The Empty Balcony: Dredd

“Let’s finish this.” Really? Still, it’s good. Trust me.

Blink and you would have missed it. Dredd, written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis, went in and out of movie theaters so quickly this fall that by the time I realized it had been released, it was already gone. Maybe it was a failure of marketing, maybe it was a lack of interest in the characters, maybe it was just fatigue after a summer filled with overwrought comic book adaptations which kept viewers away. And, it has to be said, maybe it was the hard ‘R’ rating the film earned. Whatever the reasons, one or a combination of all of these and more, Dredd was a flop. Which is too bad, because it was the best of the comic book films released this year, and one of the best comic book films I’ve ever seen.

Judge Dredd is a character with a long pedigree that is largely unknown to the American public, so bear with me while I provide a little background. Set in the early 22nd century, Dredd is a tale of the eponymous Judge set in a fascistic police state that has replaced the American republic after a worldwide nuclear war. Humanity has retreated from much of the world, choosing to wall themselves off in huge mega-cities. On the east coast, Mega-City One is home to hundreds of millions of people packed together in a mess of urban sprawl. Unemployment hovers north of ninety percent, poverty and crime are rampant. The overwhelmed judicial system, such as it is, now consists of uniformed and armed Judges, who police the streets, try criminals on the spot, and dole out immediate punishment, including execution.

Many citizens live in gigantic residential towers called blocks, rising some 200 stories into the air and housing tens of thousands of people. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), and Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), respond to a call of a triple homicide in a block and end up locking horns with Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a former prostitute turned drug lord, who oversees the sale and manufacture of slo-mo, a drug that slows down a user’s perception of time. Ma-Ma closes off the block from the rest of the city, trapping the two Judges inside. The movie then follows Dredd and Anderson as they fight off waves of homicidal gang members and work their way towards Ma-Ma.

One of the complaints I’ve had about comic book films based on superheroes is that the stories are too grand in scope. Most of these characters have origins as crime-fighters, yet all those that make it to film feature plots where the fate of a city, the world, or even the entire universe is at stake. Every film must be grander than the one which came before. Even the Nolan Batman trilogy, which supposedly grounded the character in the real world, was guilty of this. In every one of his films, a supercriminal tries to destroy Gotham City. What reality is this, exactly?

Costumed crime-fighters and their arch-enemies engage in an endless, over-dramatized dance, see-sawing back and forth between chaos and righteous order, with the balance of good and evil always returned to equilibrium in the end, stay tuned for next week, next month, when it all starts again. But not Dredd, at least not in this film. Leave it to a film that takes place in a walled, dystopian future city bordering a nuclear wasteland to pull a comic book film back from the same territory pro wrestling inhabits.

At heart, Dredd is a very simple story. Beyond a quick voiceover at the start, there’s little context provided. A viewer gets a couple quick glimpses of Mega-City One, and then it’s on into the windowless slums of the tower block. By keeping things simple, writer Garland manages to avoid the vast majority of the eye-rolling moments a film like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, or The Amazing Spider-Man produces. There’s no ambiguity, no reverses or betrayals of trust. There’s good guys, bad guys, and when the good guys meet the bad guys, it’s the opposite of those ridiculous Blofeld/Bond moments you get with normal fare.

Garland cut the fat out of the story, then, and left the viewer with a focused, tight plot. One thing he did leave out that is a huge part of the source material, though, is absurdity. The world of the Judge Dredd comics isn’t just futuristic, sprawling, and horrible to live in. It’s also darkly funny. One of the major ways the comic is tolerable is in its embrace of black humor. It goes for the spectacle, the splash, the violence and the blood, the commercial and even the silly, but seeing the characters deadpan their way through the bizarre world in which they live can be hilarious. There’s nothing funny about Dredd, though. This can be traced to the lack of clownish characters (which don’t translate well to films, anyway), but also in the film’s almost overwhelming violence.

The violence Pete Travis supplies is graphic and brutal. There are close-ups of concrete-splattered heads, slow-motion shots of bullets exiting faces, and blood, blood, blood. And it’s not cartoonish in any way. It’s not real, either, but it was clearly intended to be unsettling. Mission accomplished. It’s not frivolous violence. Violence of this level would be unconscionable were it frivolous. Travis uses the violence as a way to hammer home the awful reality of life in Mega-City One, but it’s a fine line he’s walking. He uses other means, as well, chief among them, Judge Dredd.

Judge Dredd is hardly a sympathetic character, but just about all his humanity has been stripped away in the film interpretation. Urban’s Dredd is not just a stone-faced arbiter of harsh justice. In this film, he is a horror, a killer, more than just a jack-booted thug. The idea that a man like this would be necessary in any society, even a fictional future one, is the scariest things about Dredd. If Judge Dredd represents order, then the chaos must be truly epic.

Finally, what’s left to explore is the film’s failure at the box office. Why it failed may be hard to pin down, but the lessons the studios will take from the failure are not. The small story was something I praised about this film. The few people that did see Dredd must have agreed. They liked the movie, a lot, if other reviews and viewer ratings are any indication. But studios will look for the fault to avoid when they make their movies, and the small story may look like the culprit. After all, big story comic book films raked in piles and piles of cash this summer. The failure of Dredd and its small story removes any incentive the studios may have had to put a small story to film. More spectacle, higher stakes, inexhaustible amounts of melodrama…these are the things viewers can continue to expect from comic book movies, because one film that operated on a human scale failed to attract viewers. That’s too bad.