in Civilization

Judging Dredd

While taking a vacation recently, I managed to let the new Judge Dredd trailer slip by unnoted. You can see now why I waited for the broad vista of the mega-city to appear before making any judgments from those early stills. The trailer above contains many encouraging signs that Hollywood has not been allowed to bollix things up like they did in 1995, when Sylvester Stallone proved incapable of pronouncing the title character’s catchphrase.

Judge Dredd is a badass lawman with inhuman self-possession, a powerful handgun, and a heavily-armed motorcycle, but he inhabits a city of 800 million restive humans facing 87% unemployment. The uncaring authoritarian grimace on his face is a necessity: he does not have time for compassion or pity. There are simply too many villains and not enough judges — with too many bored, panicky civilians in between. Crisis is a constant.

Psi-judge Anderson (the rookie judge in this origin story) has always been a complimentary character to Dredd, using her talents as an empath to fill in his emotional blind spots. She is just about the only character ever allowed to tease the humorless Dredd. He never removes his helmet, and she never wears hers. Together, they are one of the best screwball teams in comic book fandom.

Most of the film apparently takes place inside a single one of the massive housing projects called “blocks.” Architects working in the borderlands of science fiction and science fact call these futuristic structures “arcologies;” they are self-contained cities, and many of their residents never, ever leave them in the course of their long lives. There is nothing else to see: Mega City One is little more than paved highways between these blocks, and the rest of the world is a blasted wasteland.

Yes, Dredd is a commentary on our time, our manias, and the consequences of our consumer-driven lifestyle. Back when “cable television” meant you received a dozen extra channels through a plastic box on top of your set, there were already five thousand channels on every 3-D TV in the mega city. When artist Carlos Ezquerra first set out to visualize the world of Dredd, he was inspired by nighttime satellite images of urban sprawl on the American East coast.

The anomie and isolation of our world was always magnified a thousandfold in those pages, and when I read the comic during the 80s, the depressing necessity of fascism in the world of Dredd was always about the very real, creeping authoritarianism of Thatcher and Reagan. When mutants were evicted from the mega city, for example, it was an immigration narrative with a sad outcome. We still face these issues in the early 21st Century, and Dredd posits they are still problems at the beginning of the 22nd.

For example, the film centers on a drug called “slo-mo” that allows users to experience apparent time dilation. Maybe few contemporary drug users would find that compelling. But if he visited the mega city, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg could take lessons on how to create new criminal classes: sugar and caffeine are both banned from for their “addictive” qualities. Uncle Ump’s Umpty Candy was so delicious, factory shortages caused violent riots and the confectioner had to be exiled on a spaceship for his own safety. It is impossible to hold a major sporting event without using giant bulldozers with padded blades to push the losing team’s raging, disappointed fans out of the arena before they burn it down.

Because robots do all the real work, a supermajority of citizens live on the public dole. These entertainments are the only outlets for their human nature, and in such a world the mere illegality of “slo-mo” makes it too compelling to ignore. For the mega city is at once both a right wing authoritarian hellscape and the very caricature of the overgrown, liberal regulation and welfare state.

Not only is it possible to have the worst of both worlds, Dredd posits that they are intimately connected.

Within the microcosm of a single city block, this new film promises to tell that story with one-liners and asskicking. It still may not deliver, but the visuals in the preview  — like Karl Urban’s ability to say “I am the law” without making me cringe — tell me it is already far ahead of its poorly-realized cinematic predecessor. Frankly, I cannot wait to see how good this version really is.

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