Future Cop

Director: Jud Taylor
Ernest Borgnine, John Amos, Michael Shannon

It's more often than not interesting to look at any aspect of society and see where it is now compared to how it was in the past. Some things make little to no change over the years, such as the fact that Canadian filmmakers have been relentless in making one boring and rotten film after another for decades. But there have certainly been other aspects of society that have changed, for better or worse, over the years. One such aspect is with law enforcement. The way the law has been enforced, and how criminals have reacted to changes in law enforcement, has been very interesting. Certainly, some changes have a kind of sad air around them. For example, for many years, the police in England did not carry guns at all, even priding themselves on that. But eventually, when police officers in England started to get injured or killed by gun-wielding criminals, the policy was changed. Another example is with prisons. In the United States, prisons have become so overcrowded that the rate of new prisons being built can't quite keep up with the demand. But there are also some positive developments when it comes to law enforcement. When the science of fingerprints was developed, it resulted in the identification of many criminals. Another positive development with the war on crime was when DNA technology was brought in. This too resulted in the capture and conviction of many criminals. But equally interesting is the fact that many criminals know about such modern day crime fighting tools, and make an attempt to foil the police. Ted Kaczynski, better known as The Unabomber, picked up strands of hairs he found in public washrooms, and put them in his bombs in an effort to foil his pursuers.

It is equally interesting, when it comes to law enforcement, to ponder just what new crime fighting tools will be developed in the future. As you no doubt know, many writers of books, television shows, and movies have tackled this idea. There is one specific futuristic crime fighting idea that has come up from time to time that I would like to talk about, and that is the idea of a robot working with the police. To a degree, that is already happening, such as with remote guided robots used to diffuse bombs. What I am really talking about are robots with artificial intelligence who work side by side to capture criminals ranging from burglars to murderers. It is an intriguing idea, enough that I can understand why so many writers have used the concept. But I know that the day that robots aid the police in the manner that I described two sentences ago is a long, long, way off from happening - if ever. One reason is that very high quality artificial intelligence is still quite a few years away from happening, despite the many advances in computer technology that happen every year. And once that happens, I can see it would take a very long time to program the artificial intelligence to do something like law enforcement. Even if that is accomplished, there comes the question as to how the law enforcement robot would make its way around. Making a human-like robot walk or run is much more difficult than you might think; the present day examples I have seen of this can only manage to make the robot move around very slowly. And using wheels or any other method of transportation would severely limit where the robot could move around; it couldn't exactly go up stairs, for example.

While the idea of a robot law enforcer is definitely not practical in this day and age, I don't want to be a wet blanket and say that it's a silly idea not worth pondering about. I am perfectly willing to accept a fictional story about a robot law enforcer, as long as it's done with intelligence. And it Future Cophas been done before in the past. For example, several years ago there was a futuristic television show called Almost Human about the partnership of a human cop and an android that I thought was pretty good. It was intelligent, had some intriguing ideas, and the two leads had great chemistry. Unfortunately, since it aired on the FOX network - a network that has (for the most part) just half-heartedly supported science fiction shows at best - it got cancelled after its first and only season. Anyway, it was not the first TV show to have this concept. In 1976, there was the short-lived television show Future Cop. Still being bummed after Almost Human's cancellation, I decided to take a look at the feature length pilot of the older show to see if it had the same magic. The setting of the movie is in Los Angeles, in the faraway future year of... uh... 1976. At the beginning of the movie, we meet two policemen who are partners, Joe Cleaver (Ernest Borgnine, A Bullet For Sandoval) and Bill Bundy (John Amos, The Beastmaster). At the same time, the Synthetronics company has just completed building and testing of a new prototype. What they have they have named Haven (Michael Shannon, Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle). Haven is an android fully versed in police procedures and has crime fighting and solving abilities a human police officer would kill for. He is still a little green when it comes to determining human slang and quirks, something that makes police commissioner Forman (John Larch, Miracle Of The White Stallions) a little wary. But Forman decides he'll give Haven a single eight-hour shift to see how he does in the field. Forman then assigns Haven to accompany Cleaver - without telling Cleaver that Haven is an android. Naturally, it doesn't take long for Cleaver to determine that something's seriously up with Haven. In fact, Haven starts to have some other unplanned encounters and interactions that threaten to reveal his secret. Will Haven succeed or fail?

