My introduction to Judge Dredd dates all the way back to the late eighties through my love of Robocop, which I had read was highly inspired by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s comics. The influence is instantly apparent. The book’s blend of violence, dark humour and social commentary remains ever more relevant today. So much so that audiences are being treated to a second cinematic adaptation releasing by the end of this month starring Karl Urban (The Chronicles of Riddick, Star Trek). Like many, I had deep reservations when it came to this project. After seeing it, rest assured; Dredd is a pulse-pounding, thrill-a-minute ultraviolent ass-kicker that’s guaranteed to satisfy audiences in spades.
After having the opportunity to chat with Writer/Producer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) and Dredd himself, Karl Urban, there’s no doubt their commitment to the elements that’s made this long-running series so enduring. For Alex Garland, the passion for the character dates far back in his life. “I discovered it when I was about ten and I immediately got hooked. It’s actually some ways quite an adult comic so there was a lot of stuff that went straight over my head. I just read it as this very propulsive, crazy science fiction cop story and I didn’t realize that there was whole bunch of satires, subtexts and commentaries and stuff like that going on. I didn’t really discover that until I got older. So I grew up with it and stayed in touch with the character.” For Karl Urban, he was introduced to this Dredd via a friend. “I responded to the character; a tough enigmatic lawman with a dry sense of humour. I responded to the world of Mega-City One and the characters, the people that lived in the world. Quite often the stories weren’t about Dredd. It was about the inhabitants of Mega-City One.”
Judge Dredd made his premiere appearance in 1977 within the pages of British science fiction anthology 2000 AD. Garland on the inspiration behind his screenplay: “The comics have different modes. One of the modes is big epics. Dredd unlike North American comics, they’re usually monthly, sort of thirty pages or so and can tell a self-contained story within them. Dredd is a weekly comic, kind of an anthology comic, sci-fi comic called 2000 AD and it would be like 5 or 6 pages per week so some of the stories last a year, telling an epic in sort of incremental episodes and there’s another kind which is a punchy more like a day in the life of this fascist sci-fi cop type story. When I first started trying to write the script, I aimed at the epics and then slowly like a sort of big ocean liner changing directions, realizing this isn’t right and gravitated more and more to the day in the life stories. In film terms, something like Assault on Precinct 13.”
While I have a soft spot for the big budget 1995 Sylvester Stallone, it comes across more as a vehicle for its star than a true adaptation of the source. This take isn’t unfaithful per say but a lot of what made the world of Judge Dredd so compelling is massively dumbed down to make a much more easily digested summer blockbuster product. That previous attempt didn’t even enter Alex Garland’s mind when it came down to breathing new life into the character. “I didn’t really think about the other version. It wasn’t really on my radar. It was the comic I was really thinking about. The comic has gone through lots of different incarnations. There have been different writers, different artists and on some level, I just thought that the other film is like one of those different incarnations. I was going in my head I had a comic I fell in love with when I was ten and that was my attachment.”
By around the twenty minute mark, the iconic helmet is removed in the 1995 version and by the end; you forget you’re watching a Judge Dredd flick altogether. To Urban, wearing the mask for the entire film’s duration was implicit. “I read the script and firstly I was just relieved to find it was fainted to the character that I loved when I was a kid. Secondly I had a meeting with Alex, Andrew and Pete in Los Angeles and they said: “Look just to be clear; the helmet stays on. We’re not going to get three quarters of the way through this movie or half way through and you’re going to start asking to write scenes without the helmet”. I assured them: “I wouldn’t be here taking this meeting and discover scenes where Dredd was without it.”
This decision was not without its challenges especially when attempting to convey emotions when all the viewer sees is your mouth. Urban elaborates: “The challenge was how to communicate to the audience without them (eyes). It became a huge challenge; how do you convey an emotion like doubt…It’s not just that he’s visually limited, as a character. He’s a highly trained individual that’s learned to control his emotions. He’s learned not to express. I found myself working within a very narrow bandwidth but what I did find interesting was that what became important was the actions of how Dredd did what he did and the choices that he made. It’s interesting because it’s those actions, those choices that inform the audiences to the type of guy he is. That humanizes him… Here’s what I discovered in the process; just actually having the confidence in the material and knowing if you think the thought, feel the emotion, that it will come through to the audience.”
One of the most successful aspects of Dredd 3D is its gritty overall design. It’s science fiction without ever becoming unbelievable. The film is grounded in a reality that we could relate to. Garland had this to say about the design: “With the uniform and stuff like that, what we do on the film’s we work on like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, we typically work within genre and then we play it straight. There’s other ways of doing genre. You can really camp it up, you can work on 200 million dollar (films) but that’s not what we do. We tend to be dirty, a bit guerrilla in our approach. We play it straight. The uniform is a reflection of that. This guy can’t be dressed in spandex because people are trying to stab him and shoot him so he needs armour. Everything follows from that. His uniform has to be functional. It all stems from sort of attempt to hold onto reality while working within a sci-fi flick.”
The brutal violence in Dredd 3D is hard hitting in a way that we haven’t seen since the films of Paul Verhoeven. Garland’s inspiration comes from a most unlikely source. “I got fixated on nature documentaries. They used high-speed photography. You see a whale or a shark breach the water. You’d be watching something about an animal then you’d stop thinking about the animal and you get transfixed by not the animal but how water droplets connect and touch against each other. Somehow like a real trip, sort of stepping outside it but staying attached at the same time. It raised the question; what happens if you do that with violence? Cinema already glamorizes violence. Can you make violence into something which is purely aesthetic? Can it be so abstract that it becomes genuinely beautifully? Not kind of ballet beautiful but really aesthetically beautiful even if someone is having their cheek blown out or their head crushing into concrete.”
With all the exhilarating non-stop mayhem in Dredd 3D, the thematic elements explored within the film somehow never comes across as an afterthought. Nothing is black and white. There is no definitive good and evil defined in the film. Garland states: “It’s a film about wish fulfillment. It’s explored in the character of Dredd and I think it’s being explored in the drug. It’s posing a question which is kind of like; be careful what you wish for. If you live in a certain kind of urban environment, you might find yourself wishing for Judge Dredd but do you really want him? If you have a hard life, you might want that drug to take you out of it. Do you really want it? Maybe you do and that’s fine but it’s a discussion of that.”
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