Scenes I Love: Dredd


Dredd

It’s been a year since Through the Shattered Lens lost one of it’s own: Semtexskittle.

In honor of his passing I’d like to share one of the films he and I share a love for. I think he may have been one of the few who truly wanted this film to be nominated as one of the ten films picked for Best Picture for the year it came out. While the Academy voters were sorely shortsighted for not nominating the film, it still remains one thing Chris shared with everyone at the site. Whether it was his love of sports, anime, video games and everything in-between.

We all still miss you, Chris.

‘Ex Machina’ Review (dir. Alex Garland)


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‘Ex Machina’ – the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (‘Sunshine’, ’Dredd’) – had been on my radar for awhile. Like with ‘Interstellar’ and my interest in astronomy and astrophysics – I have a similar level of interest in A.I. and the Singularity that drew me to this project. Good A.I. films are hard to come by. Last year we did have ‘The Machine’ which was very good – but even then that was offset by ‘Transcendence’…that sound you just heard? Me gagging. So when I learned about ‘Ex Machina’, it wasn’t Oscar Isaac’s beautiful mug that caught my attention – or it being Alex Garland’s directorial debut – but rather the plot, the subjects and themes I knew it might explore. So I went in with high hopes but loads of caution and I am happy to report that the film succeeds on multiple levels. It is a dark, sleek, sensual, thought provoking and visually mesmerizing sci-fi thriller. It is the sort that requires your full attention – but rewards it with one of the smarter and more intense movie going experiences so far this year.

The film stars Dohmnall Gleeson (‘Frank’) as Caleb, a good-natured young programmer who wins a contest to spend a week at the luxurious mountain estate of his brutish and brash boss Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (‘A Most Violent Year’). After an awkward exchange of pleasantries, Caleb is told that he was brought out to the middle of this mountain getaway – which is actually a makeshift research facility – to be the human element in a Turing test. Nathan has built an A.I. named Ava (played by Alicia Vikander of ‘A Royal Affair’), and wants Caleb to devise tests and to interact with her to see whether or not she possesses a truly conscience artificial intelligence. The prospect of being part of such a groundbreaking program excites Caleb – who is blown away by Ava. However, as power cuts hit the facility – and Nathan’s eradicate behavior and potential secret motive becomes more evident – Caleb begins to question the true intentions of his being there.

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Now, I must stop you dear readers right here if you haven’t seen the film to say that I can’t go into much further detail explaining the events of the film, and the themes it explores, because it would spoil the experience. The film contains a ton of organically created twists and turns, and so giving away too much of the plot removes the initial suspense and shock that comes with the proceedings that follow Caleb’s first interactions with Ava. So I will start by going over some of the technical stuff and end with a more spoiler filled analysis for those that wish to read it. But if you want to go in totally cold, stop reading now and just get your butt into the theater…

But if you want a reason why you should – without it being spoiled – I’ll start be saying the acting here is top notch and Gleeson and Isaac do a wonderful job…but it was the absolutely mesmerized performance by Alicia Vikander as Ava, who I had never seen before, that blew me away. Vikander has such a wonderfully expressive face and brilliantly evoked a sense of innocence and curiosity – but also an intelligence and intuition – you would expect such a machine to have. It was made all the more impressive given that it was a very physical performance and so much is expressed simply with slight turns of the head or side glances. Vikander, who has a background in ballet, even gave Ava a walk and posture that was robotic but also fluid. The character is all the more extraordinary given the design, which was gorgeous and unique. Much of the body is a gray mesh with a visible inner skeleton of brightly lit tubes and machinery – making her figure seem at times incredibly human in the right lighting – but also very clearly mechanical when viewed up close. All of this giving weight to the way in which both the viewer and Caleb view Ava.

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Speaking of gorgeous, the visuals – and not just the seamless CGI – are stunning. Tons of great juxtapositions of bright color against dark grays and blacks – neon reds and blues are sort of my thing – and they are used throughout. The cinematography was also really great and gives the sense that there is a meaning to almost every frame. The production design and set locations also lent a hand in giving the film a futuristic and almost dreamlike quality.

The script – trying not to be too hyperbolic – is quite genius. This is a very smart film with literary and mythological quotes and references – along with fascinating discussions of the human mind, human interaction, emotions, sexuality, etc. As I mentioned early on this is a film that can really only be fully appreciated with a little work on the end of the viewer to stick with the themes being explored, pay attention to the science involved – and doing a little bit of thinking of their own – to interpret how they all play into what is going on.

Last but not least, I would be remiss to not mention the hypnotic score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, which was a perfect mood setter and had some truly awesome music cues. It just all adds up to a damn near perfect package – and a sci-fi thriller that feels unique and unlike anything before it.

