dredd 3d – what went right

in an attempt to render this site more topical here are some points about the most recent film representation of judge dredd.  current affairs buffs please note these were made while it was still 2012

fatalities in the cast

is it possible this has the largest percentage body count of any movie: all the characters with a speaking part get shot except two victimised black girls, three or four judges with one line each mostly in the grand hall of justice, + a handful of people who variously have both eyes poked out, get squashed by a blast door, hit in the throat with a baseball bat, thrown off the top of a city block, etc

+ virtually all the extras who appear after about twenty minutes into the movie get shot as well

cinematography

in various interviews given by the director he states that showing violent action in slow motion + in 3d makes it miles less shocking + technically more interesting to observe.  (the article in which he describes advances in the photography used for wildlife documentaries – his example is of a shark attack – is around somewhere on the internet: if anyone can locate this post a reply below)

he appears to be correct: the slow motion sequences in dredd 3d are glorious masterpieces of compositing and fluid effects.  although all they may have been doing in creating these was getting the cinematographer to implement something that was in the script, Alex Garland (wr), Pete Travis (dir) + Anthony Dod Mantle (cinematographer) have positioned themselves as a sort of digital sam peckinpah by adopting his attitude to the depiction of violence (in detail, centre stage + slowed down).  however, the two filmmakers’ violent sequences differ as outlined below

sam peckinpah

famously, peckinpah’s inspiration for using slow motion derived from his own experience of gun crime when he was stationed in china on military service.  his perception of the event while it was occurring was as if time had slowed down, allowing him to observe + record all the transient details.  this is apparently not uncommon for people in dangerous situations – their neuro transmitters or synapses or whatever they like to call themselves go into overdrive + this produces the illusion of the event playing out at half the normal speed.

when he went on to apply this technique in the wild bunch (by shooting the action at various speeds, printing each frame three times, etc) he allowed his audience to view life threatening situations in the same way he had, + effectively made detailed (graphic) violence actually graceful + in some instances definitely balletic while he was doing it.

suddenly slowing the film down in this movie has the effect of distancing the viewer from the events depicted: instead of being immersed in the narrative maybe they become more aware of their status as observers, or perhaps by observing more detail they alter their mode of attention.  also, part of the audience’s way of reading the image may now involve them utilising skills they normally reserve for eg still photography instead of just being carried along by the story

travis vs peckinpah

in dredd 3d the slow motion sequences are either from the point of view of one of the characters or, if shown from the audience’s perspective, they represent the effect of a narcotic being taken by whoever is in the frame.  as such the distancing effect works differently: the slow motion is diegetically motivated, hence the audience is going to remain more immersed in the narrative, although it continues to allow them to notice detail + read the image more like a still, with the eye given time to wander around the screen + notice eg how liquids move

genre

westerns are a different genre thus the audience have different expectations as to what they are going to see in the film.  the plot of virtually all westerns is rooted in violence of some sort – for the wild bunch peckinpah rethought the cliched (bloodless, formulaic) way that had been represented + refreshed the genre in so doing

note dredd 3d (although it could be argued to owe something to the western genre) seems to be more like a horror or gangster movie than a comic book adaptation

the slow motion sequences work like the effects set pieces in horror films.  the audience for this type of movie usually appreciate sfx + post production, + their expectation is to be shown something which is both spectacular and yeucchy perhaps every fifteen minutes during the movie.  unlike peckinpah pete travis isn’t rethinking the way a genre (horror movies) should work, he’s (merely) using a specific style of photography to show the beauty of the set piece effects sequences

note also that in the intervening decades attitudes to violence in the media have shifted considerably: in the 21st century they are radically different to those of the 1960s + 70s.  travis + peckinpah are both starting from different places + merely arriving at superficially similar solutions to avoiding cliche

slow motion violence vs judge dredd comics

in summary re the use of slow motion this is a good idea successfully implemented: there is no reason why a film should not be made that does this – the snag is that it did not necessarily have to be judge dredd