You might be wondering if I approached Future Cop with the expectation of seeing a lot of material that might have been passable in 1976, but today would seem dated and laughable. Well, to a degree I did... but at the same time I realized that many brand-new television shows seen today will probably be seen as dated and laughable in the year 2023. Anyway, the best way to sum up how Future Cop comes across with its technology and general production values is to say that if you've watched any episode of a Hollywood police TV show from the mid 1970s, and watched any episode of a Hollywood science fiction TV show from the same period, you'll almost certainly know what to expect here. In other words, the various Los Angeles outdoor locations look quite drab and unspectacular, along with the coffee shops and other "real" indoor locations. Needless to say, the interiors shot on sets on soundstages are even worse, having a phony and unnatural feeling to them, the worst being the Synthetronics locations. The "high tech" equipment in these locations comes across as being randomly placed from whatever the prop department was able to get their hands on, from magnetic tape devices to black and white monitors. To be fair, the dated look and feel of this pilot movie didn't bother me too much, since as I said earlier I was prepared for it. But what did bother me about the technology showcased in the movie was that it didn't go into too much detail about it. For example, it is revealed at one point in the movie that Haven has the ability to open padlocks without a key. But from what we see, he just holds the padlock in his hand for several seconds, and then it all of a sudden opens. Not only do we not get to properly see how this is done, we are not even given a basic verbal explanation as to how Haven is doing this.

Haven often comes across as a mysterious bit of technology. In one scene, he's shown drinking a cup of coffee. Does he process the coffee for energy or other purposes, or does he have to dump it whole later? We never know. In fact, we don't even get an idea of what is working inside of him, save for one scene where his chest is exposed and reveals something akin to an ordinary green circuit board. When it comes to displaying Haven's thought processes, things are somewhat better. We get to see that while Haven knows the police rule book right to the letter, his understanding of basic human behavior still needs a lot of work. His mistakes don't come from stupidity, just from a lack of human interaction. Even when he slips up, he does come across in a sympathetic manner, and a big reason for this is the performance by actor Michael Shannon in the role. He doesn't make Haven sound too robotic, but at the same time he gives his words a slight touch that makes Haven a little puzzling for those who don't know his secret. Also, even though Haven is a machine without a soul, Shannon somehow manages the difficult task of making his character sympathetic. Part of that comes from the fact that he has good chemistry with his co-star Borgnine. Borgnine does seem to be going on autopilot when he's alone or paired up with another actor. But when he's together with Shannon, there are some definite sparks that are ignited. Both of their characters have different backgrounds and different ways of doing things. But the attitude by both actors gives their characters a lot of respect for each other. You sense that, flaws and all, they are a good human and a good robot. Viewers will like these two police officers, and hope that they will learn to fully get along and survive any dangers they encounter together.

The chemistry by both actors makes up for some flaws in the writing in their characters. We learn almost nothing about the background of the veteran Cleaver, and there's very little insight as to how Haven feels about his situation or what he encounters. (There's an interesting moment when he encounters a car compactor that should have been expanded on.) Also, some decisions by various characters probably came across just as naive as they do today, like the fact that Cleaver isn't told that Haven is a robot before they start their first shift. The flaws that I've mentioned to this point actually weren't much of a deal breaker compared to the main problem I had with Future Cop. What prevented me from mostly enjoying the movie was the lackadaisical direction by Jud Taylor. If he had put some definite enthusiasm in the movie, I think there would be a chance I would have labelled the movie as cheesy, dated, but goofy fun. But instead, the movie plods along very slowly in every way you can think of. The action sequences (car chases, shootouts) are without any energy or creativity, as if Taylor was just content to just point towards the action without doing anything else to punch them up. The various injections of comic relief, while thankfully not being too jokey in nature, are performed without any apparent passion. When Haven is threatened with "death" a couple of times, each time there is very little feeling of concern or panic by any of the other characters. It's all capped with a very low-key ending that didn't promise that the subsequent (and short-lived) television series that was to follow would be any better. But since I am stuck with the DVDs that include the six episodes (and follow-up movie!) that followed this pilot movie, I guess I will have to get my money's worth and watch them eventually.

(Posted May 18, 2023)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon for Ernest Borgnine's autobiography (Book)

See also: The Bang Bang Kid, Running Delilah, Terminal Justice