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Existential Dredd

On the face of it, Dredd is a derivative cop movie.  Hard as nails cop gets assigned a rookie, they get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, have a run in with a gang, and it ‘gets personal’. Almost the entire movie happens inside a high-rise building. So it’s kind of like The Rookie meets Die Hard.

But if you’re ready to interpret, to watch creatively, it’s weirdly deep. Let’s go.

Dredd Poster

How do you tell when a Freudian slip is based on a homophone?

Dredd happens in a dystopian future, where the United States have become a wasteland of two faces: the normal, deserty wasteland of nuclear fallout and the social wasteland of Megacity, an urban area stretching from Boston to DC. (They don’t say what happened to the rest of the world. Typical.) ‘Judges’ are cops who are two branches of government in one: they apprehend, try and sentence on the spot, and the sentence is often death by one of the fancy, variable bullets that a Judge’s gun can shoot. So there’s clearly an element of science fiction to it. In fiction, the features of the world the author has created are not random. You can analyze them. And in science fiction, the world is changed in more pronounced ways, so it makes the job a little easier.

Interpretation can be fun, so let’s not mess around and start with the drugs. Have you ever noticed how the effects of drugs in science fiction movies are oddly specific? In Brave New World, the modern drug is Soma, which adds a psychological sleepy and zombified state to highlight everybody’s social and zombified state, whereas the savages trip out on peyote, which lets them see all kinds of alternate realities and puke a lot. Hey, it’s Huxley. Or in film, Strange Days depicts a society of people treating each other like contemptible meat, but the plot revolves around a technological drug that lets people vicariously relive other people’s experiences and, interestingly, their own. It’s 3D empathy in a bottle. These descriptions serve the plot and grammar of the movie, i.e. the rules of how the symbols relate to each other. This won’t work if the most you can say about the drug is ‘more body buzz, less euphoria, and epic munchies, brah’.

In Dredd, the drug that has given the gang its power and Dredd his motivation is ‘SloMo’. SloMo gives the user the feeling that reality has slowed down 100x, which means that ladies are gonna need it more than men (and if you don’t get that joke, you’re too young for me to explain it – ask your mother, she’ll get it). If, on the other hand, you’re being skinned and tossed off a 170 story balcony, as happens in the movie, this decelerated reality is gonna be a pain in the everything.

What does this odd level of specificity mean? Slowing time down would put a totally different spin on what’s worthwhile and how to spend time. In particular, simulated experiences are going to get much worse and direct sensory experiences are going to get much better. Imagine Angry Birds slowed down 100x. Have fun. We’ve already seen what slow motion did to the record of poor Beyonce’s half-time show. Try watching porn in super slow-mo. There is a minimum frame rate to make a simulation enjoyable. Slow it down, and the illusion falls apart. Direct experience, low mediation-experiences, though, are gonna be awesome. Licking a spoonful of nutella in slow motion? Yes, please. Even a terror, like a car accident, would have its attractions. Instead of being catapulted from the life you know to a new reality of broken bones and rehabilitation, or mourning, that you don’t understand, you’d have time to process it and see the transition. As fast as the world now moves, the ability to slow it down might often be a mercy.

But if slowing time down sounds attractive in really good times and bad, there’s must be some interesting psychology going on. There’s hedonism, but maybe it has an element of masochism. What? Okay, I’ll slow down.

Although you’d think drug use is supposed to be fun, the movie does a terrible job of making SloMo seem fun. If I remember correctly, there is only once scene where a character uses the drug (out of maybe a dozen) and doesn’t face some horrible death during or immediately after taking it. Death has a lot to do with time. The Freudian take on self-destructive behavior, which is a way of killing yourself in slow motion, is kind of like a twisted Buddhism (stoicism too, Frugal?): as long as you’re alive and kicking, you’re going to be unsatisfied and in a state of want, so moving yourself closer to death means getting closer to peace. That makes slowing life down with a drug a very ambiguous act (and ‘ambiguous’ means it has two meanings, not that the meaning is vague. Sorry for the pedantry, but it’s important). Taking a toxic drug that is going to bring a Judge/executioner down on you is clearly moving you closer to death, but the effect of the drug, the feeling, is of prolonged life. The drug’s effect with reference to death is ambiguous, so the users feel … that’s right: ambivalent. Siggi, meet Jimmy:

