Defending Judge Dredd (1995)

Judge Dredd Poster
I’m pretty sure they’re Macaulay Culkin under there.

In a post-Avengers world, it can sometimes be hard to remember the dark days of the mid-90s. A time when comic book story lines like The Death of Superman were hitting the mainstream media, most big-name properties were languishing in development hell, and the success of Batman Forever was about to give birth to the laughing stock that is Batman and Robin. It was a weird time for comic book fans; while Tim Burton’s Batman movies had proven that comic books and superheoes could make money, just getting a film off the ground seemed to be a struggle. Until X-Men in 2000, it was mostly independent and lesser known books that hit the big screens. Some did well (Men in Black, Blade, The Crow) while others were less successful, (Tank Girl, Barb Wire, The Shadow.) Judge Dredd was something of a mixed bag. Marketed more as a Stallone action vehicle with a Total Recall vibe, it was hated by fans of the comic and wrong for the action movie audience. The character wouldn’t be brought to the screen again until 2012’s Dredd. (Another film that deserved to do much better, but we’ll talk about that another day.)

So, what was it about Judge Dredd that upset people? For the audience unfamiliar with the comics, Judge Dredd was probably just too weird. Taking place in the distant future, the setting is Megacity One. This cramped metropolis houses half the people on the planet, surrounded by a desolate wasteland inhabited only by scavengers and mutants. So far, nothing too far out, but with a premise that comes off like The Road Warrior, Judge Dredd is more like Lethal Weapon meets Robocop. Dredd is a StreetJudge, the only real law enforcement in the future. The Judges are part cop, part courtroom, capable of investigating, enforcing and sentencing entirely on their own. Coming from the satirical British comic, 2000AD, Judge Dredd was originally intended as a sort of fascist parody of Dirty Harry. There’s humour in the concept, and both the comic and the movie explore this. Megacity One is home to cramped, bored, infighting thugs who are ruled by rampant commercialism and a lack of respect for their ridiculously harsh legal system. While the movie both revels in, and mocks Dirty Harry style justice, the goofy sci-fi elements were probably off putting too. 

Dark Knight Returns Horse
The Dark Knight Returns, when comics became more mature. Also, Batman rides a horse, and at one point he kicks Superman in the face.

For fans of the comic book, the answer is a little bit more complicated, but as a fan of the Dredd books, I really think it comes down to taking the source material too seriously. The observation has been made before, but it’s worth restating, a lot of comic books fans are insecure. It comes, I think, of being attached to a medium traditionally thought of as intended for children. This shouldn’t matter. The Dark Knight Returns was in the 80s, the comic book world has moved on, and anyone involved in the medium either as an artist or consumer knows that it has all the range and style of TV or Cinema. The problem with this insecurity is that it often creates hostility to any interpretation of comics that is seen as also being for children. Most recently, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, an animated series that is probably best described as a tribute to the DC Team Up comics of the 50s and 60s was so maligned by armchair critics that the writers had Batman break the fourth wall to justify his own existence. What is most unreasonable about this anger is that it is usually predicated on the false assertion that the serious, the dark, the deep interpretations are the “true” ones. Bob Kane’s first Batman stories might have been gritty detective tales, but in a few years the books weren’t that different to the 1960s TV series. This didn’t really change until the late seventies. In that sense, The Brave and the Bold accurately reflects a much longer period of Batman’s history than a show like Batman: The Animated Series or the Nolan trilogy. This is coupled with a belief that the artistic value of the source material is so great, that any changes over the course of the adaptation are necessarily negative. 

Stallone in Dredd
Judge Dredd didn’t do a striptease in the Comic either, you evil Hollywood bastards!

But what has this got to do with Judge Dredd? Well, 2000AD fans’ most common objections to the film were these. Firstly, that Dredd removes his helmet in the film. In the comics, Dredd is never seen without his helmet. This is because he is always depicted as a symbol of pure justice, and never as a man. Secondly, that everything was too funny. Rob Schneider is a comedy sidekick, the city has a lot of jokes and everything feels like it’s poking fun of the action. Y’know, like Robocop. Thirdly, that Dredd was not the lethal, ends of the earth, shoot first and ask questions later Lawman of the books. I would argue that in every one of these examples, the problem is a very selective reading of the source material and an overzealous need to adhere to the purity of the comic. 

