There’s money to be made from other people’s misery. A good example of this is the repossession industry, a currently thriving line of business due to the skyrocketing defaults in the wake of the recession. And according to the upcoming dystopian flick Repo Men, the near future is looking even better for those who repossess the unpaid wares of their clients. When people facing death from organ failure or in need of a new eye, or arm buy artificial organs on credit and can’t afford to keep up with the payments after their surgeries, they might just get a visit from a repo man who’ll take the machines inside their bodies back. How? Well, let’s just say that a very sharp set of scalpels is involved. Nothing personal, it’s just their job. So, still want that robotic liver or what?
First and foremost, I have to ask what kind of government would allow corporations to send what amounts to a team of professional hit men to cut out people’s organs after they miss a few monthly payments. Yes, I know, that’s the whole point of the antihero-doing-something-morally-questionable-has-an-epiphany-and-fights-the- system tale, but those only work when the stories are either close to real events or seem highly plausible. The notion of legally killing people for not being able to pay their bills and recycling their used mechanical organs is just too excessive to meet that criterion. It’s one thing to explore the dark side of today’s societies with a film that’s already built on a fantastical or surreal premise. We can go along with that. But a setup we can imagine being outlawed in the blink of an eye is in the cinematic uncanny valley territory where films lose their potential punch. Instead of truly considering the implications of the world being presented to us, we just brush it off as a relatively typical action flick based on a classic storyline.
The second big problem that jumped out at me when looking at the film posters and the viral site promoting the artificial organs of The Union Corporation, the fictional stronghold of the movie’s villains, were the prices for the robotic hearts, livers, kidneys and eyes. A heart for $975,000? Kidneys at $1,048,000 a pair? A liver for some $756,000? Bionic arms starting at $375,000? Either people are being sold the very first prototypes that were custom built for them with handcrafted, never before used machinery, or natural donors are no longer an option for any patient. Even buying organs on a black market would cost less than a tenth of the eye-popping price tags to which we’re treated in Repo Men. True, having artificial organs that work as well as the real thing would mean there would be no need to wait for a suitable donor heart. Depending on the materials used for the machine, you could even minimize the risks of severe foreign-body rejection and with a new generation of power supplies for internal medical devices, they may even have a long working life. But for decades to come, they would be a bridge between lethal organ failure and finding a suitable donor.
Still, let’s stay with the idea of perfectly working artificial organs for just a moment since they are possible and there’s a lot of research and development happening in this field. However, the stratospheric prices of the film would mean that none of the resulting devices would ever be suitable for mass market use. In reality, with the application of economies of scale, we should expect the prices of mass produced artificial organs to drop to several tens of thousands of dollars. Today’s most expensive and sophisticated prototype of an artificial heart costs $192,000 while less ambitious devices run between $70,000 and $100,000 according to the numbers floating around news sites. The supposedly safe, efficient and effective artificial organs made by the thousand in vast industrial labs are bound to cost far less than that, just like computers today are a lot cheaper when the now ubiquitous technology was in its infancy. Yes, the implantation could still run into six digits, but since it’s covered by insurance companies, the patient would only be on the hook for a part of the bill, even in the worst case scenario. And come to think of it, wouldn’t insurance companies of the future also try to cover proven and reliable artificial organs, thus lowering the out of pocket costs even further?
So it seems that Repo Men managed to not only create a totally implausible set of laws for our future, but also made major mistakes when it comes to robotics, medicine, healthcare and business. It’s very difficult to take morality tales seriously when you know full well that everything happening as the story unfolds simply wouldn’t happen and a potentially terrifying allegory for what could happen if creditors are given far too much leeway to collect their debts is reduced to just another action flick based on a rather shaky premise.