Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dredd (2012)

So Judge Dredd...

::scratches head::

I guess, the fascism of Dredd...

::takes off glasses, rubs eyes::

I don't know. According to Wikipedia, a fair number of reviewers gave this positive marks, and I can definitely see some positive aspects to it: the contrast between the gray reality and the multicolored splendor of the hot new drug; the unrepentant view of Dredd as a hard man who has no real character beyond his perseverance of his job; the morally questionable nature of the Judge program itself.

But while some of that is true to the character, I can't really understand why people like this character enough to return to him. I mean, when he was created in Thatcher's England, part of the enjoyment is in watching a hard man kick ass; but there's also a real parodic edge to this guy who is, in essence, an incarnation of anarchy in the cloak of law. He's a vigilante hero for people who always fantasize about being on the right side of a gun. (In fact, with Dredd's super-tech gun, he's always on the right side: any one else who tries to use a Judge's gun will find their hand blown off.)

OK, let's put all that Dredd history stuff to the side. How does this film fare as a story? How does it paint characters?

Not so well, I think. Lena Headley's kingpin Ma is ruthless and violence prone, but there's not much under that. Thrilby's rookie/psychic Anderson looks sadly at a picture of her dead parents and seems to want to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people--but beyond that, there's not much to her. And Dredd himself is a cipher, a man who is indistinguishable from his job--and since the job doesn't change, neither does he. Even when he discovers (spoiler) that Ma has hired some Judges to kill him, he never has any questions or doubts. And he never takes off his helmet, which is a bold choice because it's so alienating. But that boldness doesn't erase the alienation. Who could ever identify, connect--or even care about these Judges?

Which is the main problem with this film. The plot has a videogame/roleplaying game structure that, frankly, I think works: the Judges are trapped in the above-ground dungeon of this locked-down super-apartment complex, and they have to survive the attacks of the monsters while searching for a way out--or take the fight to the mastermind. No points for guessing which they do.

That would work fine, with the Judges facing more danger and greater stakes, if we cared about any of the stakes. Does it matter if these Judges survive? Eh, there are plenty more. Will the Judges help save the innocent people caught in the crossfire? No, and that's not even really their job. Are the judges so unambiguously good? Well, no, as I said before: part of the character's core concept is that he's a semi-fascist killing machine.

I wonder if this sort of empty and ambiguous character works better in comic book form, where his adventures gain a veneer of unreality. So we can enjoy his tremendous violence because he's just hurting other drawings, not real people.

No matter what media you put him in, I think the key issues in writing a successful Dredd work are to make the characters around him interesting, so that his quest to protect them has some emotional weight; while their reactions to him should show that they think of him in a positive but realistic way (to help lead the readers to that position). Also: make his enemies unambiguously evil if you want to make his unrelenting quest for justice seem good. Or maybe not--maybe some ambiguity to the villains would help throw into relief the bad aspects of the judging system that threatens killers and victims alike.

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