Dredd is one of those films that the Internet couldn’t seem to decide on. In a characteristic display of the Internet’s complete refusal to maintain any logical positions whatsoever, the hivemind opinion on Dredd, which was originally overwhelmingly negative, reversed course almost immediately once positive reviews started to roll in. Suddenly, Dredd was a genre classic in the making, and anyone who said otherwise was an idiot who “didn’t get it”, despite the fact that the movie had yet to be released.
My point is that I’m treading dangerous waters with this review. The instant I tweeted my initial negative reaction, there was a sarcastic reply by someone who had spent the past week or more exclusively talking up the film to complete strangers on Twitter and defying anyone who called it anything short of a masterpiece. Even worse, as I mentioned, fanboys have critics on their side this time. This forces me to ask a question: Why?
Dredd is, I’ll just say it, bad. It is a weak movie, for a number of reasons which I will get into shortly. But what makes this different from every other movie just like it, which almost universally are despised. Just last week, we got another entry in the indestructible Resident Evil franchise, which was negatively received just like its predecessors. What’s the difference between one of those movies and Dredd? Both have terrible characters, silly stories, and stylized 3D violence. Why do people like Dredd so much?
Because make no mistake, Dredd is riddled with problems, first and foremost concerning the title character. Judge Dredd is an awful character, who undergoes no change whatsoever and has zero defining character traits. What is there to latch on to with this guy? There is nothing about him that makes him an actual character. Look, action heroes who quip incessantly are a huge cliché, but Dredd doesn’t even have something like that for the audience to remember after the credits roll. So he’s a badass. So what? We know nothing about him outside of that, so we have no reason to care whether he lives or dies.
Now, I’ve heard a lot of arguments from fans of the comics about how this film actually nailed the character. “He’s not a person so much as he is a symbol, a personification of justice.” But that doesn’t translate to a memorable character. There’s nothing unique about the way that he pursues justice outside of the ultraviolence he employs. The movie could have used this to make a statement about fascism and police states, but no. Dredd is presented as a good guy through and through, and it doesn’t help that his villains are little more than caricatures. If Dredd had started the movie as a cruel officer of the law who often endangers innocents, and the movie had been about him learning that this is the wrong way to go about it, then maybe it would have worked. As it stands, Dredd is a black hole of charisma and energy.
I’ve also heard the argument that “Dredd isn’t the one with the arc, Anderson is! She’s the one who changes!” Okay, two things. One, no, she does not have an arc. She goes from being nervous about killing a guy to not being nervous about killing a guy. Big deal. And two, if she’s the one with the arc, why isn’t the movie called Anderson? It’s called Dredd, Dredd is the main character, and this argument is ridiculous.
This movie also suffers from some of the worst world-building this side of Surrogates. We are introduced early on to the setting of Mega City One, a sprawling urban wasteland with a devastated desert beyond its walls. And then…we never talk about it again, and the rest of the movie takes place in a not-at-all futuristic apartment complex that happens to be really tall. There’s talk of mutants, who I guess are a lower class, but other than that (and a futuristic gun for Dredd) nothing in this movie would be out of place if it were set in downtown Detroit. Hell, people are seen using modern camera phones. The movie sets up this interesting world and then refuses to explore it in any way. How did the world get to this point? How did the Judges form? I appreciate that we get hints of the process of becoming a Judge, but who were the first Judges? Who appointed them, and why? The world has a rich backstory in there somewhere, one that the filmmakers were apparently uninterested in exploring.
But what about the visuals? This is a very pretty movie, I’ll give it that. The 3D was effective in places, although I started not to notice it after a while, which I dislike in a 3D movie. I paid to see the effect, don’t bother with subtlety. Throw stuff in my face! Dredd does fulfill that promise in many scenes. I also liked the inspired way which the gratuitous Zack Snyder slo-mo which has become a standard of these types of movies was justified in the story. I can picture the writers coming up with that particular plot device (a drug which makes the user perceive time much more slowly than normal) and high-fiving each other for hours on end.
But even great visuals can’t redeem a bad story and worse characters, so Dredd gets a failing grade in my eyes. Why so many people are raving about it, I will probably never know. But hey, I’m glad they enjoyed themselves. I can take solace in the fact that Dredd was a huge bomb at the box office this weekend, so I don’t expect to see him on the big screen again any time soon. Unless the next person to adapt this story is willing to change the character, Dredd just isn’t going to work as a movie, and the 2012 incarnation of the character doesn’t come close to doing so.