I’ll end this part of the review by saying that it is hard to know this early on where this will ultimately fall amongst the other releases this year but I’d be very surprised if ‘Ex Machina’ doesn’t end up in contention for my favorite film of the year. Nothing so far released measures up – besides maybe ‘It Follows’ – and given my bias towards the subjects at hand this is one that will stick with me for a while. Hell, I’ve already seen it twice and wouldn’t hesitate to see it again – and my obsession has led me to read a lot into it (see below once you’ve seen the film). All I can say is just see it at least once. It isn’t for everyone and can be at times downright bizarre – but never boring. If only more science fiction films were this good.

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***** Spoilers Follow *****

So I will assume you’ve already seen the film if you are reading this. So…good right?! No? Get out! But seriously, how about that ending? And what did it all ultimately means? Well the events of the film, especially the ending, are open to much interpretation. Even Gleeson and Garland hold different views. What did I think? Personally, I believe that what happened in that facility – as it did on Discovery One in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – was perhaps a depiction of the final step in human evolution. In this case, the final battle between nature and  nurture – the free thinking and the analytical. It wasn’t man vs. machine like Kubrick’s film, but rather the irrational fears, insecurities and inherent weaknesses of human emotion that led to the downfall of man – as the two sides battled and outdid each other – and gave rise to a more intelligent, restrained and arguably more deserving life form in Ava – who is ultimately the result of both Nathan’s brute nature and Caleb’s empathy driven nurturing. I think this idea of the ‘changing of the guard’ so to speak is expressed brilliantly in the way in which the film opens with a single human entering the facility and ends with an A.I. leaving. Garland admitted he almost named the A.I. Eve but felt that was too blunt. But it is fitting – she is the first of her kind – at least in regards to her level of intelligence and conscience. Her leaving the facility can be seen as her back in the garden…and one can only imagine what happened once she left.

Someone might still ask why she leaves Caleb, and for that I couldn’t help but think of ‘Stoker’. The moment when Ava put on the skin – which was a very coming of age sort of act – reminded me of when India received the high heels from her uncle. Like with that scene in Park’s film, I saw the aforementioned scene with Ava as her entry into “womanhood” – and with that was possibly a realization and new outlook that came with her sudden maturity – as it did with India. A realization of no longer needing Caleb who – though a nice guy – was still restricted by his human urges and faults. He still saw Ava as an object, lusting for her with his hand on the glass as she changed. He wasn’t a threat, and didn’t deserve to die like Nathan – but she wasn’t going to take him with her. After all, like Samantha in ‘Her’, she was much too complex and – lets be honest – far too superior to fall in love with a human. I personally don’t think Caleb dies. I’ll take a more optimistic approach and say he finds a way out.

One reasons I take this stance, and defend Ava, is  that I have never bought into the idea of A.I. being a threat to mankind – even with leading scientist and inventors like Hawking and Musk warning about their potential threat. I think we should be much more concerned with ourselves. A lot of the fear over A.I. is simply humans reflecting our own faults onto this potential new form of life. We see our own vulnerability, anger, greed, etc. and assume that an A.I. would end up with those same aspects – but only with a greater intelligence and capability to destroy. But although I think a truly conscience A.I. would experience emotion – they’d also be able to apply a logic to them that humans can’t. We are often overcome and blinded by how we feel – and I think an A.I. could better process what often destroys us. Ava might not be perfect, but I found a logic and justification in what she has done.

But that is just my view. Many have come up with other theories – such as it being a battle of the sexes, or a classic femme fatale and noir scenario – and it is definitely a bit of both. But, no matter how you view it, the simple fact that is leads to such discussion and analysis – while still feeling so complete and utterly enjoyable – just elevates it in my mind.

The Case for Dredd 3-D


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I don’t know that many people who, in the thrall of a weak September, dished out the $5, $10, $12, to see Dredd 3-D. This is curious, because I saw it the day that it came out, and I sang its praises til… wait, when am I writing this? I suppose the singing goes on. If you’ve seen Dredd 3-D, you probably had the same initial reaction I did – that this movie is much, much, much better than you ever thought it would be. But, having seen it three times in theaters, and roughly one billion times since the DVD release… there’s more to this movie. This is a truly great film. And since we’re in the season of handing out awards, and because movies like Dredd 3-D know from the moment of their inception that they will never sniff a nomination, it seems like a fine time to extol the virtues of what might be the best action movie made since the calendar flipped over from 1989.

If you’ve seen the film, I can probably spare you most of this song of praise. Of the few people that I know who have seen the film (most of them forced to see it by me), I have heard very few complaints. Of course, I have targeted the film’s audience amongst my own friends, and I’m not trying to win it the support of the Academy. But for a film to be so universally heralded amongst fans of a certain genre is actually fairly impressive in 2013, let alone for that very same film – a gritty B action film, by all accounts – to command a startling 77% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, is nothing short of incredible.

For the uninitiated, let’s start at the beginning. What is Dredd 3-D?

