2012-10-02

Movie Review: Dredd 3D

Yesterday, I wrote a review of the time travel adventure movie Looper, and also discussed some recent trends in distopian futures in storytelling. But Looper was only one of two distopian science-fiction movies I watched over the weekend. Today, I'd like to review Dredd.

There is a certain appeal in watching both Looper and Dredd together. Far from being companion pieces, they nevertheless invite comparison and contrast given their many similarities.

First, and most obviously, they are both distopian science fiction films that take place in, if not the "near future," at least the foreseeable future. Both movies depict America as a ruinous metropolis. In this regard, Dredd takes things well beyond Looper. In Dredd, the entire population of the United States resides in a sprawling, metropolitan wasteland stretching "from Boston to Washington D.C.," surrounded by a giant wall, beyond which lies the radioactive aftermath of a future nuclear war.

Immediately, we can see that the setting of the movie draws from the comic book oeuvre from which the Judge Dredd character originates. This setting enables the film to fully leverage the character traits of its uncompromising hero.

And yet, astoundingly, Dredd showcases something far more complicated than another futuristic cop movie. Early on, we are told that there is something more to Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) than his super-cop persona. Judging from the alarmed facial expression of heroine Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thurlby), Judge Dredd is probably not a particularly good guy, deep down. So, in the ruins of what America has become - a chaotic, violent, drug-addled third world nation overrun by gangs and violence - the audience is presented with a dichotomous reality unfortunately faced by many people living in today's world.

That dichotomy is: On the one hand, society's only source of order in the chaos are people like Dredd, who serve as judge, jury, and executioner, doling out punishment liberally and violently. On the other hand, everyone is fully aware of how incredibly unsatisfying this arrangement is. The punishment for vagrancy, for example, is five years in prison. The judges enforce the law - everyone else lives in fear of not only the judges and the law, but also the chaotic alternative lives of crime they see around them. It's chaos at the hands of society or death at the hands of the judges. Anyone who has been to some of the less-stable locations of the world will feel something very familiar in this.

Enter Cassandra Anderson, a rookie judge who sets out with Dredd for her "assessment," which will determine whether she gets to permanently join the force. Cassandra, we are told, is a powerful psychic (themes of genetic mutation are present in both Dredd and Looper), but otherwise has been deemed not fit for duty. Judge Dredd is skeptical and assesses her harshly, which is a predictable but effective plot element. Cassandra is a kinder sort of person than the other judges, which initially plays as a weakness.

Together, they find their way to a giant "superstructure" called Peach Trees, a sort of skyscraper-slum-city consisting of poverty-addled bystanders and a gang boss called Mama, who aims to corner the market on a new street drug she manufactures within Peach Trees. The judges initially arrive to investigate a homicide, but soon find themselves battling it out with Mama and her gang of thugs, out-numbered, inferiorly armed, and with the odds otherwise stacked against them.

By the end of the movie, the audience is confronted with a choice between those two dichotomous elements. Are the judges and their cruel methods the path out of the violent chaos Dredd is fighting against, or are they part of the problem?

What I liked best about this movie is that, reflective of the many and increasing incidents of police brutality we see today, the film does not shy away from calling into question the validity and efficacy of police work. We see a clear delineation between good cops and bad ones; and the bad ones are very bad. Nor does the movie paint a rosy picture of the ravages of drugs. Every step of the way, we are asked, Which is the greater evil? And every step of the way, we see that there probably isn't a right answer.

Dredd 3D was a visually stunning - albeit incredibly violent - thrill ride that kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. While it is significantly less intellectual than Looper, it nonetheless satisfies the audience on many levels and is much more than a mere action film. It is far better than I believed it would be, and I highly recommend it.