Dredd is a visually stunning, action-packed, and subtly funny British science fiction comic adaptation, yet it flew under the radar—only partly due to minimal promotion in the States. Beyond that, although Dredd admirably stays faithful to the spirit of the original comics, this approach in some ways limits the film’s appeal. With no epic narrative, no major growth in the protagonist, and a focus on the entrancing visuals rather than on plot or character development, Dredd is a great film that simply doesn’t fit the mainstream formula.
Dredd takes place in a not-so-distant future when the Earth has become a toxic wasteland. The world’s population is crammed into massive metropolises, such as Mega-City One, filled with the chaos of crime, drugs, and violence. As explained in the voice-over introducing and concluding the film, there are “800 million people living in the ruin of the old world… only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: the men and women of the Hall of Justice.” Yet these enforcers of the law are not only the judges of citizens’ crimes—they are judge, jury, and executioner. The film depicts a day in the life of a Judge, as a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) accompanies Dredd (Karl Urban) for her final assessment. They must bring order to a 200-story block of flats called Peach Trees, grappling with its resident drug lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey).
Set within just “a day in the life” directly reflects the standard comic book plot, wherein each issue generally deals with a different villain and a different conflict. This is especially true of the Judge Dredd series, as Mega-City One offers most of the “character” of the comics, while Dredd is the one constant in this chaotic dystopia. In both the comics and the film, Dredd does not change, he does not grow; as the embodiment of justice, he leaves no room for gray area in his black and white view of the world. It’s in the other characters and their interactions with Dredd that growth and social commentary are found.
But mainstream film audiences are used to an epic tale of a protagonist’s struggle. They expect more than just an average day, even if it is an action-packed one. They want to see the events of the film lead the protagonist to grow and change, yet this is simply not Judge Dredd’s way. Urban plays the deadpan Dredd impeccably: he never removes his helmet to reveal his face, which is consistent with the comics, and demonstrates Urban’s ability to act with only the lower portion of his face visible. Urban’s gritty and intractable Dredd is a taciturn badass, a callous hero, with a subtle yet biting humor. True to the character, any change in Dredd from the beginning to the end of the film is minor, and merely reflects his changing view of Anderson, the rookie Judge.
Indeed, it’s only in Anderson that we see true character development. As a mutant with psychic powers—an aspect of this post-apocalyptic world that is never satisfyingly explored—she represents a much softer, empathetic kind of Judge who balances out Dredd’s unwavering dedication to the letter of the law. She grows from a frightened newbie into a real Judge, confident in her abilities to sentence criminals with both compassion and justice.
The antagonist, the ruthless drug lord Ma-Ma, also experiences little growth, despite the fact that her past piques a great deal of interest. One of the (very few) DVD extras, a “Motion Comic Prequel”, briefly explains her history of prostitution, yet in order to appeal to a wider audience, this background information would be more effective if it was presented in the film itself. Despite an incredible performance by Headey, filled with grit and palpable rage, Ma-Ma’s motivations are never explored in the film, making her anger unrelatable.
The real merit of Dredd, beyond faithfulness to the comics and superb acting from Urban and Headey, is in the visuals. Reflecting the effects of Slo-Mo, a drug which slows down perception of time to one percent of normal, certain sequences of the film are recorded with extremely high-speed cameras, capturing thousands of frames per second instead of the standard 24. The special features explain that the creators wanted to make violence beautiful, and they entirely succeeded. Interestingly enough, it’s reminiscent of another Lena Headey film, 300, which also explores stylized violence, yet Dredd goes beyond that. The violence itself is not stylized—it’s gritty, real, brutal—yet by slowing it down so extremely, it becomes graceful, entrancing, surreal. Especially viewing the film in 3D, a format only available on the Blu-ray, the viewer is so entranced by these slow-motion sequences that the film’s shortcomings in other areas are easily overlooked.
While a stress on visuals, an episodic rather than epic narrative, and minimal character development are very much appropriate decisions for this comic book adaptation, this approach limits Dredd’s potential for widespread appeal. It offers a type of film that mainstream audiences are not used to, yet this does not diminish its many merits. Along with its innovative and impactful visuals and incredible acting, overall, Dredd is so fitting a tribute to the original series that it could be a comic book issue itself.