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Monday, April 8, 2024

'Dredd' Deserves a Better Place in Alex Garland’s Filmography

On Friday, the 51-year-old English writer-director Alex Garland’s new movie, Men, opens in theaters. Garland’s not a celebrity auteur on the scale of your Martys, your Quentins, your PTAs. But for folks obsessed with twisty, discomforting, finely calibrated sci-fi, a new Garland project is a very big deal. Men, about a grieving widow stuck in some bucolic horror, is already being rapturously reviewed.

I happen to consider myself a Garland Head. I fell for him after 2007’s Sunshine, a very underrated Danny Boyle flick about a bunch of doomed astronauts (they gotta nuke the sun!) for which Garland wrote the script. I thought I’d seen everything he’d ever done; I’ve even read some of his fiction. But just last week, while reviewing his Wikipedia entry (classic Garland Head activity), I learned I’d missed Dredd. The 2012 adaptation of the cult comic 2000 AD wasn’t only produced and written by Garland—according to its star, Karl Urban, Garland also took over directing duties from Pete Travis. In the years immediately after Dredd, Garland established himself as one of our greatest working directors with his (official) debut Ex Machina, its follow up Annihilation, and the TV series Devs. Dredd is a loud comic-book movie, which feels like a direct contrast to Garland’s delicate works, so it makes sense that the film rarely gets mentioned when fans discuss his most visionary projects. But, as I learned this week on my inaugural viewing of Dredd—it ought to be.

The plot is happily bare-bones: In a crumbling world, Dredd is a Judge—effectively a state-sanctioned vigilante. On a ride-along with a psychic mutant rookie Judge (played by Olivia Thirlby), he’s trapped in a massive residential tower block by a crew called the Ma Ma Clan. In order to survive, the Judges have to kill pretty much everybody: The violence starts right away, and it never, ever stops. Brains are smashed, heads are melted, bullets zing through cheeks. Blood and guts and body bits splatter wondrously, kaleidoscopically. In interviews, Garland said he was inspired by the high-speed photography of nature documentaries: “Can you make violence into something which is purely aesthetic? Can it be so abstract that it becomes genuinely beautiful?” I say this with all sincerity: You can really tell this violence was created by someone who cared.

That commitment to the material—to making Dredd the best version of itself—shines throughout. Domhall Gleeson, future star of Ex Machina, serves up a wonderfully bugged-out spin on the Tech Guy Reluctantly Employed by Bad People cliche. The dialog is solidly, necessarily cartoony, but there’s also a quick riff about how we’re all just meat in a giant meat grinder, and the Judges are just turning the giant handles on that giant meat grinder, which is grotesquely entertaining. Despite the grand and gory trappings, the story revolves around the relationship between Urban’s Dredd and Thirlby’s rookie Judge. It feels genuinely human.

And if there’s one undeniably elite element to Dredd, it’s the drugs. The Ma Ma Clan makes its cash by manufacturing a narcotic called Slo-Mo. You take it through an inhaler; it slows life alllll the wayyyy dooowwwwn. Whenever a character indulges in a suck on a Slo-Mo inhaler, we see a grim world transformed. Garland worked closely alongside VFX supervisor Jon Thum to get the effect right. He’s said they labored on it up until the very end of postproduction to figure out just “how far you can pull the viewer out into a weird hallucinogenic space … how trippy you can get.” Slo-Mo does what any good fake movie drug should do, which is make you wish you could try it in real life.

The question of whether Dredd should “count” as an official Garland-directed movie is tricky to answer. When the Los Angeles Times first reported that Garland had taken over mid-production, Garland and Travis shot back with a joint statement/attempt at peace: “From the outset we decided on an unorthodox collaboration to make the film. This situation has been misinterpreted.” The LA Times also quoted a source saying that while Travis “is no longer involved in postproduction, he is keeping up with progress via the Internet.”

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We don’t know why Travis got nudged out—we don’t know what happened on the sets and in the editing rooms. Did Garland’s vision win out? Or was Garland just the guy who pushed the production to its endpoint? What we do know: This wasn’t just a paycheck for Garland; he grew up on the Judge Dredd character. Many of the movies he’s now known for are anticipated in its bloody frames. The way he builds whole surreal worlds around just a handful of characters—that was in Dredd. The way he works within relatively small budgets to make odd, lovely, creepy images—that was in Dredd too. As Garland told WIRED around the time of Dredd’s release, he’s always thinking, practically, about how to maximize his possibilities: “I've been working in films long enough to know … you don't bother writing the big crazy shot, because you'll never get to do it. Do the weird, trippy shot instead—come up with some drug that helps you out!”

Garland himself doesn’t seem to care if he gets the credit. But to slot Dredd in as part of his directing canon seems, at least as a movie-nerd exercise, to make sense. If you want to better understand the oblique social commentary of Garland’s gorgeous art-house sci-fi, well, it can’t hurt to watch Judge Dredd pulverize a whole load of craniums.

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