This might seem like a stretch of interpretation, to which I have 2 replies: 1) so what? Interpretation is always a creative act for which there should be, uh, websites and stuff. 2) compare it to the effects of other well-known drugs, real and fantastic. The scabby, imploded faces of speedfreaks pale in comparison to what the spice mélange does to its regular users. Light users, i.e. mentats, get red-stained lips, and junkies, i.e. navigators, mutate into elephantine space sperm. The ring in the Tolkein books morphs its human wearers into the twisted, emaciated human form they have already assumed cognitively.  It’s a marvelously psychosomatic substance – kind of like the heavy end of the opiate scale. But SloMo works only on, which is to say in, its users’ heads.

Elephantine space sperm. How else would you describe it?

Elephantine space sperm. How else would you describe it?

Heads play a very strong role in Dredd’s symbolic cosmos generally. It’s a futuristic cop show, so plenty of heads get shot, but they aren’t just shot. In Dredd, heads get explodinated, obliterated and destructified, often in slow motion. When the Judges examine the bodies of the Guys tossed from the balcony, the extruded brains are not only visible, but almost emphasized. Slow motion head shots let you see where the round entered and passed before it exits in a shower of skin, blood and bone. The first KIA in the movie is a head getting smashed against a windshield and the second is a head getting melted (yeah, Mega-citizens’ heads melt. Who knew?) by a special head-melting round from Dredd’s all-purpose-utility-belt-in-a-sidearm.

And the main characters’ heads also scream information about their bearer. Some examples:

1) The villain, MaMa, is a former prostitute whose pimp cut up her face (and in return she reportedly bit off his köttbullar*). So what is the most apparent feature of her head? It’s scarred.  And in a briefing scene where they exposit MaMa’s backstory, they show a picture of her from her days as a working girl. Then she had long hair draped flat around her head. Villain MaMa’s hair is shortish, dark and chaotic without direction or control.

2) Y’know the standard character of computer geek who sits in HQ and provides a higher ranked character with up to the minute, mission critical intel? Like Hans Gruber’s football fan and John McClane’s fat Kevin Smith pal in Die Hard 4? Well, MaMa has such a technically gifted sidekick too, and he’s terrified of her. How did she inspire the loyalty despite, or with, his terror? She gouged his eyes out and had them replaced with some kind of bionic cyborg eyes. She’s characterized by her scarring and wild hair, so it makes sense that the computer geek has his defining characteristic physically embedded into his head. Whereas our wetware interfaces with technological hardware somewhere in that peculiar void between our eyes and the screen, in his case hardware penetrates the wetware and you don’t know exactly where the interface is, but it’s definitely inside his skull. Like Gen 2 Google glasses.

3) In superhero movies there’s often a poignant scene where the mask is withdrawn to reveal, or just almost but not quite reveal, the person underneath. That scene is a standard trope, epitomized by the upside down kissing scene in Spiderman. There are two ways to riff on this cliché for even greater effect. One would be to pass on the mask entirely. The effect would be to show a Guy’s superpowers without assuming a superidentity. This might actually be the John McClane tactic. No quick change in a telephone booth (Google it, kids), just a Guy going about his day and having to call up the super on demand when his day is interrupted. Well, Dredd uses the other method and goes in the opposite direction. He’s the title character, but you never see Judge Dredd’s eyes. Unless you look it up, you won’t recognize the actor, because you only ever see an expressionless mouth or a grimace from the nose down. He wears his helmet throughout the movie, without pause. John McClane is just an ordinary Guy in extraordinary situations, but Dredd has buried his ordinary Guy behind a wall of Judge. There might be something underneath, some touching backstory, but as far as anyone outside his head is concerned, there is only impassive justice.

