Scroll through photos and videos of heavily militarized police assaulting peaceful protesters across the U.S., and it's easy to think we're already living in a dystopian hellscape out of RoboCop or some other Paul Verhoeven movie about the dangers of fascism. But science fiction is more than just a reflection of our own reality. It's an uncomfortable reminder that things can get so much worse if we let them.
From Verhoeven to Bong Joon-ho and the Wachowskis to Steven Spielberg, filmmakers have used sci-fi to explore the dangers of militarizing a group of government employees meant to serve and protect, and the levels of brutality and corruption that so often come with unchecked, police power.
Here are 11 movies that grapple with police brutality and corruption through the lens of science fiction. (Or you could just watch the news. At this point, it's hard to say which is worse.)
11. Strange Days (1995)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow with a script from James Cameron, Strange Days is a confusing but chilling look at the dark underbelly of police corruption. Inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the movie takes place over several lawless days in a near-future Los Angeles. The hook is a new technology that lets anyone record their memories (including physical sensation) and allows anyone else to experience them, but there's a bigger story here about police violence, racism, and a dirty cover-up.
10. RoboCop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven's best movies all do the same thing. They trick you into thinking you're watching a dumb R-rated action movie while delivering powerful anti-fascist messages. RoboCop is no exception, telling the story of what happens when Detroit lets a corporation take over its police department and introduce a new line of cyborg cops. RoboCop might be the hero of the movie, but the militarization of the police in this movie feels eerily prescient more than three decades later.
9. Equilibrium (2002)
From director Kurt Wimmer and starring Christian Bale, Equilibrium imagines a future where humans are forced to ingest emotion-suppressing drugs and a militarized police force hunts down any form of artistic expression. Though not the best movie, it does feature great action along with some extremely unsubtle nods to fascist Germany.
8. The Hunger Games (2012)
In this post-apocalyptic future, America is redivided into 12 districts and forced to send its children to the capitol where they compete in a deadly competition. Today, as the U.S. fractures due to a lack of federal planning for the coronavirus, a 12-district system seems more likely than ever — as does the cruel, militarized leadership presented in this story.
7. Dredd (2012)
Judge Dredd feels like the terrifying endgame of our current trajectory: a law enforcer with the power of judge, jury, and executioner all in one. The 2012 movie was written by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs) and stars Karl Urban as Dredd himself. It's been criticized for failing to explore the political ramifications as much as previous versions of the story, but the thought of a cop with the freedom to kill anyone he wants is still terrifying.
6. Minority Report (2002)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novella by Philip K. Dick, Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as a detective in a cutting-edge PreCrime unit capable of predicting murders before they happen. The story slowly unravels to reveal horrifying levels of corruption by law enforcement officials and the dangers of mass incarceration.
5. District 9 (2009)
Neill Blomkamp's breakout movie uses science fiction to tell a parable about apartheid. When a race of aliens becomes stranded in South Africa, they wind up captives in a military-controlled refugee camp called District 9. In between jaw-dropping action and some pretty intense body horror, Blomkamp explores the dangers of dehumanizing the less powerful and the levels of brutality that a policing force can reach when they think no one else cares what they're doing.
4. Snowpiercer (2013)
From Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer imagines a frozen post-apocalypse where the last remnants of society survive on a train that never stops moving. Told from the perspective of a mistreated underclass enslaved in the tail of the train, this graphic novel adaptation offers multiple depictions of how an occupying police force mistreats and dehumanizes the least protected among us.
3. Bright (2017)
Directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and starring Will Smith, this Netflix original takes place in a fantasy world where humans, orcs, and elves co-exist, and Smith plays a cop partnered with the first orc police officer. Despite not being a very well-reviewed movie, Bright gets points for exploring the persistence of police corruption in a magical world.
2. See You Yesterday (2019)
This Netflix original few under the radar, but there's never been a better time to watch its powerful sci-fi story. See You Yesterday follows a Black high school student who invents time travel. After her brother is killed in a police shooting, she uses her new invention to try to save his life.
1. V for Vendetta (2005)
Written by the Wachowskis and based on the story by Alan Moore, V for Vendetta helped popularize one of the most common symbols of political protest of the 21st century: the Guy Fawkes mask. It's also a gripping story about a fascist-controlled England where a militarized police force terrorizes the people and a right-wing government controls the media and culture. On second thought, this one might be a little too real right now.