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Watching Dredd at a late night screening here on a cold, late night in Helsinki left a profound impression on me. As I departed the warmth of the cinema with the quite trippy and violent images shaped by Anthony Dod Mantle and the sublime perma scowl of Karl Urban as the titular futuristic lawman coalescing in my tiny brain, I felt an incredible awareness of the architecture of the city at night. The haze of a winter fog enshrouded the forms of several buildings with neon and interior lights enhancing the shape of form of several buildings and they seemed transformed. Somewhat spectral, imposing, quasi futuristic, symbols of a modern city and the ideas and emotions that energize it. A cold kind of beauty shaped from an ideal of modern living; to make life more productive, efficient, easier and by extension  happier for it’s citizenry by fusing aestheticism, capitalism and utilitiarianism.

In Dredd, co-directed by Peter Travis & Alex Garland, the pattern of monster tower blocks dot the vast sprawl of Mega City One, a late 21st century city vision of post-apocalyptic East Coast America. In this films vision of Judge Dredd‘s early years, these towering concrete and steel monoliths – here represented mainly by main location, the terrifyingly dismal Peach Trees block- remind us of the city sprawls of most late 20th century Western cities; multi storey car parks, high rise flats, corporate, government and civic  buildings that fit uneasily into the urban planning aesthetic. In Mega City One’s tower blocks, living and leisure spaces co-exist in disharmony, not  a particularly far fetched concept nowadays.

The opening scene lays out the geography of the city and a  bleak uniform is already taking hold; these  terrifying blocks will soon come to house the majority of it’s 800 million inhabitants. They represent an attempt by those in power within the Halls of Justice -another building adorned by a giant symbolic eagle which intimidates and impresses, dwarfing the judges who occupy it and striking fear into the criminals who seek to avoid it – to control and organize the chaos of this overpopulated metropolis with Judge Dredd the extended arm of this system; judge, jury and executioner in one. The brutalist architecture brings to mind the look of future Detroit aka Delta City in Robocop(1987), a cinematic forerunner to Dredd in many ways and which may have been influenced by the Judge Dredd comic strip itself in it’s inception. In Paul Verhoeven‘s comic book style satire, a giant corporation known as OCPruns the police force and it’s ultra modern HQ building lords it over the bleak,  grey and rust coloured cityscape it now rules and plans to redevelop and privatize for it’s own profitable ends.

Here, the ruling force is  transparently sinister; ruthless, cheerful capitalists and Robocop himself is just a product, recycled from the body of a dead police officer. In both of these fictional science fiction universes, life is cheap and the future is a nasty place to be.  In Dredd’s universe, the Justice Department are a self-appointed moral force acting for the supposed greater good. But whereas OCP claim benevolence whilst pursuing a hidden agenda of greed, Mega City One’s Fathers seemingly have the best interests of humanity at heart. That righteous pursuit comes at a price however and while Robocop delineates the line between good and evil quite clearly with Alex Murphy’s resurrected law enforcer the hero we identify with, Dredd is an unquestioning authoritarian servant with few if any humanizing features save for his beak, sardonic sense of humour. The line of morality in Dredd’s comic book universe is not so easily delineated.

This lack of clear personality and audience identification may have beenthereason for Dredd’s failure at the box office recently. Throughout, Karl Urban plays Dredd without once removing his helmet thereby dehumanizing the character to an extent. Dredd is defined by his dry humour and his toughness but late on in the film, when other judges arrive on the scene I found myself unable to tell the difference between Dredd and his fellow judges. After all, there must be thousands, millions of judges wearing the same uniform policing Mega City One and this is the one thing that Robocop and to a lesser extent, 1995’s Judge Dredd had in their commercial favour.

We see Peter Weller as Robocop before his violent demise and we see Sylvester Stallone as Dredd when he removes his headgear. Thus, we the audience can look into their eyes and see their humanity. We don’t have this luxury in Dredd. Scriptwriter Garland wants to please the hardcore fans of the comic strip but in the process maybe alienating a mainstream audience. The commercial failure of Stallone’s Dredd had much to do with a poor screenplay and direction rather than any particular problem with Stallone’s portrayal I feel. Robocop succeeded because it excelled in nearly every creative area and had a sympathetic protagonist that viewers connect with.

So what to make of  Dredd’s quick disappearance at the international box office despite critical raves? There are several theories to explain it-with one of them mainly being the films producers deciding it wise to distribute Dredd solely in 3-D form thereby immediately cutting off a potential 2-D audience. Simply put, a cult comic book film asking the average punter to pay over the odds for a ticket which they have to see in 3-D  without offering them a cheaper 2-D alternative? Commercial folly surely? Particularly for a film with a 45 million dollar production budget. Not a huge figure by modern standards and still less than the Stallone fiasco cost 17 years ago but for an independently produced science fiction action movie based on a cult property,  quite a large sum. Considering the lack of star power that would potentially attract an audience beyond the Dredd fans- no offense to Mr Karl Urban who owns the part- and the no doubt unwanted associations with Stallone’s bomb, the producers instincts seem counter productive.

Putting all of the business aspects to the side as well as the strange controversy surrounding director Pete Travis’ supposedly mutual abdication to screenwriter Alex Garland in the editing room, the resulting product happens to be quite impressive indeed. If that sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, I can assure you I’m not. At times, it resembles the perfect synthesis of comic book and art film. It ain’t perfect and my interest begin to wane somewhat at  the hour mark as the paper thin plot began to turn it’s wheels but considering the limited budget, it’s as close to perfect as a cinematic vision of a Judge Dredd comic strip can get.

Subtle, clever  production design by Mark Digby grounds the film in a convincing future reality, Paul Leonard Morgan’s thumping score contains elements of industrial, dance and psychedelia that perfectly match the unrelenting action and violence while Anthony Dod Mantle’s beautiful camera work elevates the film to another level visually, slowing down time like Peckinpah on LSD with several scenes that wouldnt look out of place as an experimental art installation on ‘Motion’ in a modern art museum. Solid performances, tight editing, a pared down plot  and streaks of gallows humour round out an excellent package. That all sounds like film biz tosser speak doesn’t it?

So no more Dredd films it would seem. Which is a pity as this is a tantalizing glimpse at an expansive world of possible narratives. Perhaps a cable series from HBO, AMC etc or an international BBC co-production could truly exploit the Judge Dredd universe without the financial pressures or creative compromises of the mainstream film market? Just an idea.

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