Nov 14, 2012
Note: Somewhat spoilery, but nothing you wouldn’t guess at if you read the comic.
Watching Dredd was like stepping into a time machine that took me back to the 80’s and the gloriously apocalyptic, overpopulated, crime-ridden society that the media of the time all insisted we were headed toward.
There are all sorts of theories about why this future never happened, including an uptick in policing and the legalization of abortion (yes, really), and it’s funny because when that future melted away, it was almost anti-climactic, like the falling of the Berlin Wall. Here we’d spent all this time dreading a communist takeover/nuclear winter here in the US and then one day all that hocus pocus freakytime scary future stuff was just… over. You just woke up one day and everything you’d been told about the world and where you were headed wasn’t true anymore.
So Dredd was a throwback to some earlier time, when the ravenous hordes of humanity and blasted apocalypse wasteland felt like a tangible thing. It’s fun.
But, admittedly – it’s dated.
Dredd has some good stuff going for it, on the face of things. There’s the setting – the massive city blocks, the endemic crime, the wild west style judges. And then there’s the inclusion of Lena Headey as our Big Bad guy, a delightfully terrifying bad guy and perfect choice here (so few good female bad guys). Her facial scar is actually disfiguring, which is a nice change from the old “We’ll give the hot chick a nick on her cheek and talk about how ugly she is now a la the baddie from Red Sonja. But even Red Sonja baddie wasn’t nearly as scary as Lena Headey baddie, who totally had me shaking in my boots, and made me think that maybe seeing Nyx on the big screen someday isn’t too much of a stretch.
That isn’t to say this weird movie is all progressive when it comes to female characters. It had the annoying habit of focusing intently on the sexuality of its female heroines (if this was a not-weird thing, then we’d also have lots of nods to the sexuality of our male characters, too, and that just wasn’t there), so our scary baddie lady is, naturally, a former prostitute. And when we get to our psychic female Judge-in-training, well… well, of course she is blond, finds a hand-wave reason not to wear a helmet (ahaaahaaa And it’s even hand-waved in a pithy bit of dialogue that had me rolling), and is endlessly threatened with rape (and from a dark skinned man, no less).
For one glorious moment at the end of the film, I actually thought this movie might have passed the Bechdel test. The Head Judge is a woman (and not white, even!), and actually has a conversation with our judge-in-training that I thought might have qualified… until I realized that what the Head Judge asks her about is… Dredd. And when the judge-in-training meets up with Lena Headey Badass, they talk about… Dredd.
I actually went into this appreciating the diversity of the cast and the great character actors in the background (it was filmed in South Africa, I found out later). But then I realized that though all of the background characters were mixed, all of the Judges featured in the film were white except for the Head Judge. It was a little odd. But, OK, we’ll handwave that because at least we’ve got Head Judge. And Ok, Bechdel test ::sigh:::
This is a pretty violent little film, and reminded me a lot of Robocop. It had that over-the-top, comic bookey violence – and also about half a dozen slow-motion scenes that got really, really old the third or fourth time they employ it. Dredd was a failure of a film, for me, but it was, at least, an entertaining failure. All of the choppy scenes, and the ridiculous violence and over-the-top rapey crap and silly, useless psychic plot and all the rest are basically what happens when you try and directly translate a comic book to a film. All of that stuff that looks really cool in comic panels over several issues starts to look monotonous and over-the-top on film, especially when you’re trying to make an 80’s comic into a 2012 film.
At the end of the film, I realized that though I enjoyed individual parts (handwaving all the rapey bits and lack of explosive fight scene with Lena Headey at the end and mostly-white judges and the endless slow-mo scenes), the actual thing that bothered me the most was that I never connected with any of the characters. We got very little backstory or emotion from anybody, and the judge-in-training was just… so distant, and her “power” so ridiculously useless in practice (she reads minds right up until her captive jumps her. I really hoped this would be shown as a deliberate move on her part in order to infiltrate Bad Lady’s hive of evil, but it turns out she was just taken hostage through her own incompetence).
What the lack of emotion means is that nobody really has an arc. We’re told that psychic-judge-in-training was pushed through judge training, but I never got she really wanted to be a judge, so her non-interest in the position at the end didn’t feel like a progression. Maybe it’s Dredd who shows progression when he decides to “pass” her even though she didn’t follow orders to the letter, but even then… I dunno. I knew so little about Dredd to begin with that I wasn’t so sure this was a huge leap for him. I didn’t feel like I got to know these people, so had very little interest in their outcome. Dredd is simply a throwback to an earlier time, and is very evocative of the comics. Life for women is generally pretty rapey and all men are emotionless, badass Snake Pliskins (this movie reminded me a lot of the issues and set pieces of another 80’s comic, V for Vendetta, actually).
I give this one some points for Lena Headey (why did she have to be a former prostitute, though??) and the casting of the Head Judge, but basically it was just foisting an already problematic comic book into another format, without any thought as to how it could be reinterpreted or imagined.
Sometimes I think our obsession with being faithful to source material is actually really misguided. Reboots are the fan fiction of film – in order to stay relevant, it’s important that we encourage and allow our stories to be remixed and reimagined, or they all come out feeling a bit like Dredd – some kind of clumsy, cliche-ridden homage to a dead future.