I watched the 2012 Dredd remake last night. Following on the heels of the just so-so Total Recall remake, I thought this would be an interesting experiment considering the similarity of the source matter; both were remakes of cheesy 1990s Science Fiction extravaganzas staring actors known more for their physiques than their acting chops.
The original Judge Dredd is a stark reminder that once upon a time, Hollywood couldn’t make a comic book movie to save its greasy life. In the wake of Spiderman, The Dark Knight, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers, that’s a little hard to believe, but it’s true. Once the best Hollywood had to offer in the form of a comic book movie was The Fantastic Four. I don’t know how they figured it out but the current crop of DC & Marvel movies benefits from more than just better special effects. They benefit from excellent story structure and storytelling, as well.
The differences between the two remakes are stark. The look of Total Recall was good but derivative. The storytelling was rife with action tropes and, as noted before, there was a singular lack of emotional investment in the characters even though there was a romance at the heart of the story.
Everything that Total Recall gets wrong, Dredd gets right. The oversaturated chromatics give the colors a weird metallic vibe that sets the look apart from anything else I’ve seen in a while. I didn’t get to see this one in 3D because I was streaming it at home, but I wish I would have. The super slow motion, overexposed scenes showing the effects of the SloMo drug must have been nearly overwhelming to the senses. The megablocks, with their vaguely Soviet “good enough for government work” appearance, are also a better visual indicator of overpopulation than crowds of people standing in the rain.
But this blog is really about story, not about visuals, and that’s where Dredd scores well ahead of Total Recall. Whereas Total Recall wasted a perfectly good chance to humanize their story with the romance between Quaid and Melina, the Dredd writers realized straight off that their protagonist was a nonstarter for emotional involvement. Judge Dredd as a character is an Eastwood. He’s not capable of dramatic change or emotional connection. He’s more a force of nature than a person. So they rightly focused the emotional side of the story on Dredd’s rookie partner, Cassandra.
In the end, this is really Cassandra’s story, not Dredd’s. Not only does she have to go through the mouth and belly of Hell, a megablock run from top to bottom by a vicious gang led by a sociopathically disinterested Ma-Ma (played perfectly by Lena Heady), she has to do it as a psychic given to taking in the thoughts of those around her. This tower of despair is not filled with the sort of people whose thoughts would be comforting to read.
This is another good point the movie makes about overpopulation: the megablock is filled with equal parts good people and atrocious villains. When they run out of room, people live in despair cheek to jowl regardless of their proclivities. With no police force to protect them (Judge Dredd says early on that they can only respond to 6% of 911 calls) people are forced either into a life of crime or one of cowardice without recourse. This is highlighted when Ma-Ma shuts the building down and traps the two Judges inside so she can kill them. The ordinary citizens are ordered not to help or risk being killed themselves. There follow many scenes of terrified citizens closing their doors to the Judges.
The hail of bullets destroying property and innocent bystanders alike used to be Paul Verhoeven’s signature but now pretty much every science fiction movie spends more rounds than were used in all of World War II. This is probably because the simple act of shooting someone doesn’t have the impact it did when Dirty Harry did it. We are too inured to gun violence for a single bullet to impress us. Dredd uses this trope to good effect, however, to show the absolute worthlessness of human life inside the megablocks. Ma-Ma puts the exclamation point on this statement when she uses three Gatling guns to erase a whole floor, including all its civilians, by shooting right through the concrete walls.
Cassandra’s journey from idealistic rookie to full on Judge is a good one and Dredd’s character acts as a nice signpost indicating where she’s headed should she choose to go there. And that’s the difference between this plus-good movie and the just good Total Recall. There’s a journey to go with the chase.