Judging by the reviews, Lena Headey and Ethan Hawke's new film The Purge may be pretty forgettable. But at least one aspect of the future-set movie intrigues: the premise. Set a decade from now, The Purge takes place in a world where the United States is thriving, where unemployment is less than one percent, and crime at an all time low. To safeguard this prosperity, the government indulges its citizens in an annual purge, a 12-hour amnesty in which all criminal activity is made legal.
It's an extreme solution, but one that's perfectly in keeping with the sci-fi genre, which historically has a habit of theorizing creative ways to combat crime. After all, future-gazing films have dreamt up everything from citywide prisons to cybernetic street cops. Just how far removed from reality are these seemingly outlandish approaches to keeping society safe? I decided to find out by asking a few experts in criminology just how plausible science fiction's crime-fighting policies actually are.
Crime-fighting premise: With economic collapse bringing a future Detroit to the brink of ruin, the city hands control of its police department to Omni Consumer Products, a mega-corporation tasked with ridding the streets of crime. To that end, the company develops a series of robotic law enforcement droids, protocol-based machines that patrol the streets in the force's place.
"When you look at the technologies that the U.S. government is already employing, we're very close to 'RoboCop.'"
Criminologists say: "When you look at the technologies that the government is already employing, especially here in the United States, we're very close to RoboCop," says Dawn L. Rothe, director at the International State Crime Research Consortium and associate professor in sociology and criminology at Old Dominion University. "We're now producing airborne drones that have the automated intellectual ability where they are able to pick out a terrorist and make a decision whether to kill them or not. So we're already getting to this point, and I don't see that using a RoboCop, if you will, is so far fetched."
It's not just the idea of ED-209's patrolling the Nuke-infested streets of Detroit that's surprisingly plausible, though. The film's fascination with the involvement of the insidious OmniCorp is also prescient. "We've already started in on that trajectory," Rothe says. "Not only with the privatisation of our prisons, but also if you look at the state's use of private companies that are active not only in conflicts abroad, but even in issues of homeland security."
Dredd (2012) / Judge Dredd (1995)
Crime-fighting premise: In a dystopian future, the majority of humanity resides in Mega-Cities, sprawling metropolises where the judicial system as we know it has been replaced in an effort to combat the 17,000 crimes reported daily. In its stead are Judges, street-level law enforcement officers who act as judge, jury, and executioner.
Criminologists say: It sounds inherently unconstitutional, but it's another timeline that Rothe sees as potentially plausible. Indeed it's not so much of a leap from the War on Terror, where we've already seen that the state is willing to manipulate the status of suspects in order to deny them due process. Rothe also points to the mounting concern over the use of drone strikes, and the recent revelations that four U.S citizens died in action rendered by the government's controversial Disposition Matrix: "It's not any more far fetched than having a Judge actually do it in each of these separate areas," she says.
Minority Report (2002)
Crime-fighting premise: In 2054, a controversial but effective "PreCrime" program uses psychic visions to incarcerate potential murderers before they've acted.
Criminologists say: The Steven Spielberg flick is another movie that postulates an inherently unconstitutional approach to law and order, but one whose underlying logic is also entirely plausible. "Minority Report is concerned with the flaws and failures of justice and science against the backdrop of wrongful conviction, mass incarceration, DNA technology, and preventive detention—literally 'warehousing' criminals on the pretext of future dangerous behavior," says Michelle Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee and co-author of the book Criminology Goes to The Movies.
While a pre-crime unit that tries people based on crimes they've not yet committed may require some far-off/impossible technology, pre-emptive policing of course already exists. In fact, computer algorithms—which mine everything from criminal data to weather patterns—are already being successfully employed to anticipate and prevent criminal activity.
Escape From New York (1981)
Crime-fighting premise: In an alternate 1988 where crime has risen by more than 400 percent, Manhattan Island is transformed into a city-sized prison (it's a similar story in the L.A.-set sequel, but the less said about that the better). Shut off from the rest of society by government forces, inmates are left to themselves. Unless, of course, you're a gravelly voiced ex-special forces type with one eye and a bad limp.
Criminologists say: While John Carpenter's timeline might have been a little off, according to the experts I spoke with, his idea wasn't so wide of the mark. "Given that more things are being seen as criminalized ... I see that this is very possible, especially if the economic conditions continue to worsen and unemployment continues to rise." Rothe says. Indeed, figures released last year by the Department of Justice showed that the U.S has the highest incarcerated population in the world; there are currently around 2.2 million people here behind bars, a number equal to a city the size of Houston. "I could very easily see [a situation] where they would make a huge area into a prison where people were left in there to their own devices," Rothe says. "In many ways we already see that internally, even though it's not spoken about, within our own prison system. So I don't see it as so far fetched."
The Running Man (1987)
Crime-fighting premise: By 2017 (not long now, then), the global economy will collapse, transforming America into a totalitarian state where censorship is rampant. The public is kept in line by gladiatorial-style reality shows, where inmates attempt to escape certain death in return for a possible pardon.
Criminologists say: Given that we already live in a world where the schedules are saturated with reality shows, the premise behind The Running Man is starting to look at lot less absurd. "I think that it would be quite easy to keep the population in check through oppression, mandated infotainment and through fear..." Rothe says. "If it was truly a totalitarian police state then it is entirely plausible, because at that point the general population, much less the criminal population, are dispensable. So why not use them not only to decrease the numbers in the prisons, but also to entertain and pacify the general population, to keep them from being any kind of threat to the state itself?"
The Purge (2013)
Crime-fighting premise: A decade from now, the U.S government sanction an annual purge, a 12-hour period of catharsis during which emergency services are suspended and all crime is made legal.
Criminologists say: "When it comes to this film, I don't think that it's plausible," says Rothe. Part of the problem it seems is the idea that all crimes are made legal, including those against property and indeed the state, which she believes would undermine the government itself. Rothe also believes the idea of a nationwide criminal catharsis to pure fantasy: Government reprisal isn't what's stopping most people from committing crimes, and one day of immunity wouldn't relieve true criminals from the motive to break the law the other 364.5 days of the year. "The assumption that it would stimulate people to commit crimes because there is no consequence is based on deterrent, but deterrent itself does not work," she says. "People who are motivated, if they really truly are motivated—which is going to be a very small population of people, the habitual offenders—they're not going to be deterred the rest of the year because of a 12 hour blowout period."