Friday, September 26, 2014

From the Archive: Dredd (2012)

The great age of science fiction movie dystopias occurred from the 1970s to the early 1980s.  During that span -- from roughly 1971 to 1981 -- audiences witnessed dystopias involving over-population (Z.P.G. [1972], Soylent Green 1973]), hippie communes (Zardoz [1973]) fascist computer control (Logan’s Run [1976]), and even rampant crime (Escape from New York [1981]).

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s future cop, Judge Dredd, arose from that historical period.  The character first appeared in the British comic-book anthology 2000 AD in the year 1977.  In the comic-book universe, the fearsome, always-helmeted Dredd patrolled the mean streets of Mega City One on his law-master motorcycle, carrying his lawgiver pistol.  He was a policeman, judge, jury and -- if need be -- executioner.

The dystopian milieu of Dredd was first adapted to film in 1995, with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role. But Judge Dredd was poorly received in large part because it watered down the hardcore nature of Dredd’s dystopia.

In the Stallone film, Dredd often removed his helmet, took time to romance a fellow judge, and had a comedic sidekick played by Rob Schneider. The film seemed more concerned with fanciful, stereotypically “future” touches and comic relief than with the creation of a real sense of place.  Instead of a legitimately artistic vision, the 1995 film had the word “blockbuster” written all over it.  And there’s nothing more depressing than a film that homogenizes its source material in the hopes of being commercial…and then fails in that endeavor.

The same criticism could never accurately be applied to the compact, concise, and visually-dazzling Dredd (2012), the recent cinematic adaptation of the same comic-book material. 

This new version of the comic-book material is a breath of fresh air in a movie culture that eschews purity of vision in hopes of satisfying the widest possible demographic coalition.  The film’s script is spare, satirical, and relentlessly sharp.  Furthermore, Dredd is unburdened by unnecessary settings, characters, or plot points, making it -- brilliantly -- all of a unified (dystopian) piece.  The film thus represents a perfect introduction to Dredd’s unpleasant world, one where small touches -- like a homeless man holding a sign that reads “will debase self for credits”--  add up to a lot.
By avoiding that pitfall as well as the temptation to go for blockbuster scope and ameliorating, politically-correct touches, Dredd emerges as not only one of the best science fiction films of recent vintage, but one of the best action films since The Matrix, or going back even further, since the original Die Hard (1988).

“Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos…”

In a harrowing future world, much of the United States’ east coast, from Boston to Washington D.C. is a vast metropolis called Mega-City-One.  Eight hundred million citizens live there, and 17,000 crimes are committed per day. Unemployment is at 96% and vast skyscrapers now house entire, self-contained slums of over two-hundred levels.

A cadre of highly-trained Judges enforces order in the unruly city, though even though they can only respond to 6% of the crimes that occur.

On the very day that Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is supposed to train an inexperienced rookie judge, a mutant telepath named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), he discovers just how outnumbered the judges really are.  He and Anderson answer a seemingly routine call at the Peach Trees Slum, and learn that the drug-lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) rules it with an iron fist.   In fact, she has just skinned and murdered a group of rivals.

Before the Judges can take a suspect back to headquarters who can finger Ma-Ma as the main producer of the illegal narcotic “slo-mo” in Mega City One, she locks down the entire slum, and announces over the loudspeaker that the two judges are to be executed.  Any residents who help or hide the law enforcement officers will be killed themselves.

Trapped in a hostile, self-contained city, Dredd, Anderson, and their reluctant witness make their way skywards, towards Ma-Ma’s headquarters, but not before encountering floor-after-floor of deadly resistance…

“It's a fucking meat grinder. People go in one end, and meat comes out the other. All we do is turn the handle.

Dredd is an extremely violent and bloody film. And yet that depiction of violence absolutely rings true with the dystopian world the film portrays.  This is the world Wayne La Pierre apparently thinks we live in today, right now, rife with gang violence everywhere, and the police under constant siege. 

It’s a vision the more reality-based among us would more commonly associate with the early eighties and films such as Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981) or Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).  Nonetheless, the world of Dredd is still believable to us today in part because of sporadic mentions of high unemployment.  This is a problem which still threatens to derail our economy, especially when paired with the dire and looming threat of austerity.

In terms of its intense action, the film unexpectedly lands on a legitimate method to accommodate slow-motion, 3-D photography in its visual tapestry, an accomplishment roughly akin to the genesis of bullet-time as a side-effect of the virtual world in The Matrix (1999).

Only here, much of the action is rendered in glorious, beautiful, rainbow-colored slow-motion because of a narcotic called “slo-mo,” which slows time for the percipient to 1/100th of its normal speed.  Several crucial action sequences are filmed while gunfighters are under the sway of this drug, and the visualizations of these extended moments are incredible.  They are beyond incredible. They are jaw-dropping.