4) The Rookie Judge, Anderson, is a psychic.** Her backstory is that her parents died of apocalyptic radiation cancer, and she was caught in the system before the system noticed her talents and totally integrated her by sending her to Judge training. She can’t become a Judge yet because she’s too empathic to pass the Judge tests, and it’s Dredd’s job to test her in the field for a day to see if she can hack it (remember: everything is a test). Unlike the other Judges, she cannot wear a helmet because it would interfere with her psychic powers. She has curly, blonde hair. And when the whole skyrise gets locked down in order for MaMa to hunt the Judges and prevent them from leaving alive, everything is dark and red and green, but Anderson is rockin’ a Madonna’s halo. I know that the image of halos is generally the golden ring oddly floating above and slightly back of the angel’s skull or head or whatever. But did you know that the German word for halo, Heiligenschein, means something like ‘saintly shine’ or ‘holy glow’? That implies the sanctity coming from inside, not just being plopped on as an accessory. That’s Anderson’s head. The goodness radiates out.


Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.

 A mangled villain head, a cyborg techie head, the permanent and impenetrable helmet of justice, and the golden glowing head of a psychic who’s too good for the world she’s in.

Not quite. Anderson would be the image of pure good were it not for the Foucaultian moment. Some context: in investigating the splattered bodies at the bottom of the building, Dredd and Anderson get sent to a drug den in the same building that they bust up, and in doing so they capture one of MaMa’s lieutenants. MaMa then seals the building with blast shields, and soon enough Dredd figures out that she doesn’t want her lieutenant to leave alive because he must know something special. MaMa’s gang is swarming through the building trying to find and kill Dredd, Anderson and lieutenant, so Dredd is understandably keen on finding out what information could be so sensitive. And he’s a tough cop, and that’s what tough cops do. He gets the three of them to a quiet spot, and then he starts beating the living hell out of the lieutenant to make him talk. This is nothing  inappropriate, because a Judge is empowered to melt someone’s head on the spot in order to carry out a sentence, so beating a known murderer isn’t really too bad. But viewers get uncomfortable watching the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, and Anderson relieves their discomfort by saying ‘If you let me do it, we don’t even have to ask,’ so Dredd steps back and lets Anderson do a Professor Xavier and infiltrate the Guy’s mind to get the information. She’s successful. In the movie, this seems to reinforce Anderson’s goodness, her inclination to avoid violence, so why does it show the opposite?

Foucault did a lot of historical research in a manner he called genealogy (from Nietzsche, for you existentialists), and he looked at a lot of stuff this way, including the history of judicial punishment. He traced the shift from the pre-enlightenment modes of punishment to the modern forms. For the early stuff, think inquisitions, witch hunts and guillotines. You do something wrong, like consort with the devil (witches/inquisition) or systematically abuse most of a country for your own benefit (aristocracy), and justice will entail burning your body, or cutting off your head, or putting you on the rack, or drawing and quartering, or some other form of mangling your body and ending your life. After the Enlightenment, though, criminals’ bodies become taboo, so you have to lock them up, submit them to a regimented daily routine, restrict access to letters, talk and ideas, educate, and basically make all the choices for the convict. The model went from punishment as punishment to punishment as rehabilitation, reintegration into society, reconfiguring the personality for more convenience. So if you think of it in terms of Braveheart or Kunta Kinte, who refused to change their ideas, to give up the sovereignty over their own heads, no matter what happened to their bodies, modern rehabilitation is in some ways more violent than physical torture because of how it tries to change who people are.

If you look at it this way, Anderson’s method of robbing the lieutenant of the sovereignty over his own head is maybe more brutal than Dredd’s method of beating the snot out of him. And one reason to believe this was a deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, not that it matters too much, is that this scene happens in a classroom, as evidenced by relatively bright colours and kid-sized desks. What normally happens in a classroom? Exactly. Moulding people’s minds to make them fit for society.

Anderson’s psychic abilities make for another difference between how she and Dredd act, and here’s where we start getting existential. Because Anderson can see into other people’s souls (or minds or motivations or wills or whatever you prefer), she hesitates much more. She has access to more information, so she has to collect and process cognitive information about the person standing in front of her before she acts. Who is he, why is he doing this, can I kill him in good conscience? She needs more time. She can react exactly right, but she needs things to slow down, so it would be handy if there were a drug that… Dredd is, at least on the surface, less troubled with killing because his limited access to information makes everything seem less complex. He has to call ‘em as he sees ‘em, and he’s committed to applying the Law. Man shooting at a Judge? Attempting to kill a Judge punishable by death? Deal Judgement. When Dredd and Anderson find and capture the computer geek with the bionic eyes, Dredd’s ready to kill him, but Anderson looks into his mind and sees what MaMa had done to him, so she let him go to Dredd’s dismay.

