Title: Dredd 3D
UK Cinematic Release: 7st September 2012
Worldwide Cinematic Release: 21st September 2012
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, and Wood Harris
Written by: Alex Garland
Directed by: Pete Travis
Cinematography by: Anthony Dod Mantle
Audio Description: Available in at least some cinemas
My initial response, hot off the press when I got in last night: I haven’t seen a film like that this side of the millenium. For clarity: I’m not saying it’s the very best film this side of the millennium. I’m not saying it’s the most original. I’m not even saying it’s the best or most original science fiction film this side of the millenium (Moon and Serenity, at the very least, are clear contenders). But a film like this? A smart, visually stunning, action packed and graphically violent movie with varied and powerful female characters that presents a vision of the future that is new and architecturally experimental – a real film of dystopic vision, like this? No, I haven’t seen its like.
I talked in my review of Moon about how modern science fiction has stagnated somewhat and is failing to present us with new and interesting visions of the future in the way it did in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In my review of Prometheus I noted that one of its saving graces was that it was at least trying to break out of the familiar mould that has developed over the last 10-15 years of entertaining, but not ground-breaking (except effects-wise) movies. Moon was excellent, but a very different type of movie to Dredd 3D. Same goes for Serenity, and whilst Serenity can lay a claim to violence, originality, and dystopic vision to an extent, it’s not operating on the same scale as Dredd 3D, and it must be conceded that its original setting was developed more fully before the movie in the television series, Firefly. Dredd is doing something different again.
Minimally Spoiltastic Plot Summary
In a dystopic future where crime is almost entirely out of control, the only force that stands between what remains of the law-abiding citizenry and violent anarchy are an elite group of Judges. Judges bear little similarity to anything we would recognise by that term today. They judge, sentence, and execute the law in person, and their justice is swift and harsh.
Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the most impressive and feared of the judges. He is assigned by the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) to assess a new recruit, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson failed the physical requirements to be a judge by three points, but the Chief is intrigued by the value of her unusual psychic abilities. As a mutant, she should have been executed herself, but her powers have such potential that the Chief wants to give her a chance.
Dredd allows Anderson to choose her own assignment for her assessment. She decides to respond to a report of a homicide in Peach Trees – a tower block so notorious that even Judges rarely venture in. Peach Trees is effectively under the total power of the Ma-Ma clan. Ma-Ma is the leader of the gang, Madelaine Madrigal (Lena Headey), and her brutal rule is enforced by her horrific punishment for any who cross her – she skins them alive, shoots them high with the drug ‘Slo-Mo’ (which extends perceived time and heightens sensation), and throws them off the top floor of the tower complex to splatter in the central courtyard as a message to others.
The judges enter, and using Anderson’s ability they locate the man who skinned the three victims, Kay (Wood Harris). Ma-Ma knows Kay can identify and implicate her if interrogated – she cannot let the judges leave with Kay alive. Shutting the blast doors on the tower, Ma-Ma orders the inhabitants of Peach Trees to hunt and kill the judges – the doors will not be reopened until she knows they are dead. Dredd and Anderson must fight their way to the top, against a tower full of people who want them dead, or are too afraid of Ma-Ma to help them, in order to carry out Ma-Ma’s sentence (death) and escape.
Why did it rock my world?
First off, let’s talk about Ma-Ma. Yes, the name ‘Ma-Ma’ is annoying because it once again suggests that a woman’s power is rooted in her reproductive capacity, but the name is as deep as that goes, and it is at least in-world based on the character’s full name, Madelaine Madrigal. You can see why it was chosen. Ma-Ma is indisputably Lena Headey’s best role. Headey first came to my attention playing Sarah Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I was pleasantly surprised by the show, which was much truer to the original concept than any of the films after T2. Headey was a relatively weak link, though, achieving a passable impression of Linda Hamilton, the original Sarah Connor, but never really making the role her own. More recently, she has risen to fame as Cersei in HBO’s award winning TV production of George R R Martin‘s Game of Thrones. I thought this was a better role for her, and she has improved notably in the second season. But he role as Ma-Ma has taken her to a new level. This is the tough she never quite achieved as Sarah Connor. It’s beyond tough. Ma-Ma is a terrifying vision of a woman who really could sieze control and hold a 200 storey tower block in fear.
This may be the best role for a woman we have seen in a very, very long time; and even though Ma-Ma’s origin story is rooted in having been a prostitute, there is no question that her current power has anything to do with sex. Lena Headey is still a beautiful woman, even with that scar, but Ma-Ma couldn’t be further from Cersei on the philosophy of female power. When a man sexually abused Ma-Ma, she bit off his dick and seized his empire.
I mention that detail specifically because it underscores a theme of sexuality and power that is explored with nuance. Anderson also experiences a moment of sexual threat, and uses this vision of a woman violently taking her power back as a way of underlining that women can be physically threatening, even in the sexual context, too. It draws attention to the question of women and power and sex, and it offers a novel response in rejecting the accepted order that women should fear men in the sexual arena because of their physical superiority. We are reminded that in the sexual context men are uniquely vulnearble to women, also, and not in the usual way in which women are forced to manipulate men by subjugating themselves to male sexual desire. No, this is a physical and violent way in which women can seize power. It surprised and challenged me, which so few films succeed in doing on this topic.
