Director: Pete Travis
Problematic: Protagonizing the police; protagonizing fascism; villainizing drug users; villainizing sex workers; misunderstandings of class and crime; etc.
Bechdel Test: Pass.
When it comes down to it, this is a film about some white cop who runs around a projects building killing poor people because some of them might be dealing drugs (drugs that honestly look really fun and aren’t presented as having any negative side effects). It’s one of those non-stop-action movies that’s light on complexity but high on moralizing. The protagonists have body armor and high-tech gizmos and the opponents are impoverished. It’s somewhat entertaining, has strange moments of beauty, and tries but fails to be anything but a feature-length accolade of how great the police are.
It’s hard to imagine that this film was written by and for anything other than suburban, middle- and upper-class Americans.
The character Judge Dredd comes the UK comic series 2000AD and is intended to be a black-comedy satire of authoritariansm. This film adaptation, however, seems to entirely miss the point. And, according to the screenwriter Alex Garland, intentionally so: it was written as he understood the comic as a ten-year old boy. So there you go. Unfortunately, while I’m all for black-comedy and satire, this film is direct proof as to why those things are dangerous when they go over people’s heads.
So Dredd. So let’s break it down. (spoilers are in light gray)
Alignment: The protagonist, Judge Dredd, is Lawful Neutral. The enforcement of existing law is his sole purpose of being. He is perhaps the single greatest paragon of Lawful Neutral in the entire pop culture pantheon. The only moral complexity presented to him is not whether or not Law is paramount to other potential ethic considerations, but only whether or not to overlook specific red tape that would hinder the furtherance of law and order. The antagonist Ma-Ma, a drug-dealing woman who became a cold-blooded killer because of prostitution (how original!), is Neutral Evil. She desires control and authority but has no need for any kind of internal consistency in her ethics, thus fluctuating between Lawful behavior and Chaotic behavior as best suits her demonization at the hands of the scriptwriters.
Race: Well, you’ve got two white people shooting up a projects building filled with that awful, evil specter: the drug dealer. About half of who are black. It’s about as post-racial as Obama’s america: a black woman is the Chief Judge, but the only other person of color presented as half-way human refuses to help the protagonists. The rest just exist to get shot. Oh, or to try to scare the white woman hero by discussing the idea of raping her.
Gender: The “white woman being sexually threatened by the black male” thing isn’t easy to overlook, and of course our villain went bad because, you know, sex work is somehow the worst and most evil thing in the world. But there are actually a few refreshing moments where gender is overlooked: there is no romantic tension in the movie; the woman hero, while captured, gets out of it herself and saves the male hero; and the evil woman isn’t coddled or treated much differently by the protagonists as any of her male compatriots.
Class: More than anything else, I believe that the filmmakers fell into one of the most ignorant and dangerous traps that media falls into when they portray the antagonism between law and crime: they present a black and white world of “criminals” and “innocents.” Early in the film, Judge Dredd chases a van full of drug using criminals who are, essentially, one-dimensional psychopaths. Since they’re being chased by Dredd (another one-dimensional pyschopath), they drive away as quick as they can and hit a bystander. Judge Dredd, of course, sees this as entirely the fault of the criminals, whom he summarily executes. For most of the film, all the poor people are divided into these two classes.
The most interesting parts of the film, therefore, are those moments that break away from this: the father who probably didn’t want to be hunting judges; the two children recruited to fight; the gawky hacker who was terrified of Ma-Ma. But the overall thrust of the film very much ignores the reality of poverty within a capitalist society, in which most poor people are, in some form or another, “criminal.”
Authoritarianism: This film is a parable about right and wrong, exemplified explicitly by the conflict between “law” and “chaos.” The protagonist is someone who runs around shooting people under the guise of “law.”
Closing thoughts: The messages in this film are awful. It’s essentially a film protagonizing—and even, in the final few moments, humanizing—a fascist. If you’re willing to accept that, it’s kind of an interesting interpretation of modern cyberpunk and some people might get something out of watching it. The world it is set in is interesting, and there’s something bizarrely refreshing about watching a character who sticks to his ethics and isn’t swayed by emotional arguments.
And of course, it’s okay to watch movies with bad messages in them. That’s why there’s critical thinking. (It’s also okay to not want to have anything to do with said movies.)