~ Posted by Nicholas Barber, September 4th 2012
For those of us who grew up reading 2000AD in the 1980s, it’s difficult to watch "Dredd" without a sense of, well, dread. There’s already been one film about Judge Dredd, the Sylvester Stallone version that came out in 1995, and that was painful enough. Why should we sit through another travesty of our favourite fascistic 22nd-century lawman?
It’s a dread that intensifies during the film’s opening minutes, which establish that the post-apocalyptic setting, Mega-City One, is a dingy dystopia indeed. In "Dredd", the citizens of the future dress much the same as we do today. They drive much the same cars, and they live in the same boring International-style skyscrapers. The only significant difference is how grim everything looks. There are so many greys and browns that you might as well be watching the film through a Land Rover window after a week’s off-roading in the Scottish Highlands.
That's not the Mega-City One I remember. In the beloved British comic, Judge Dredd patrolled a zany, brightly coloured megalopolis that satirised all the most insane excesses of contemporary America. It buzzed with robots, cyborgs and clones. The citizens looked as if they’d stepped off a Vivienne Westwood catwalk. They bounced around in giant rubber balls and zoomed through the perpetually sunny skies on anti-gravity surfboards. They used face-changing machines and visited alien zoos. They elected an orangutan as mayor, and they became major celebrities by having their noses surgically extended. They couldn’t eat sugar—it was classed as an illegal narcotic—but they did have a sweet called Umpty Candy which was so delicious that no one could stop eating it. And the tower blocks—this was 30 years ago, remember—resembled the Gherkin with the GLA building plonked on the top.
Yes, "Judge Dredd" depicted a vastly overcrowded and dangerous police state, but the comic strip’s writers and artists couldn’t help celebrating the anarchic energy of its populace. Reading 2000AD while living in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Mega-City One looked like an awfully exciting place.
You couldn’t say the same about the Mega-City in the new "Dredd" film. There are no robots, no aliens, no flying surfboards and no addictive sweets—just lots of roads and lots of guns. It pains me to admit, then, that "Dredd" works. It delivers as a witty, full-throttle action movie, which might not have been the case if it had tried to squeeze in concepts as wacky as Umpty Candy and Dave the Orangutan. The key to translating any property from page to screen is knowing what to keep and what to chuck away, and the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, has done some judicious chucking. There are some things that are best left in a comic, and in the fond memories of its readers.
Nicholas Barber is a film critic who writes reviews for the Independent On Sunday and previews for Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Ten best movies since 2002 and Barely titles at all