According to the most recent data I’ve found online, the movie Dredd didn’t do well in first-weekend box-office returns, but I’m willing to risk the usual condescension of fellow academic critics by saying that it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. In fact, after Cabin in the Woods, which is only a 2012 title because of ludicrous industry roadblocks, it’s the best. Before I explain why, I have to admit that the entire Judge Dredd premise is politically terrifying, and before I explain why I’m able to overcome this terror and heap the film with praise, I want to review its competition.
First, the necessary Whedon-love: The Avengers is good, but I like my visual feasts and ingenious dialogue to make me see the world differently, and unlike his Cabin co-credit, The Avengers didn’t engage much beyond the visual part of the cortex. Then there was The Dark Knight Rises, which in addition to being the weakest film in its series in terms of visuals and story (forgive me, IMAX-lovers), left me so upset about its vilification of socially progressive opposition to the American aristocracy, signified by aristocrat Bruce Wayne’s opposition to Bane’s evilly co-opted rhetoric of the 99% against the 1%, that I couldn’t really enjoy it. Of course The Hunger Games gave the 99% our due, and I thought the film was pretty f’in great, but it was too geared to the under-18 set to stir the grown-up depths. Total Recall is worth a mention because its city-atop-a-city visuals were more inspired than the writing, which proved that having a better actor in a role doesn’t make for a better character or a better movie. Farrell is more generally talented, but as an action hero, Schwarzenegger reigns. And while the underrated Karl Urban brings more talent to the title role of Dredd than Sylvester Stallone dreamt of for the predecessor Judge Dredd, performance-wise, I’ll give greater credit to Stallone and Schwarzenegger both for turning in self-aware characters, in Expendables 2, who made me fondly wonder whatever happened to the Rambo action figure who emerged from my toybox again and again to avenge his Vietnamese “you not expendable” love. Still, although Expendables 2 might be fourth in my year-so-far rankings, it’s not in the same league as the second or third.
Third place: Resident Evil: Retribution. I’ve been a fan of this series since the beginning, and I think it has held up remarkably well, turning in gorgeous entry after gorgeous entry, with the most recent (the fifth) installment tying or exceeding the accomplishments of the original. Of course, Milla Jovavich’s hypnotizing beauty has always succeeded in making this gay man wonder what he’s missing, but beyond that, the combination of her overwhelming presence with stunning visuals and tomandandy‘s best score since Killing Zoe left me so psyched that I almost forgot that Prometheus, one scene excepted, made me weep for the future of sci-fi/horror/action.
Now then, all the notables noted, I need to tell you about why I initially felt embarrassed by how much I was enjoying Dredd. The premise of the film, and all its anteriors, is that in a post-apocalyptic future, the only hope of the honest folk is the Judges, heavily armed judge-jury-executioner types whose victory against the criminal overlords depends on governmental power that is undeniably fascist. OMFG, how could I cheer, in good conscience, for the idea that democratic justice should be entirely circumvented so that the elect few able to tell right from wrong can summarily execute the criminal element? Answer: I can’t. Such fantasies of totalitarian justice are, on the surface, utterly inexcusable, utterly opposed to the ideals at the heart of the U.S. constitution and anything for which I would ever cast a vote.
I’m going to delay my self-exculpating argument just a bit longer so that I can explain why, even if I don’t convince you that the film isn’t fascistic poo, you might want to see Dredd, a.k.a. Dredd 3-D. I’m sure there are all kinds of technical reasons why I shouldn’t say this, but for me, it was the most visually sumptuous experience since Avatar. The film’s central plot-conceit, that the post-apocalyptic world is threatened by another apocalypse courtesy of slo-mo, a drug that makes people perceive life at a fraction its normal speed, is an excuse for AMAZING visuals. More than once, the film earns its strong-R rating with bodies on 100-story drops exploding in sparkling glass and shimmering blood. The color palette is astonishingly warm, with reds and yellows distinguishing it from the usual dystopian sci-fi fare. Heavy artillery unleashed by best-villain-in-ages Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, the lead from Sarah Connor Chronicles, whose show-stealing performance should earn her A-list status), culminates in one of the best boss-battle conclusions ever. I don’t want to spoil anything, but imagine the logical limit of bloody 3-D carnage–what’s the most spectacular way for a person to die on camera?
Okay, now for the exculpation. How can I champion a film in which the title character is a state-empowered judge-jury-executioner? While Americans often forget that this country is about justice that protects minorities, how can I, an American with a memory, support such a vision of rights-ignoring empowerment?
Answer: Dredd, like the entire Resident Evil franchise, is based on the aesthetics of a first-person-shooter video game. In fact, Resident Evil movies have distinguished themselves by being more-video-game-than-video-game. The first film of the series features a multi-level “hive” through which characters must battle like characters seeking to “level up” by clearing tier after tier of enemies. How shocked was I, since I saw the movie before I played the game, that The Hive doesn’t even exist beneath the game’s terror-inducing mansion! Resident Evil: Retribution improves this gaming aesthetic by having characters advance through levels of terror represented by environments from earlier films–the Tokyo level, for example–that present ass after ass for sexy Milla Jovovich to kick. Resident Evil: Retribution and Dredd, both 3-D, are both first-person-shooter films, which means that they both equate their lead characters’ perspectives with those of the spectators, whose pleasures drive the slaughter of enemies.
Dredd‘s video-gaminess is no less obvious than Resident Evil‘s: at the beginning of the film, Dredd enters a 200-level building. He must fight his way up through the levels, where Ma-Ma, the big boss, waits at the top.
Alice, Milla Jovovich’s character in Resident Evil, is a genetically superior warrior who used to work for the evil military-industrial-pharmaceutical power-corporation Umbrella. Although a woman, she’s an ubermensch, which might make her a fascist fantasy comparable to the judge-jury-executioner Judge Dredd. So… how can I cheer for them? How can I rate their movies so highly?
Answer (again): both films are first-person shooters, which means that the heroes are stand-ins for the spectators. While the films’ stories may position the heroes as totalitarian powers, the structures and perspectives endow the spectators with such power, making the viewer’s, the democratic everyperson’s, the empowered position, NOT the rarefied position of the genetically or financially superior 1%’s. As Alice and Dredd fight their way through the levels, so do we. Ma-Ma, despite her gender (a weak mask–she’s still patriarchy), is The Man.
Ma-Ma’s Man status may not be as obvious as that of Umbrella, the evil pharmaceuticals company in the Resident Evil franchise that turns most of the world into zombies. But Ma-Ma is a drug dealer, planning to take over the world with the drug slo-mo. With her market-cornering muscle and bullying disposition, she is far more like policy-shaping American drug companies than she is like the heroin-pushing thugs she more superficially resembles. By putting viewers in the first-person-shooter position, Dredd and Resident Evil both empower the viewers, us 99%-ers, to take on the military-industrial-medical complex in ways we never thought possible. I’m not saying these films or I advocate for violent revolution. The fantasy of first-person shooters isn’t, for the sane, the fantasy of mowing down the innocent with a hail of bullets. It’s the fantasy of resisting seemingly impossible powers, Ma-Ma, Umbrella, the military-industrial-medical complex. And that’s the fantasy behind breathtakingly beautiful films like Resident Evil: Retribution and Dredd. I’m sorry that these films had to wait until the end of summer to get their blockbuster due, but I hope they do, inspiring viewers like you the same way they’ve inspired me.