I liked what this film was trying to do, which was to build a portrait of a world-behind-the-world and bootleg the plot structure of a police procedural to create a story for that portrait. It’s not exactly new territory – The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage  used a similar architecture to fuse pirates and private investigators, to name but one example. It’s right at the penumbra of the Urban Fantasy genre, because even things like The Frighteners  and Constantine  are primarily based around the interests of the living, with ghosts and ghouls firmly consigned to semi-unknowable caltrops in the path of the protagonists. In that mix, it probably comes closest to Men in Black , with the major difference being that aliens are switched out for the recently deceased. It tried, but failed – getting a slew of 1-star reviews, and it’ll take a braver man than me to try and rehabilitate it as a 21st century masterpiece. Before consigning it to the garbage heap of film history though, let’s take a brief look at some of the things it tried rather than just seeing them as failures.
The premise of the film is essentially that the afterlife has ground to a halt because of overcrowding. A couple of different characters at different times say that the whole system was not designed for the sheer numbers of people now living and dying, which means that there is a looming systemic apocalypse as the whole system of the universe breaks down, at least implicitly. The whole of RIPD’s architecture exists as a response to the global population explosion, and it’s discussed that the centres of concentration aren’t exactly where you might think either. This means that there is a symbiosis occurring between the “real world” and “world behind” which is new, compared to the completely straightforward one-way relationship assumed and expected for all of human history. The arrival of a film looking at a fundamental realignment which is made in the grey twilight of an increasingly agnostic world is at least a suggestive coincidence. Quite a few reviewers pointed out a similar vibe between this film and things like Here Comes Mr Jordan  (and two remakes), in which famous musician is accidentally summoned to Heaven before actually dying and so must go back amongst the living while the Celestial Mechanics are straightened out. But what they miss is the absolutely crucial difference in the basic operational viability of the celestial realm in these two different filmic paradigms. The apocalypse averted at the climax of this film is essentially just delaying the inevitable, given what else is said about the structure of the afterlife.
There is also a very peculiar tension between free will and predestination operating in the film, because of its police procedural plot mechanism. In a police procedural the world is very rarely surprising or complex, it’s ruled by the norms of expectation. If a policeman thinks a guy is a criminal, chances are he’s stayed a criminal and when you lean on him he’ll give you other criminals. This is the stool-pigeon chain which leads to most “plot progression” in most police procedurals, where career criminals are trapped perfectly in their criminal ways. In RIPD they double-down on this by chasing after criminals whose actual physicality is determined by their criminal proclivities and hence who’ve absolutely no free will. This is a major ideological crucible in the history of Christendom, with, say, the Puritans belief in an absolute destiny for good or evil determined aeons ago by God, while the Catholics believe in an “original sin” that provides the background for an eternal personal struggle for redemption underwritten by the crucifixion. This means that RIPD breaks with the almost universal default assumption of Catholicism as the basis for its pseudo-Christian “world behind”. I’m not too confident any of this was a conscious construction, because it feels awfully ramshackle – nonetheless, this film is making definitive statements about the nature and origin of evil in the world that are peculiarly American in feel and tone.
Another little interesting side-bar is the disguises that the RIPD agents use when on earth. Jeff Bridges’ Roy Pulsipher disguises himself as a stunning blond bombshell, and chooses the “comedic” disguise of James Hong for his partner Nick Walker. It’s a fascinating statement about self-image to conflate the most hyper-masculine character archetype, the Old West Marshall ™, with a hyper-sexualised feminine character archetype, the Blonde Bombshell ™. When Roy has to deflect some unwanted attention in the middle of the film, it made be pause and wonder whether there was more than a comedic angle to the decision – Old West Marshalls not being renowned as the most sensitive or equal-opportunity people. There’s also a statement buried in this design decision about the meaning of desirability. In the Old West, the Marshall and Gunfighter were the top cultural icons, now somewhat reduced in stature. Beautiful women are now the #1 most desirable thing in our mass culture.
I hate to go against the tide, but I think there is a good movie somewhere not a million miles from RIPD. There’s lots of interesting stuff going on in it, but it’s become an oddly flavourless soup rather than a bold visionary statement about life and death. I think most of what’s confused it look like attempts at easy populism and mass-market appeal.