The easiest to deal with is the helmet. This is probably the best criticism, partly because it does represent a notable change from the character in a comic, and partly because it makes a handy soundbite. It is a simple visual and philosophical change that is easy to point to. It practically became a meme in discussion of Judge Dredd, and when Dredd rolled around with Karl Urban, the helmet stayed on. And frankly, I couldn’t care less that Stallone removed his helmet. When people ask me what I think the worst comic book adaptation is, I don’t even need to think. It’s Sin City. A terrible adaptation of a great comic. Why is it terrible? Because it isn’t an adaptation, it’s a direct translation to screen, and what works as a comic isn’t going to work as a movie. It’s why Wolverine doesn’t wear that mask that seems to defy the laws of physics in film. You don’t sit and read a comic for two hours, but you do sit and watch a movie, and staring into the dead look of a tinted visor gets tiring. It might not be true to the comics, but losing the helmet was the right choice cinematically. 

Dredd Removes Helmet
As you can see, the issue of Dredd removing his helmet was treated completely seriously in the comics, with complete reverence to Dredd’s role as a symbol of the impartiality of the law.

Thematically, the film handles the helmet and Dredd’s role as a symbol of the law perfectly. He first appears wearing the helmet, his attitude is consistent with his adherence to the law made explicit through his actions, and his helmet is removed on two occasions for reasons consistent with the storytelling. (Though, admittedly, the second time the helmet stays off until the end of the film.) On the first occasion, Dredd is speaking to Max Von Sydow, who plays a father figure to Dredd. The conversation is played out after Dredd has come under fire for excessively executing gang members; Dredd shows no remorse while Sydow’s character attempts to humanise him. Sydow’s attempt fails. Later, Dredd’s helmet is removed when he is framed and incarcerated. In keeping with the comic’s theme, the helmet is taken from him as he is declared no longer a representative of the law. 

This looks like the BEST sequel to Top Gun.
This looks like the BEST sequel to Top Gun.

The second criticism, that the movie is too humorous to be Dredd, is just flat out bizarre. We’re definitely into the realm of selective reading of the source material here. The truth is 2000AD is a humour comic, and Dredd has always been satire. The level of humour has peaked and fallen, that’s true, and in recent years the book has taken a more tempered and subtle approach to humour. As the influence of the american Superhero comic has become a bigger presence in the UK, Judge Dredd has become more of a Punisher type character. But when you look at the era that established Dredd, if you take the first ten years of the comic that gave us stories like The Judge Child, when you look at the arc that first introduced Judge Death and the Psychic Anderson, you see a real hodgepodge of tone and style in stories.

Judge Dredd Boing Strip
I wasn’t joking about the spray-on bouncy balls.

People want to remember Dredd’s first encounter with the Angel Gang, redneck cannibals that live in the wasteland, but they forget the story in which Dredd forces a Sweetshop owner out of business because he makes sweets so delicious everyone’s eating too many. Or perhaps the story in which the citizens of Megacity get caught up in a craze for bouncing around the city in a spray on, full body, bouncy ball. Who could forget the story where being ugly becomes fashionable and plastic surgery clinics open up to deform people on request. How about the year long arc where Dredd became Chief of Police on the moon? The one where the Chief Judge goes insane and appoints a Goldfish to a prominent position of power? The silliest Judge Dredd comics are far more absurd than anything in the 1995 movie, in fact I’d say it strikes a really strong balance between the more serious plots and the often very comedic elements of the comic. It creates a far more consistent, grounded in reality version of Megacity One than the comics ever did, and then did it *without* losing the humour. I think that’s something to be proud of. 

Dredd Stallone
Also, I still really love this costume.

