I confess when it comes to culture I’m middle brow at best. I am about as likely to rush out and purchase this year’s Man Booker prize winning book as I am the latest issue of Ladies Home Journal (or whatever). I like science fiction and non-fiction. Also movies–lots of movies. I thought the latest Judge Dredd film was terrific. Watch the trailer if you’ve not seen it.
And I’m not talking Evil Dead II good, as in, you know, ‘funny, violent…’
Lots of critics liked the film but the smart ones at the New York Times and the LA Times didn’t like it at all. According to the latter it’s ‘clunk headed’ while the former laments ‘Every so often there’s a suggestion that a police state may actually be a lousy idea, but this thought dies even faster than the disposable characters.’ Personally, I think Dredd 3D (indeed the whole Dredd genre, with one exception) is actually rather thoughtful and the high brows have missed the point. Let me explain.
First, I find the dystopic vision of the future more than a little plausible and really rather illuminating for those preoccupied with the character of ‘future war’. Leave aside the precise way in which the world’s landscape gets hammered (in Dredd there has been a nuclear exchange). It’s a detail. The facts are that we are adding new people to the planet and consuming its resources at an unsustainable rate while dreaming up relatively cheap and easy ways of causing megadeath. Taken together, I think this makes a working hypothesis like ‘the future, it will probably suck’ seem pretty robust. The thing is, though, in Dreddworld states have not gone away, nor has interstate war–as various scholars have claimed over the years; the problem is, rather, that states have lost it–the wave of ungovernability that we can already perceive happening in our Network Society has surpassed them–and massive interstate war, while a devastating reality, is not really the major concern of the people. What the people are worried about is that they live in a quasi-Hobbesian virtually lawless state of nature combined with colossal rates of unemployment from which, for most, the only attainable shelter is a securely bolted apartment door behind which they mitigate their fear and sorrow and isolation in cheap immersive virtual environments and/or drugs. Sound unfamiliar?
Depravity (google it yourself)
The future’s possibly not all bad but it’s mostly not good. I found Ernest Cline’s recent science fiction novel Ready Player One a disconcerting but also somewhat uplifting treatment of the subject–read it! Dreddworld has coded into its DNA the Cold War’s nuclear terror whereas the world of Ready Player One has gone to hell in a handbasket without it. And there has been some excellent scholarly treatment of the new battlegrounds of our increasingly urban world also. Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism really stands out.
Second, I think that Dredd is not a bad way of explaining to people some of the problems of the here and now too. For instance, take the NY Times critic’s point about the idea of a police state being a lousy idea only rarely cropping up in the film (for my part it was rather an overarching theme) and think about Afghanistan.
People often seem incredulous or perplexed about the ‘popularity’ of the Taliban. They’re neck-chopping, schoolgirl shooting, statue exploding bastards. True. But read Ahmed Rasjid’s account of the rise of the Taliban. Mullah Omar rode to power effectively on the slogan of ‘Peace through Justice’ and it resonated with a lot of Afghans (and still does) because they had no peace and no justice. Perhaps, if you’re a soft-living suburbanite like me you find it hard to get into the headspace of an Afghan peasant trying to raise a family while rapacious (and rapist) warlords prey upon you and yours without let up for a generation and with impunity that seems likley to go on and on and on. So watch Dredd 3D instead and imagine yourself in a tower block run by psychopathic drug-addled drug dealing rapist murderers. Dredd shows up all judge-jury-executioner rolled up into one and you too might think ‘Goddamn, he’s a bastard but at least I know how not to get on his bad side.’ Which is better than the alternative.
Anyway, it’s a good film so watch it and think. As regular readers of this blog may know, I am a keen fan of George Orwell. It is interesting that 1948 when he wrote in his dystopic masterpiece Nineteen Eighty Four ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face —forever.’ Our vision is always and unavoidably coloured by the preoccupations and anxieties of the present. In his day it was state totalitarianism. I suspect that if in 2048 you were to sit down to write a book called Twenty Eighty Four you might be thinking The Leviathan not such a bad thing.