Anderson’s access to all the information she needs also means she has a lighter existential burden. She doesn’t need to doubt whether she’s Judging the situation right; she knows, she has all the information and sees everybody’s cards, so there’s no gamble. Dredd, on the other hand, is working without a net. Because of his ignorance, he needs unshakable trust in the system that made and empowers him. He cannot improvise or hesitate, he must submit himself entirely to the Justice of the institutions, to his role as a Judge, and he has to believe it is right and proper.

Dredd only hesitates before killing twice. Once is in the final duel with MaMa, and it’s understandable because she’s strapped a pulse meter to her wrist, and as soon as it stops measuring her pulse, the whole building, the Judges and all 70 000 residents will be explodinated like so much bad Guy head. He needs a scheme to kill her without killing everyone else, and that takes a sec to work out. Interestingly, though, Anderson had to be knocked out of commission for that to happen. Given how she reprieved the computer geek, there is no way she could have let MaMa get Judged as a scarred woman with a painful past. So before Dredd could dispatch her, Anderson had to be knocked out first.

The second instance of Dredd hesitating is when two tween gang members get the jump Dredd, Anderson, and the Lieutenant, and sneak up on them with guns. Threatening a Judge with death is a Deathable offence, so Dredd should have just offed them. But he hesitated, did a duck-and-roll, and stunned them instead of just shooting them.  And when he does this, the lieutenant captures Anderson. The cardinal rule of veteran cops in cop movies is NEVER LOSE THE ROOKIE. The Guy two days from retirement is a gonner anyway, but the rookie? No. Why did Dredd break the cardinal rule of his character’s type to save a couple of obvious criminals? You don’t know. Those reasons are behind the helmet, and the helmet locks down his mind like the blast shields on a post-apocalyptic skyscraper.

Oh, and there were a lot of spoilers above, but if you’re worried about spoilers, you weren’t looking for a critical interpretation; you were looking for an advertisement.


*There are also some really interesting gender angles in this movie: MaMa (paging Dr. Freud) as a former prostitute who takes over a man’s criminal empire populated (exclusively?) by male thugs. Anderson defying the rules of Justice (i.e. superego/dad) to show empathy. Dredd giving her a pass on the test despite her breaking these rules, so is he discovering his ‘feminine’ side? Dredd’s mode of transportation is basically a supercharged dildo on wheels, and the whole conflict takes place inside a giant sheathed phallus, etc. I’ve said enough in this post, but I’d love to hear somebody else pick these angles apart in a different post or right here in the comments.

** Pop quiz: what is the difference between a psychic and a schizophrenic? A schizophrenic experiences multiple realities in their own head, and a psychic experiences those realities in others’ heads. But doesn’t she experience the reality of their heads within her own? Where’s the wetware-wetware interface? Answer me that, and you’ll have earned your philosopher’s merit badge.

Categories: Psychoanalysis.

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8 Responses

  1. > if you don’t get that joke, you’re too young for me to explain it – ask your mother, she’ll get it

    My mom is dead. Thankfully, I got your mom to explain it to me last night. (Reverse Zing!)

    This is an amazing article. Hat tip.

  2. @Operator: You’re probably right as far as creating a satisfying narrative goes. Nobody wants a purely good, purely bad, purely by the book character any more than they want to see Dredd/Anderson scrounging for toilet paper or whining about low blood sugar or anything else that would make them human instead of mythical/symbolic figures. But did you answer the question you set out to?

    (@Nachlasse: inb4 ‘I’ll show your mom a wetware-wetware interface!’

  3. I don’t follow the analogy, but it sounds like you’re dissatisfied with the purported value of the film’s (and culture’s) symbols vs. their actual value. But here’s the thing: every symbol symbolizes something, and it might even be more interesting when it fails to symbolize whatever it’s shooting for. It sure makes deconstruction easier.

    The question is where to subjectivities meet. Here is an artist’s rendition.

  4. Very nice article. You are a good writer. Cheers.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] as a straight-forward action flick, there’s always depth beneath the surface as this philosophical analysis of Dredd [...]