Lastly, we come to Dredd’s character. This, I think, is one of the most troubling criticisms for me, because really it’s about violence. Dredd is often a violent comic. Not always. In fact, in the early days it’s made clear that Dredd has the right to use legal force, but he often avoids doing so. In later years, the level of violence has stepped up, but the nature of the character has always been his willingness to take extreme measures to bring clients in, and to use the maximum sentence possible where he can. The golden age of Dredd is full of examples of the character imprisoning citizens for graffiti, or littering or walking on the grass. It has less examples of Dredd killing for minor violations of the law. Executions are usually reserved only for violent criminals. This is preserved in the Judge Dredd movie, it’s preserved perfectly. In the opening sequence of the film, Dredd goes up against an armed gang. He executes every member of that gang, mostly in self defence, with a sentenced execution for the last surviving gang member. Then, he sentences Rob Schneider to life imprisonment for inadvertently breaking the law while trying to avoid getting caught up in the gang war. Later in the film, Dredd continues to follow this pattern until he is framed, at which point he sets about trying to clear his name, while still sticking to his belief in the law. This is Judge Dredd, every inch the man of the comics. But the moviegoers, the comic fans, the people concerned about theme and message and maturity, for some reason they always want more violence. There should be more, and it should be more visceral, and more visual and it should always be present because violence isn’t for children, and neither are comics. Which is a shitty way of deciding how a character should behave. 

Judge Dredd isn’t a perfect film. Its dystopian future feels a little too manufactured, and the twists of its corrupt officials and human cloning plot aren’t always believable, but it’s a decent action romp. More than that, it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the comics, that manages to capture the spirit of its characters, the darker elements to the plot and the humour of the source and boil them down to a coherent vision. I’d even go so far as to say it captures Megacity One better than 2012’s Dredd. For the missteps it makes, I’ve always liked the film, and I’ve always thought that had the film done well at the box office in 1995, a sequel that made better use of the world would have been an excellent film. Sure, it’s corny and silly at times, but so is the source material. 

Five Great Science Fiction eBooks.

I have always loved a good science fiction yarn, and if you’re reading this blog then you probably feel the same way. The eBook revolution is upon us, but it can be difficult to sort through the dross. With that in mind, I present you with my list of five excellent Sci-Fi stories available on the kindle store. If any of these take your fancy, I’ve provided links straight through to Amazon.

5) Lacuna: Demons of the Void – David Adams

Lacuna Demons of the Void book coverLacuna is a novel that feels classic and brand new at the same time. It belongs very much to the Star Trek mould, following the exploits of a starship captain in Earth’s future. When Lacuna sets itself apart is in a more nuanced interpretation of that future. After the planet is attacked by a mysterious enemy, mankind sets out into the stars to strike back, but this is a humanity far from united. Back home, the planet is divided into massive power blocks that have enough problems without alien invaders.

The Lacuna story does not end here, and Adams’ follow up novels are even better, but this is a great opening chapter and really worth picking up.

4) The Time Machine – H.G Wells

H.G Wells The Time Machine CoverH.G Wells classic story of a lone time traveler. This novella is absolutely one of the finest time travel stories ever written. It features all the classics of the genre; a fish out of water protagonist, a troubling future, commentary on the human condition, and even a couple of good plot twists along the way. For a writer of his time, Wells remains unbelievable readable, and this is one of his best stories. An absolute must for any Time Travel lover.

As a bonus, the Enriched Classics version (linked above) is currently free!

3) Yesterday’s Gone: Season One – Sean Platt and David Wright

Yesterday's Gone Season One Book CoverThe eBook market is a great place to try out serialised fiction. With Yesterday’s Gone, Sean Platt and David Wright have really owned the format. A thrilling story that owes a lot to Stephen King and Left Behind (without the crazy religious element), Yesterday’s Gone is one of my favourite books in ages. Originally released in a series of short parts, the collected Season One ebook is definitely the best way to start experiencing this story. It begins when the majority of the world’s population suddenly vanished. From there, an eclectic group of characters all over America are gradually drawn together. The story doesn’t end with Season One, but there’s a lot in this eBook and you’ll definitely be left wanting more. There are a lot of great books on this list, but this is the one that most exploits the eBook format to tell a great story.

2) Dune – Frank Herbert

Dune Kindle Edition CoverI should probably apologise for putting Dune on this list. After all, it’s a classic that you can probably find cheaper in any second hand bookstore in the english speaking world. However, it’s a decision I stick by. Dune is one of my favourite books, but it’s hardly an easy read, and it’s a weighty tome that doesn’t lend itself well to reading on the train. Since picking up the kindle, I’ve really enjoyed re-reading Dune for the first time in a very long time.

