Dredd: The Best Movie John Carpenter Never Made?
The thus-far sequel-less Dredd owes a debt of gratitude to the work of John Carpenter. And here's why...
Despite working with modest budgets, John Carpenter made a series of iconic films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Prince of Darkness (1987). Carpenter’s work is famous for its simplicity and economy, from the stripped down narratives to the action-speaks-louder character building, and his focus on small scale, intimate settings.
While Carpenter himself has slowed down his screen output, his work remains as popular and influential as ever, with remakes of The Fog (1980), Assault On Precinct 13, sequels and legacy sequels of Halloween and a prequel to The Thing released within the last decade. However, none of these projects have managed to capture the spare, brutal, darkly comic tone Carpenter made his own. Until, I would argue, the release of Dredd (directed by Pete Travis in 2012). In keeping with Carpenter’s ethos, I’m going to stop the introduction right there and cut to the chase.
With Dredd, the filmmakers were faced with a Carpenter-style situation of having very little to work with. An independent effort, the film had a production budget of just $45 million–small change for an adaptation of a comic book property. The limited resources available forced screenwriter Alex Garland to construct a story within a confined space that could still evoke a wider world. To this end, Garland’s script smartly uses aspects of the source material (the mega-block setting) to create a story that suggests a wider world while providing a dramatic space for the kind of brutal ultra violence the titular character is known for.
The brilliance of Dredd is that the movie itself resembles its title character. Exposition is kept to a minimum, characterization is delivered through action, and no scene outstays its welcome. In an era defined by bloated running times, Dredd comes in at a spry 95 minutes. In this respect, it feels like a spiritual sequel to Carpenter’s Escape From New York in its lack of pretension to being anything more than a well-executed genre exercise. Everything in the movie is about progression, forward momentum. And when Dredd leaves Peach Trees, there’s no hanging about. The movie just ends.
This trimming of the narrative fat extends to the set-pieces. Since Carpenter’s peak in the early ’80s, the action genre has been defined by excess. Bigger explosions, and higher bodycounts augmented (or, some would argue, undermined) by the more frenetic editing and handheld camera-work. Just as the lean, mean style of Carpenter’s films appeared out of place in the decade of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Dredd’s action sequences bear scant resemblance to the epic scale of contemporary blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (both released the same year). In Dredd, when people fight, it is short and brutal.
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Action scenes are not dragged out with elaborate choreography, and, uniquely, the action sequences do not follow the familiar pattern of trying to be bigger and more intense than the preceding one. Instead, they become more intimate – Dredd’s battle with the rogue judges packs a punch, but is not as large scale as the gatling gun massacre which precedes it. This sequence is more about throwing an unexpected curveball in Dredd’s path rather than throwing another, bigger wave of goons against him.
Furthermore, director Pete Travis and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle adopt a classic, graphic visual style that is highly evocative of Carpenter. Each action sequence is shot and cut to emphasize movement without losing the viewer’s sense of geography and continuity within the scene. The editing is not used to intensify the action–action is allowed to play out within single shots. This visual style, with its focus on following the action, gives the violence a visceral impact missing from the frenzied MTV-style action collages prevalent in contemporary action films.
Peach Trees is the perfect modern equivalent of the Carpenter low budget aesthetic. Dredd takes a setting from the comic books (the mega block) which suits the low budget and offers a limited perspective on the world of Mega City One. Like Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, Dredd plays out as a day in the life of the central characters, and like Escape From New York, it quickly establishes a dystopian world before dropping its main characters into a closed off section of it.
Travis and Garland briefly sketch the urban war zone which is Mega City One in a short prologue, trusting that there are enough visual and verbal clues to give the viewer a broad, albeit visceral, idea of the hellhole Dredd works in. The setting of the mega-block itself is a master stroke. Since it is supposed to operate as a self-contained community, the filmmakers can provide a sense of the way this society functions without bogging down the story with unnecessary exposition.
One of the chief failings of the 1995 film version of Judge Dredd was that it tried to humanize Dredd and have him turn against the system that created him. The 2012 iteration makes no such attempts at softening the law enforcer. Like Carpenter’s Snake Plissken, Dredd is meant to be a critique of Clint Eastwood’s terse, gun-slinging persona. Where Plissken evokes Eastwood’s nameless gunfighter from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, Karl Urban’s Dredd parodies Eastwood’s Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry series. This is purely intentional since the comic book character was intended as a satirical take on Callahan.
While Dredd shares Plissken’s propensity for understated irony, much of the film’s dark humor comes from the contrast between the death and destruction Dredd unleashes and his indifference to it. With his uncompromising adherence to ‘the law,’ and the brutal efficiency with which he enforces it, Dredd takes the Callahan archetype to its most ridiculous, fascistic extreme. In this respect, he bears a closer resemblance to the murderous Shape from Halloween.
Films like Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, The Thing, Escape From New York, and Big Trouble in Little China are based around small groups united by a shared code of behavior. Within this group there is a character who is less experienced than his or her compatriots and whose attachment to the group’s code comes into question.
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In Dredd, this theme is articulated through the professional relationship between Dredd and Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a failing rookie judge. Presented with one last chance to become a street Judge, she goes on the Mega City One equivalent of a ride-along with Judge Dredd. Quickly trapped inside a mega-block with an army of gang members hunting for them, the meek Anderson is put through the ringer under Dredd’s merciless gaze. The question of whether Anderson has what it takes to be a Judge is the basis of the central conflict of Dredd. The casting of Thirlby, a rather unknown quantity outside of a supporting role in Juno makes Anderson’s competence as a potential Judge even more suspect.
As with Carpenter’s work, Anderson is juxtaposed with another member of the group who is defined by a willingness to break the code in order to save his or her own life. Examples of this character are Julie (Nancy Loomis) in Assault On Precinct 13 and Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) in Escape From New York. In Assault On Precinct 13, after a murderous street gang lays siege to the police station where she works, Julie breaks down and tries to convince the other defenders of the station to sacrifice the man that the gang is after. In Escape From New York, Brain is a former comrade of Snake’s who repeatedly sells him out to save his own skin.
In Carpenter’s films, characters like Julie or the traitorous Brain, who are unable to maintain their adherence to the group’s code, end up punished. In Dredd, this role is filled by the corrupt Judges on the villains’ payroll. They see the city as hopelessly corrupt and prefer to profit from it rather than attempt the herculean task of upholding the law. When Anderson manages to escape by herself and then saves Dredd from his corrupt colleagues, she is proving to him and the viewer that, unlike them, she is more than equal to the task of bringing the law to the streets of Mega City One.
Consciously or not, Dredd represents the closest any film has come to bottling the unique batch of ingredients that made up John Carpenter’s best work. However that does not mean it stands alone. The recent success of similar low budget genre films like Attack The Block, The Raid, Tower Block, and ’71 show that Carpenter’s influence endures in the realm of low budget genre filmmaking. Without the generous budgets the Hollywood studios can provide, the release of films like Dreddand its contemporaries shows that the template for creating strong genre cinema is not restricted to Los Angeles soundstages and the effects wizards at ILM and Weta.