when movies lose all sense of plausibility

February 5, 2010

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.

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  • DamianD

    Wow… another really neat idea for a movie squandered by poor implementation. “Daybreakers” says hello. :)

  • D.Rose

    The prices are due to inflation. A century ago things cost several times less than they do now. I imagine an 8-ounce can of Pepsi could cost somewhere in the area of $40 a century in the future, at least if this movie’s portrayal of economics is to believed. Anyway, I saw the promo for this movie when I went with friends to see Avatar on opening weekend and we all rejected the notion of seeing this one because the premise was just so patently absurd as to be insulting to one’s intelligence.

  • Greg Fish

    The prices are due to inflation. A century ago things cost several times less than they do now.

    I would buy the inflation argument except the prices would still be far too high, even if the movie was set in the early 2100s. The hypothetical can of soda which today costs about 75¢ from your nearest vending machine would have a price tag of $14.41 after a century at our historic 3% annual inflation rate.

    So a robotic liver which should cost $23,000 after we apply the relevant economies of scale, would fetch just over $440,000 under similar economic conditions. The actual cost of implantation in 2110 should be nearly $2 million, but then again, even a pretty mediocre insurance plan should cover up to 80% of everything, leaving you with a bill of about $470,000. But, you’d be making, on average, $865,000 per year by then if we apply the same inflation schema to the average American income…

  • D.Rose

    Well, when you factor in the miracle of the Bush economy and the excessive charity of the health insurance companies…

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Ridiculously inflated medical prices are not science fiction.

    Of all the factors you list undermining the plausibility of this movie, contrived overexpense is far and away the most trivial.

    To start with, you assume a competitive market and a government which favors individuals over megacorporations. That, increasingly, is science fiction, verging on fantasy.

  • JohnG.

    This is why scientists shouldn’t get involved in politics. You spend too much time looking at things rationally, and so you don’t see how things actually work. China (a government) not only allows people to get butchered for their organs, they are chiefly responsible for the practice. Rich people the world over do not wait for needed organs, because of this huge business. Then, of course, there are the illegal, black-markets for organs that exist in every country. The idea that in a country that just made it legal to allow corporations to buy politicians, you think it’s too far fetched that strapped people wouldn’t kill to sell expensive organs?

  • Greg Fish

    Rich people the world over do not wait for needed organs, because of this [Chinese organ harvesting] business.

    That’s kind of an urban legend. Yes, it’s true that there are some sinister rumors of a number of Chinese officials of prisons and labor camps harvesting organs and then selling them on the black market. However, even if those rumors are true, organs are not exactly interchangeable from person to person like car parts. You need to find the right match for the right person, a way to ship the organs within a few hours, knowing that every minute it’s out of the body makes it less suitable for implantation, and if you have a malnourished or sick donor on your hands, you’re very likely to kill the client by giving him or her an organ that has a high chance of failing or infecting the rest of the body. Basically, buying organs is very dangerous and those who have enough cash to pay for one have far too much to lose if things go terribly wrong.

    …there are the illegal, black-markets for organs that exist in every country.

    That’s true and there’s a reference to the practice in the post. But if you consider that what you’re usually getting are goods not in the best of health to put it nicely, it’s not a market to which you want to turn if you want to keep living.

    …you think it’s too far fetched that strapped people wouldn’t kill to sell expensive organs?

    Um, that’s not what the movie is about. The movie is about a corporation that sends people to cut out robotic organs that aren’t fully paid by the people who bought them, killing the clients in the process. It’s not about black market organ harvesters or even about actual human body parts. It’s about expensive medical equipment. The issue here is that this would be the equivalent of having people who repossess your cars shoot you in the head on their way back to the office and be allowed to do so by law. In reality, repo men are governed by very strict rules and if they were to harm you, you could put them out of business with one lawsuit.

  • Matthew Graybosch

    The only way to do a movie with a premise this outlandish is to go completely over-the-top and make it as campy as possible.

  • Anonymous

    This is such a narrow-sighed analysis. The movie takes place in a dystopian society. That is, The Union is George Orwell’s Big Brother brought to power by the ability to mass produce life saving organs. The idea that no government could realistically allow corporations to repossess organs is irrelevant. You completely miss the point when you suggest that the corporation, The Union, is answering to a government. They ARE the government (notice the tattoos of the repo men and advertising schemes for the organs, dead giveaways). Challenging the pricing of the organs is a weak shot in the dark at best. Inflation of future currencies is unpredictable, and monopolization and the lack of regulation on the biomechanical industry is clearly suggested. Attempting to relate current pricing of primitive artificial organs to a hypothetical ultra-advanced technology from some years in the future is pathetic. Poor work.