Most people will have some familiarity with Dune by now, but unless you’ve read the book then you haven’t really experience it. Set on the hostile desert world of Arrakis, Dune follows the messianic path of Paul Atreides. The son of a noble household, Paul is cast out into the sands of Arrakis and must lead the savage Fremen who live there in order to save the planet from the vicious Harkonnen family. It sounds complicated, and it is, but it has a lot in common with the complex mythic worlds of Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.

1) Wool – Hugh Howey

Wool by Hugh Howey CoverWool doesn’t need much promotion these days. What started off as a self published short story has become a smash hit since then, with talk of a movie adaptation on the horizon. I’m going to promote it anyway, because from the first page until the last, I enjoyed Wool. In the future, the last of the human race lives in the Silo. This vast bomb shelter is little more than a pill box on the surface, but descends deep under the surface. Within this vault lives an entire society with a single giant staircase the only route from the bottom to the top. The law is harsh, but there is one crime more serious than any other, wanting to leave.

The book is actually comprised of a series of smaller books the become longer until the fifth and final. We open with a great little short story that would have made Philip K. Dick proud, from there Howey builds on his initial story and creates a truly great fictional world. This is the kind of science fiction that just isn’t being written anymore, and I hope Wool leads to a comeback.

That’s all folks. These are the five eBooks that I think every Sci-Fi fan should have on their eReaders. If you’d like to make your own suggestions or just disagree with me, you can leave a comment. 

Quantum Leap and Agency.

Sam and Al Posing So, I’m rewatching Quantum Leap, and it’s aged pretty well, but I’ve noticed something I never really noticed before. The format makes for a great, varied series, but it depends on the people Sam leaps into being incapable of fixing their own problems. This doesn’t seem so bad at first, but a lot of the fan favourite episodes have Sam leaping into minorities or members of marginalised groups in times of crisis.

The episode everyone remembers is The Color of Truth, in which Sam becomes a Jessie Tyler, a black man in a 1950s Southern town. It’s a great episode that takes a lot of inspiration from Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy. (A predates the film by a good few months.) Sam’s presence turns Jessie Tyler into the activist he never was before. Similarly, any episode in which Sam leaps into a woman usually features a good deal of Sam bringing Feminism into their lives for the first time.

I don’t think it’s intentional, but the result is a show in which a straight, white, male, genius travels through time, freeing marginalised people of the late 20th century from oppression they were too passive to tackle on their own. I don’t really blame the writers. It is an inevitable consequence of the  format (quite a good format, usually, I should add) that they only have two options: Have a white man take over for woman and minorities and fix their problems for them, or never feature ethnic minorities and women in the show. Its a pity this issue crops up so often in a show that was very social conscious for its time.

Time Trial – A Science Fiction Short Story: Free Until Saturday

Morning, Folks.

I just wanted to let you know that one of my books is free until Saturday. Time Trial is a sci-fi short in the vein of Doctor Who or Quantum Leap and part of my Timewasters series. It’s available on the Kindle store so if you own a kindle or have the free kindle app on your iPhone/Android Phone/iPad etc. then you can get it for free right now. More info below.

time trial book coverTime Trial – Amazon.com /Amazon.co.uk
Time travel is easy. Choosing where to stop is a little harder.

Harbour is a pretty nice place, but Annie and her friends are breaking the law just by being there. Now they must overcome an alien legal system and a paranoid politician to prove their innocence.

Unfortunately, they are all guilty.

Fiction Friday – Hope

FictionFriday
It’s Fiction Friday again. The weekly project in which I attempt to plan, write, rewrite and publish a 1000-1500 word short story every friday. 
Enjoy!
– – –

This story has been temporarily removed, as it has been published elsewhere. Sorry for the inconvenience!