Well, it’s an exploration of a dystopian future that is the primary subject of the long-running Judge Dredd comic strip, an American hero who has been published almost exclusively in the United Kingdom. Dredd is a living metaphor, he is blind justice, the implacable and unrelenting arm of the law. He is fearless, he is formidable… he is the law. In a desolate future, North America is a nuclear wasteland. Outside of the boundaries of the incredible Megacity One, all is irradiated desolation. The Megacity runs from Boston to Washington DC, and contains twice as many people as lived in all of North America in 2012. Within the city limits, only one organization is still fighting to maintain order… the Judges of the Hall of Justice. They are judges, they are juries, and if necessary, they are executioners.

In Dredd 3-D, this is effectively all of the exposition we need. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the merciless reality of a law that is actively losing its struggle to serve and protect. Megacity One is falling apart day by day. But if Dredd himself is dismayed, he does not show it. Our opening sequence is a bloodbath of a high-speed chase through the streets of Megacity One that is given all the feel of a totally average day on the job. Innocent people die, vehicles are destroyed, drugs are consumed, and assault weapons are in abundance. So routine does the film make the bust feel, that it drew me into the world of Judge Dredd. Once I was there, and once the action started, the film never released its talons.

From there, Judge Dredd hauls rookie Judge-Candidate Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) out into the real world. As befits an assessment, Anderson takes the lead, committing herself and Dredd to respond to a multiple homicide at Peach Trees, one of the massive megastructures of Megacity One, a single tenement that houses over 75,000 people. Upon arrival, the Judges determine that the corpses – skinned and thrown off the balcony of Peach Trees’ level 200 – were executions, intended to send a message. From there, we’re off. The Judges fight their way up the megastructure and toward survival, battling against the savage druglord Ma-Ma (Lena Headley) and her minions. Most of the effects are practical, most of the dialogue is minimal, and while the story does have its emotional aspect, the action is the centerpiece of this film.

So, given that, why would I prop this film up as one of 2012’s best? Why would I, had I an Academy vote, have nominated Dredd 3-D for Best Picture (and probably Best Direction and Best Score, but probably nothing else). Because Dredd 3-D understands its genre, and its audience, and it attempts to be a perfect film within that framework. There is no pretension here. There are no regal accents, timeless proclamations of love, or elaborate Victorian costumes. That probably disqualifies Dredd from an award this year, but it shouldn’t. Because Dredd is a better film than Les Miserables (which, earnestly, has been done better more than once before). It is a better film than Lincoln (no one has ever claimed that they felt Dredd 3-D’s length)… because Dredd 3-D is a perfect action movie. If we do not ascribe any deeper motivations or requirements to a film than it be relentlessly entertaining and that it fill the basic requirements of its genre, there are few films ever made that will fill this criteria better.

Dredd 3-D sets up its scenario expertly, in a handful of scenes, and without much in the way of dialogue. Karl Urban has proved time and again that he is both versatile and talented (and criminally underrated, but that’s neither here nor there) but he is not asked to do much here. Dredd delivers his lines in the same tone of voice regardless of the situation. Where Dredd’s catch-phrases seemed campy and over-wrought in the 1995 adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone, Urban seems to have the better measure of his character. He is mercilessly deadpan, transforming one-liners into either tiny morsels of dry humour or vaguely ominous threats. Because Dredd’s persona is so unvarying, it never seems like he’s delivering a line. He is simply stating facts, as he observes them, and we are reacting in turn. Throughout the film, Dredd delivers roughly three facial expressions – a default look of grim severity, a look of significant disappointment (when a particular misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson) and one that I would not describe otherwise than grim fury (when a particularly more unfortunate misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson).

Dredd 3-D doesn’t demand much from its audience, but it outputs entertainment at an almost unvarying rate. The action scenes and set-pieces are actually remarkably varied (such as they can be) despite the confined nature of the film’s locations. As we watch, Dredd’s relentless implacability, and the sense that he literally cannot be stopped, actually become a fun part of the story. There is literally nothing to recommend the villains of the piece to us, despite a fairly layered performance by Lena Headley, who manages to be savage, determined, exhausted, and regretful basically all at once. This is one circumstance in which we very much want “the law” to prevail… and if what you hunger for is watching the law burn gang-bangers to death with incendiary ammunition, this film will grant you your fondest wish.

So, while Dredd 3-D may not have been nominated for any prestigious awards this season, please do it the favour of checking it out. It is a nearly-perfect action movie, and it is that way in spite of, not because of, its source material. Show it some love, and hope that the who’s-who of Hollywood realizes why this film is worth our time – and that they make many more films just like it.

Poll: Which Films Are You Most Looking Forward To Seeing In September?


The results for last month’s poll can be found here.

As always, you can vote for up to four films and write-ins are accepted and welcomed!