in other words, although it is central to the film (as a plot device, to show the character of the villains, as an example of future crime, as a visual motif, etc) it is not a core element of the comic books: as dredd 3d was/is intended to be the first of a series, maybe the filmmakers should have concentrated solely on identifying + articulating these core elements instead

adaptation of the comic book

my assertion is that comic book movies (or adaptations of any franchised intellectual property intended to be a series) should at least initially be an excercise in translation, which is a difficult enough task on its own

attempting to accomodate elements not present in the original property may render that property as different (not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, just different) to the comics, + a number of elements which are present in the original property may have to be ignored to accomodate the new ones, hence altering the property the filmmakers were given to adapt.

this sounds like it should always be an error for two reasons: firstly – the original version of the property is known to work well in one medium, the altered version is unproven in any (+ could potentially fail); secondly – the act of altering the property implies somebody believes either that their input will improve it or that it needs fixing.  any people working on the movie should understand that they are subordinate to the fictional title character: put figuratively, the filmmakers should not attempt to tell judge dredd what to do – he defines the parameters they are allowed to work in, not the other way round.

generally speaking, no individual artist ever outranks the material franchised to them: star trek, or batman, or the xenomorphs in the alien movies are a) what the audience have paid to see (not eg the director), b) have lived successfully in other media + c) will still be around after all the actors who play them, photographers who photograph them, etc have gone to reimagine the pearly gates

to return to the specific case of dredd 3d: whilst proving their theory about slow motion violence Garland, Travis + Mantle do appear to have altered the property they were given to adapt – detail on this follows below

mega city one

according to the comics, due to a) the enormous size and density of the population + b) the bizarre geography they inhabit, it is not practical to have a seperate police force and judiciary.  this is coupled in each story with the fact that crimes in the future are mostly damn weird but it stands up on its own as a reason for judges to be necessary

hence it is significant that the city in the movie is represented differently to the one in the comics: not only is it not stacked up vertically as high but it also appears to be a hell of a lot smaller (compare the size of the buildings with the size of the vehicles + notice the space between them).  it is supposed to be a mega city, in which the only viable form of law enforcement is to arm the judiciary (or educate the army), hence the existence of the title character, with the central traits of his (machine like) personality + his (extremely violent) behaviour, is motivated by the environment into which he was born.  it is hard to get dredd right without getting mega city one right first: the two are linked at a basic conceptual level

(note also the distance one of the characters needs to fall in the movie in order for a signal not to reach the top of a city block is significant to the plot: this would have worked better in the comic book version)

law / no law

the other essential element in the comics which would need importing into any movie is the law the judges drive around upholding: when it is not absurdly harsh (eg maybe including shooting at someone for a traffic violation), it is absurdly difficult to remember (such that no citizen could ever abide by it), + when it is neither of those it is usually just plain absurd

it is important to set out at the start that the choice in mega city one is between this law, this system and this form of justice and no law no system and no form of justice

a corollary is that the hero (dredd) can behave in an extremely morally suspicious way and get away with it, because a) there is no alternative + b) he himself is not responsible for making the laws up: all he does + all he ever can do is enforce them.  the way the writers get the audience to enjoy reading the adventures of such a character + actually root for him is with humour

an example would go something like

thief snatches handbag
bystander catches thief
dredd sentances thief to six months for theft + bystander to two years for carrying out a citizen’s arrest

judge dredd is a hero in the sense that terms like ‘always’ + ‘never’ apply to his code of conduct (always upholds the law, never gives up) thus he could technically be described as a role model, but unlike a typical comic book hero the values he stands for + which underlie his actions are frequently completely random, as the law upon which his whole life is based consists largely of funny or extreme dictats.  (perhaps dredd could be described as an inverted version of spiderman: with great power comes great irresponsibility?)

