictive methods appear also in tv’s Person of Interest (2011-6) and Psycho-Pass: The Movie (2015). The Last Days of American Crime (2020) concerns the introduction of a device that broadcasts pain to anybody whose is thinking criminal thoughts.

Anon (2018) is also a fascinating work set in a world where mass surveillance is the norm and of the efforts to catch a criminal who is able to evade the system. The Purge (2013) and sequels depict a future that deals with law enforcement by ironically the complete lack of it – allowing one night per year where all crime is permissible.

Law Enforcement in Dystopian Futures

These concern law enforcement officers who work in future worlds ruled by an authoritarian if not totalitarian regime. The first of these was Fahrenheit 451 (1966) concerning a future where books are banned and a force known as The Firemen has been created to burn them. The hero of the story is one Fireman who picks up and begins reading a book, before joining the rebels. This was badly remade as Fahrenheit 451 (2018).

Other examples of these police officers in such futures might include Soylent Green (1973), Logan’s Run (1976), Equilibrium (2002) and The Humanity Bureau (2017). The plot arc in all of these is of an officer who is required to enforce the harsh rules of the future before having an epiphany (usually in the form of falling for a rebel) and turning against the system.

There are also law enforcement officers in such worlds who are painted as heroes without any rebellion against the system, most notably comic-book hero Judge Dredd – as seen in the films Judge Dredd (1995) and Dredd (2012) – who maintains a brutal brand of fascistic justice in a tough future. RoboCop is another example, while Mel Gibson in the first Mad Max (1979) could be considered to fall into this category. Both Fatherland (1994) and SS-GB (2017) feature police officer heroes in an alternate history timeline where Nazi Germany won World War II.

One satirical variant was Demolition Man (1993) with Sylvester Stallone as a present-day officer thawed out in a future where Political Correctness has run riot and the police of the future are too nice and polite to deal with real violence.

There is also the idea in Demolition Man and the tv series Snowpiercer (2020- ) of law enforcement officers having to be introduced from outside – out of cryogenic suspension in the former, from a social underclass in the latter – to deal with crime in society that have not known it before this.

Intergalactic Police

Outland (1981) features Sean Connery as the marshal at a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon Io. The tv series Star Cops (1987) features the difficulties and complexities of maintaining law and order as humanity ventures out into the Solar System.

Works like The Humanoid (1979), Lensman (1984) and Space Cop (2016) depict intergalactic law enforcement officers going about their duty, while the tv series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1992-9) featured the ongoing character of the shapechanging law enforcement officer Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois). The title character in Green Lantern (2011) is also one such intergalactic police officer.

Paratime Police

Time travel films come with the necessity of maintaining the integrity of the timeline. Various films have suggested the idea of a temporal police force whose purpose is to stop interference or paradoxes from occurring in the timeline.

The most well-known example here was Timecop (1994) and there have been other examples such as Trancers (1985), Past Perfect (1996) and Event 16 (2006) and the tv series’ The Ministry of Time (2015-7) and Timeless (2016-8). The One (2001) features law enforcement officers pursuing criminals between alternate timelines.

Not exactly a temporal police force but the tv series Life on Mars (2006-7) has John Simm as a detective in a coma in the present who seems to live a parallel as a detective back in 1973, while in the follow-up series Ashes to Ashes (2008-10), comatose offer Keeley Hawes finds herself back in 1981.

Law Enforcement in Fantasy Settings

Bright (2017) takes place in a modern world where human and magical creatures – elves, orcs etc – live alongside humans and concerns the first orc officer on the force. Artemis Fowl (2020) concerns a L.E.P.recon, a force set up to police the kingdom of magical creatures. In the less serious category, Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (2011) concerns an agency set up to ensure that good always wins out in fairytales.

Also included here might be the afterlife police force we meet in R.I.P.D. (2013).


Unique Police Officers

Alien Police Officers

The first depiction of the alien police officer come to Earth was in the British film Invasion (1966). The highly entertaining The Hidden (1987) gave us the notion of an alien detective come to Earth to pursue a body-hopping alien criminal.

For several years after, The Hidden spawned a number of copies involving alien law enforcement officers and/or criminals come to Earth. These include Peacemaker (1990), Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe (1991) and Dollman (1990), as well as stories of regular cops battling alien criminals as in Something is Out There (1988) and Dark Angel/I Come in Peace (1990).

The most popular of these was Alien Nation (1988), a Buddy Cop film featuring a human paired with an alien, which later spawned a tv series Alien Nation (1989) and series of tv movies.

Newcomer detective George Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) and human partner Matt Sykes (James Caan) in Alien Nation (1988)
Alien Nation (1988) – Buddy Cop film between alien detective George Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) (l) and curmudgeonly human partner Matt Sykes (James Caan) (r)

Gonzo Buddy Cop Films

The Buddy Cop film emerged the 1980s/early 90s following the hit of Lethal Weapon (1987). There were many copies based around the idea of two mismatched and frequently argumentative personalities paired together who gradually come to a mutual respect through the course of the story.

Subsequent to Lethal Weapon, filmmakers tried to come up with all manner of wacky buddy cop partnerships. These include a number of genre variations such as:- cop and alien – the abovementioned Alien Nation and Something is Out There (1988); cop and zombie – Dead Heat (1988); cop and gnome – Upworld/A Gnome Named Gnorm (1991); cop and vampire – tv’s Forever Knight (1992-6) and The Breed (2001); cop and dinosaur – Theodore Rex (1995); cop and android – tv’s Almost Human (2013-4) and Android Cop (2014); cop and orc – Bright (2017); cop and puppet – The Happytime Murders (2018); and cop and a temporally displaced Viking woman in the tv series Beforeigners (2019- ).

In many but not all of these, the differences between the frequently curmudgeonly human and the unconventional ways of his partner is played for comedy in a plot arc that travels between resentment to eventual acceptance and admiration.

Uniquely Empowered Officers

This concerns officers that either have/gain unique abilities or else are given enhancements in the course of duty. (Superheroes can be regarded as a form of law enforcement, although should be considered more as vigilantes and are dealt with under their own theme Superheroes). There are numerous examples of cyborg enhanced cops following RoboCop and sequels.

Aside from many examples in the Gonzo Buddy Cop Film above, lone examples might include – a miniature detective in Dollman (1990); a psychic cop in Scanner Cop (1994) and sequel; the completely madcap Hong Kong film Mad Detective (2007) concerning a detective who can see people’s inner personalities; Officer Downe (2016) about an officer resurrected from the dead; and WolfCop (2014) and sequel concerning a werewolf detective.

Evil Cops

Dangerous Game (1987) featured a cop who snapped and went on killing rampages and PsychoCop (1989) was a slasher movie featuring a killer cop. Maniac Cop (1988) and sequels concern a disfigured former cop who has become a hulking killer.

In more realistic portrayals, one could add Ray Liotta’s psychopathic officer in the thriller Unlawful Entry (1992), the psychopathic deputy sheriff played by Stacey Keach and Casey Affleck in respectively The Killer Inside Me (1976) and The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Danny Geva in Rabies (2010).

The Stephen King adaptation Desperation (2006) features a possessed small town sheriff.


Recommendations

A full list of titles can be found here Law Enforcement in Fantastic Cinema