In contrast to Ma-Ma, Anderson is much more feminine than I had expected from the trailers. It’s also disappointing to have yet another woman’s super-power lie in being able to sense the thoughts and emotions of others. It’s a power that can barely be called metaphorical for the old idea of ‘feminine intuition’ – the concept used to condescendingly attribute to women a sixth sense that supposedly makes up for their inability to cope with masculine concepts like logic and rational thought. She is also annoyingly blessed with an artificially curled and implausible hairstyle that manages to stay undisturbed almost until the last frame. Nevertheless, it is clear that this film is not so much a film about how awesome Judge Dredd is (although he is that) as an origin story for Anderson. She’s the rookie in this picture, and we’re viewing her fairly impressive baptism of fire. One is not left at the end of the movie with any impression that she is lacking in mental or physical toughness.
Dredd himself is excellent. I have an affection for the 1995 film, Judge Dredd, that I know few fans of the comics share, but I’m here to reassure you that Urban’s Dredd is a million miles from Stallone’s. Urban was a surprise choice for the ultimate-square-jaw-grim-face, Dredd. Hard to see the elven Éomer or the enthusiastically good humoured Bones as a potential Judge Dredd, but I’ve come to realise that Urban is something of a chameleon. He plays this role to perfection, complete with the extreme down-turned mouth for which Judge Dredd is known, yet somehow avoiding caricature. He brings the requisite gravitas to the picture whilst never stooping to the implausible growl of Christian Bale‘s Batman. Moreover, he comfortably shares the screen with Ma-Ma and Anderson, balancing the task of marking the iconic figure he is playing whilst never over-powering his scenes.
In addition to good central casting, Dredd also stands out for its supporting cast. I’d like to see Wood Harris play something other than a drug dealer and thug, but he and Rakie Ayola are both good, and it’s nice to see more people of colour on our screens. The main characters are all white, alas, but they are the exception. Perhaps due to being largely filmed in South Africa, beyond the central three characters, virtually everyone else in this film is a person of colour. It’s such a relief to see a film where the crowds aren’t as white-washed as the leads. Moreover, I particularly enjoyed Rakie Ayola’s role as Chief Judge. We have seen increasing numbers of women in senior positions in film and television, but rarely women of colour, and as I have commented elsewhere, this is not the progressive statement it appears to be. These women are almost universally set up to be undermined by their more intelligent, more charismatic, excentric and rebellious male subordinates. This is not the case with the Chief. She clearly knows exactly what she is doing and exactly how to handle both Dredd and Anderson to make them get the best out of each other.
As I commented to my geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, in our post-film animated discussion, we’re finally getting to see characters like Leia again. What’s that, you say, Princess Leia? The one who falls in love with Han Solo and needs rescuing from Darth Vader and from being Jabba’s improbable sex slave? If that’s how you read her character, we see things differently. Leia is the most consistently capable character in the Star Wars movies. Her only flaw as a female character is that by starting at a level of competence so far above the other main characters she doesn’t progress in terms of capability over the course of the three movies. This makes her more of a feature for the male characters to bounce off in their progression, and means that any character development she undergoes must be emotional. Nevertheless, after Han and Luke have thoroughly bungled their attempt to rescue her, Leia rescues herself – as she does also once she has been captured by Jabba the Hutt. Or did you forget who it was who strangled that fearsome mobster to death with the chains of her own slavery?
Like Leia, both the Chief Judge and Ma-Ma start the film as generals, and they remain impressively competent throughout. Dredd does not need to undermine them by showing them up as silly women that he can run rings around – rather, he is more impressive because he is valued by so impressive a woman as the Chief Judge, and because he is pitted against so impressive an adversary as Ma-Ma. Other writers take note: you don’t have to make women look silly in order to make men look good. In fact, if your men only look good against silly and improbably powerful women, you’re undermining yourself.
However, the fourth main character, after Dredd, Anderson, and Ma-Ma, is not the Chief Judge or Kay, it is the setting. It’s frustrating, but I can’t find any images of the interior of Peach Trees that would really show you what I’m talking about. You catch glimpses of it in the trailer above, but it doesn’t really give you a clear idea. The vistas of the mega-city are only a part of it. The interiors are like a run-down, dirty inversion of a Logan’s Run style future. You can see the artistry and beauty in the design of the Peach Trees’ central courtyard, but whatever the architect intended, Peach Trees has become a slum. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Dredd embodies the sort of dystopic vision we haven’t seen in a long time. This is art. And the art direction of this film is stunning – beyond compare in recent history.
Concept, technology, and technique have come together in this movie to create not only a vision of Dredd’s future, but a vision of the future of film – the vision that was still-birthed in Prometheus and conceived in Avatar. This is 3D beautiful and unintrusive as it was in The Amazing Spider-man, but moving beyond creating something beautiful and dynamic in a well-made-but-not-conceptually-original superhero movie. This is the construction of a fully-realised world, visually beautiful, but also ugly and dirty and dynamic and violent and fully integrated with the plot and its themes. Pete Travis and Anthony Dod Mantle deserve Oscars for this. There has not been a film that used light and camera angles and editing and CGI and the 3D technology like this ever.
But I doubt they will get the awards they deserve. This is Dredd’s opening week in the UK, and it wasn’t showing in our city’s most central cinema. The screening Lee and I went to was virtually empty. We’ve got to fill up the cinemas for this, guys. We have to make this film known and recognised for its achievement. Get out there. See it. Love it. Talk about it.