precedents for this type of hero have existed elsewhere in the cinema: john wayne’s character in the searchers (a hero motivated by white supremacist beliefs), or even sean connery as james bond, although this example is a little different.  the casting of a blue collar scottish nationalist as an old etonian military officer (albeit partly educated in scotland + with one scottish parent) meant that connery was unable to play the role without accentuating bond’s negative characteristics, thus rendering him a borderline antihero.  also note he undermined a lot of the violence + sexism with his own sense of humour

having only seen dredd 3d once I’m unsure if it achieved any of this in its representation of the title character – reply below if you have any thoughts

humour

on the subject of undermining violence with humour, the sense of humour in the comic strip was definitely not accurately represented in the movie.  although to be fair to the director + screen writer they obviously did not attempt to import this element I think making the decision not to do so has to count as a mistake.  the easiest way to explain what’s missing is with a scan

2000ad 495 - phantom of the shoppera - john higgins - detail                                                       copyright rebellion 1986

the omission of this aspect on its own (+ the inclusion of eg nudity) has effectively shut a younger audience out of the movie theatre, as without it the film is too horrifying.  for financial reasons it looks like an error to either alter or selectively interpret a property such that its implementation in a different medium cannot be viewed by a family audience.  note paul verhoeven managed successfully to rip this sense of humour off for robocop + has admitted as much in print (find the scene where a prototype robot machine guns one of the office staff, ending with the phrase ‘severely disappointed’ for an example), hence a precedent exists for this in the cinema as well

adaptation of the comic book again

it is perfectly valid to leave out secondary or peripheral elements of the comics, eg offensive language is used in the movie – the filmmakers have ignored the way the 2000ad got around this by fabricating new words to stand in for swearing.  this is not a core element of the property + may be dropped without altering it substantially

I am asserting that adapting judge dredd should entail getting the city, the law + the funny stuff right in the first movie: although subsequent writers of the comic strip have stretched, twisted, ignored or bypassed these elements repeatedly in order to get what they want to say about issues of eg democracy, christianity, current affairs, etc into the story, I am suggesting dredd 3d may have made a mistake by attempting something like this before having established the fundamentals

franchises

an example of a successful franchised property is harry potter – a string of eight movies in a row closely adapted from their source material.  what I would describe as an unsuccessful franchise is the hulk – two difficult reimagined movies + an avengers appearance, which counts as a fail for those of us who remember jarella, what the abomination is supposed to look like (a design classic) + the issue where the sandman forces betty to have a blood transfusion with him + she turns to glass in the last frame, because we know what we could have been watching instead

opinions about artistic success are subjective: there seems to be a lot more money in accurately translating a property with proven success + longevity (+ an audience) from one medium to another than there is in personal expression.  it looks to the layman to be far easier to get it right + massively more complicated to try to shoehorn external issues in, which may be what happened with the hulk

finally

reading that back it sounds overly critical of dredd 3d – I did enjoy the film, appreciate the craft that went in to making it, + understand that the filmmakers know more about making what they were able to raise the money to make than I do.  my basic point is that somehow it still seems weird that two guys with a typewriter, a pencil + some ink can get so much into six pages of comic strip that $50 million can’t get into a movie

+ link to an interview with the director

 

2016 addendum:

according to the PBS documentary series the brain with david eagleman the experience of time appearing to slow down when danger threatens is not produced as explained as above

in an episode somewhere in the middle of the series an experiment was carried out using a clock with the numbers changing so fast they were unreadable by anyone not experiencing the event in slow motion during a dangerous situation.  test subjects were then pushed off from a scary height into a net far below.  despite their adrenaline, etc firing no one was able to identify the figures on the digital counter, implying the reason events play out in slow motion cannot be because the brain is processing input faster

the experiment suggests that the part of the brain responsible for memory stores as much data as it can when in danger, leading to the perception of time passing at half the normal speed because the detail about the dangerous event which is occurring that gets stored each second is twice what it normally would be

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