Red Dwarf X: The Beginning – Mini Review

Red Dwarf X: The Beginning ReviewAnd so we come to the final episode of Red Dwarf X. This is just going to be a mini-review. Partly because I’m going to be writing a longer post this week about the series as a whole, but mostly because I really didn’t have much to say about this episode. I could push out a few more thoughts, but they’d really be more about the overall set design, direction, themes etc. so I’d rather wait.

The Beginning is a curious episode; I thought it did interesting things but I rarely found it very interesting. It starts with a Rimmer flashback that really brought back memories of episodes like Dimension Jump and the young actor cast is absolutely excellent. (His name doesn’t seem to be on imdb yet though, weird. Sorry unnamed actor.) Once the main part of the plot gets going, however, it’s a little bit forced. Essentially the crew are ambushed by rogue simulants (them again, tut!) and are forced to hide in an asteroid while Rimmer comes up with a plan. Meanwhile, there’s a plot involving Rimmer’s father leaving a secret message and a disturbed droid who wants a duel across the universe. One of the nice features of the show this year has been the layered plots which seems to be a little ignored this time around. It feels like the writers were going for a big finale, but the results just feel a little inconsequential. There really isn’t much to say about The Beginning. It opens well, there are some good laughs scattered throughout, then there are some utterly inconsequential villains, a nice Rimmer moment at the end and then it sort of fizzles out. When it works it really works. When it doesn’t, it’s not bad, just empty. I liked the characters again and I really think the performances have hit top form, the writing is generally much less awkward that it has been too. I just didn’t get swept up with the drama this time around. It felt much more like a reject from Series VII, competent but lacking in spirit.

I’ll be back with my thoughts on the whole of Series X soon.

 

The Avengers: Science Fiction’s Domination of the Mainstream.

As you might have gathered from my discussion of the narrative problems in The Dark Knight Rises, I’m a bit of a comic book fan. However, Batman was not the only highly anticipated superhero on the big screen this year. We were also treated to Marvel’s Avengers movie, the culmination of a lot of planning and around five very successful establishing films. I have been following the franchise, I saw The Avengers and I liked it, and though some of the supporting films haven’t been great, I would say it has largely been a successful experiment. But, what interests me most as a Science Fiction author is the way the franchise has found so much success with a general audience. This is not unusual for big-budget action flicks, but it is unusual that Sci-Fi is still seen to be a niche genre.

I know what you’re going to say. The Avengers movies aren’t science fiction, they’re comic books movies. They are flights of adolescent fantasy, not our beloved speculative fiction! 

Nonsense.

The mainstream acceptance of “superhero” as a genre seems to have blinded people to the Sci-Fi origins of the these characters. In fact, with a few (magical or supernatural) exceptions, most successful superheroes owe their creation to science fiction. Many were born out from our paranoia about nuclear power: Spider-man is the result of an irradiated Spider, The Fantastic Four were astronauts hit by cosmic radiation, The Hulk was caught in the blast of a bomb powered by Gamma radiation. Others are more conceptual Science Fiction, the X-Men are the products or our natural evolutionary process. And then there’s Superman, the grandfather of all modern superheroes. He’s an alien.

While so many of these characters have become bigger than their origins over the years, The Avengers movies have positively played up this side of the franchise. Take Thor, for example. While opinion has been divided over the years as to whether Thor actually is a god or not, Kenneth Branagh’s excellent film establishes quite clearly that Asgard is a physical realm. Character cross from one realm to the next, not by magical powers, but by technology that utilises a very sophisticated understanding of theoretical physics. A Science Fiction story in which Asgard is a real place in time and space, and can be reached only by a giant bridge made of energy? It sounds almost like one of Asimov’s.

The connection is even clearer for the other characters. The story of the Incredible Hulk is essentially a combination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two classics of Gothic Science Fiction. Captain America is about a government’s quest to create the perfect soldier. In the Avengers, his story is about a man displaced from his time. Finally, Iron Man is about a man with a robotic suit of armour powered by a revolutionary form of alternate energy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Marvel’s Avengers franchise represents a rebirth of intelligent Science Fiction, but that they represent a growing acceptance of Science Fiction and its themes from a mainstream audience. While the priority will always be action and special effects in these films, they still tell thought provoking, speculative stories that get people thinking. More than that, however, they entertain, and that is the more important trait of all.