Such a creative visual conceit by itself would mark Dredd as dynamically original action film.  But the movie also succeeds because of its stoic, nearly ascetic artistic values.  The film quickly settles down into one setting and a central conflict, and doesn’t leave that arena, even though the temptation was no doubt to “world build” on a colossal scale. 

But the problem with traveling around and even outside the city, however, is that the sense of overwhelming urban blight, and thus dystopia, is lost.  The existential problem for those unlucky souls who inhabit this world is that they can’t escape the cycle of economic ruin and crime.  So to have Dredd flying off to locales far and wide (as he did in the 1995 film) would spoil the atmosphere of doom and hopelessness.  Dredd works so splendidly because the judge finds himself locked down in a claustrophobic trap, one where he must fight just to survive, let alone to execute the law.

Although the violence in Dredd is particularly bracing, it is also depicted in such a way as to be -- dare I say it? -- beautiful

In part, this aesthetic works very well because the film projects a hopeless future. The only way to experience pleasure for the poor and unemployed is to use “slo mo.” The drug permits one to mentally check out, and view the world as a kind of lumbering, slow-motion tapestry.  In this way, life is revealed as a slowly-shifting work of art, one with cascading light, frisson-able atmospherics and other tactile pleasures.

Nihilistically then, life can only be appreciated in a world that is not “convulsing, choking and breaking under its own weight,” to quote the film’s dialogue. Dredd’s drug-of-choice makes the visualization of the action revolutionary, but it also does something else too.  It reveals much about the culture that created it.

Ma-Ma’s death scene is the most egregious example of this aesthetic of violence. Dredd gives the crime boss a snoot-ful of slo-mo and pushes her off a high ledge. She will fall to her death down a trench of 200 levels, and the moments before her death will be extended dramatically because of the drug.

Is this a kind of mercy?

Or is it a brand of punishment? 

Does slowed down time augment and extend Ma-ma’s terror at the oncoming death, or does it lengthen the last few, precious moments of her life on this mortal coil?

Although I don’t view Dredd as the merciful type, I would argue that the visuals raise the question.  Ma-ma’s falling body seems to fall first through a shattered snow globe of sorts, with glittering debris all around, and then, she passes through a kind of color rainbow and atmospheric rain cloud.  Implicitly, she gets to experience one lost moment of beautiful life before hard, cruel reality re-asserts itself….violently.

Maybe that is punishment: the knowledge that she could have done things differently, and experienced life’s beauty for many more years had she not been so terrible and murderous.

In whatever way one chooses to parse this climactic sequence, it is visually dazzling, and a reminder that even in the most unpleasant situations, life is still the best game in town. 

 Most of the violence in the film also involves the restoration of order in an out-of-control setting, and from a certain perspective, that too can be a beautiful thing, or at least a relief. The moment of Ma-ma’s death expresses the effect of the drug, of but also the liberation of Peach Trees at Dredd’s hand.  It is a sustained, gorgeous, visual catharsis.  .

Sometimes it is useful to discuss a movie in terms of other movies, and indeed, that’s the case here.  Dredd features the Training Day (2001) scenario of an experienced cop showing a rookie the ropes. It also features the “hostile city” scenario of Black Hawk Down (2001), wherein American soldiers fought a whole metropolis rising up to kill them in Mogadishu, with precious few safe harbors.  And in keeping with the dystopia comparison the contained “future” city of Logan’s Run (1976) is not all that different from the Peach Trees slum.

The remarkable thing about Dredd is th smooth, uncluttered manner in which it silently assimilates all those cinematic references into a dynamic and surprising new narrative.  If Training Day was about a first day on the job, and a corrupt cop, Dredd concerns instead, a policeman who, no matter the situation, won’t abandon his principles. Black Hawk Down was about a foreign policy failure and its blow-back on America, but Dredd concerns a terminal, ubiquitous economic failure and the internal blow-back resulting from that problem. Even the glittering shopping mall city-of-the-future from Logan’s Run (1976) is reflected or overturned in the blighted commercial landscape of the Peach Trees Ghetto. 

Paradoxically, Dredd is both a dazzling movie, and a grounded one. It is dazzling in its visual imagination and audacity, yet grounded in the way it adheres to the rules of its grim, future world. There is little sentimentality in the film, and yet the burgeoning friendship between Dredd and Anderson nonetheless transmits beautifully.

After the Stallone version of the same material, I was “dreading” this re-boot, but director Peter Travis has given us a new classic, and one that I wager we’ll be discussing for years to come. A sequel would be great, but it isn’t, strictly-speaking, necessary. We now have the definitive Judge Dredd movie.

1 comment:

  1. I refused to watch any film with Stallone in it in the 90's because, well, it's Stallone. So I have never seen the 1995 adaptation. Furthermore I am much more discerning with sci-fi films than horror. Horror can be just fun, sci-fi, however, must by the very nature of having 'science' in title, be smart. And I pass on many recent sci-fi films because they lack that particular attribute.

    However, you have just made Dredd a absolute must-see. Thanks for the review.