Justice has a price. The price is freedom.
Judge Dredd is no human rights lawyer. In fact, Dredd lives in a world without lawyers, because all the lawyers are dead and now the law is created, interpreted, and enforced by the same people. No elected politicians, no trained and meticulous judges, no carefully reigned-in police officers – just black spandex suits and giant arm-cramping guns. Mega City One is a dictator’s wet dream, and we root for Dredd not because he represents an evil authoritarian system, but because the alternatives are worse, he’s more liberal than the other judges, and hey – it’s a work of fiction. No-one sane would volunteer to live in a cramped 400 million-plus city surrounded by a radioactive wasteland ruled with all the fairness of a reality TV show. Well, I would, but that’s just because I have a severe weakness for gargantuan architecture.
Who doesn’t enjoy spending half their day riding in elevators?
So no-one seriously advocates the justice system – but how the judges are represented can tell us a great deal. Alex Garland, writer of the latest film, has said he explicitly wants to explore Mega City One’s darker fascist side in a sequel. But for now we have to content ourselves with what we have – the comics, one half-decent film, and one tragic nightmare shitflick (I refuse to count the novels). Just how does the terrifying justice system compare in each? How do the public feels about their square-jawed overlords? And which face-stomping boots are shinier?
ROUND ONE: JUDGE BRUTALITY
First up we need to examine the number of faces stomped per judge. Though the Mega City One of the 1995 movie has some fairly arbitrary sentences (Rob Schneider is sentenced to five years for saving his own life), there is an interesting aspect to the regime: it allows something of a free press. This takes the form of a popular television reporter who spends his days following Judge Dredd and taking note of all the corpses he leaves behind. Granted, the reporter and his wife are brutally murdered by the villains in an attempt to bring about an überfascist coup, but the fact that it’s there at all shows that the government allows at least some freedoms. Also of interest is the fact that the antagonists are trying to bring about a more authoritarian system than the one currently in place – the Stallone film’s system is definitely fascism-lite.
The 2012 movie on the other hand, pulls no punches when it comes to, well, punches. And bullets. And throwing people from the top floor of 200-storey buildings. The film is shockingly gory, and some of the settings on Dredd’s weapon could only have been designed by Mega City One’s most frightening sociopath scientists.
Pretty! Just like a jack-o-lantern!
To be fair to the justice system of the comics, very few offences carry the death penalty. Instead, the worst crimes have the much more humane system of stranding criminals on an inescapable traffic island and having them fight to the death. And the penalty for lesser crimes is pretty Guiliani-like: littering carries a prison sentence of up to two years. They’re not going to be winning prizes from Amnesty International any time soon.
The Francisco Franco award for violent oppression goes to: DREDD (2012)
Drug possession is worth years in an iso cube, it’s hinted that the Justice system routinely uses torture, and we even see Dredd harassing the homeless. Granted, it’s not much worse than the comics, but the 2012 film wins by a hair (plucked from the charred corpse of a graffiti artist’s head).
ROUND TWO: VIVE LA RESISTANCE!
Next up: what about the goody-two-shoes hippies and university professors calling for a less shooty regime? Just how does the justice system deal with those pesky protesters? How to squash the inevitable cries for democracy?
In the comics there is already a single elected post – the figurehead title of mayor. But the public of Mega City One are so jaded that in one issue they voted for an orang-utan (and even he was assassinated – where are Mutant-PETA when you need them?). Even so, there are some dedicated activists in the city, and the comics have given some sincere time to this issue: there are indeed citizens who want Mega City One to return to the democracy of the olden days, explored in the America storyline.
SPOILER! It does not end well.
Dredd truly believes in the system – to the extent that when Chief Judge Fargo’s dying words implore him to restore democracy and abolish the Judge system, Dredd completely ignores him. At the same time, Dredd himself has been offered the role of Chief Judge numerous times, and always turns it down – perhaps he just really likes being dominated by guys in uniform.
There are no direct campaigns for democracy in the Stallone shitfest, but the population isn’t what you’d call passive and subservient…
Large areas of the city undergo continuous riots, and judging by the way citizens speak to the judges, they have little respect for their be-helmeted authority figures. But the judges respond in a manner only slightly more bloodthirsty than the real-life LAPD (and are considerably less racist). Sadly the 2012 film doesn’t even go so far as to show citizen dissatisfaction – perhaps the public are so used to rule by judges and drug lords that they’ve been numbed into total apathy, which would certainly be depressingly dystopic.
The Augusto Pinochet award for harming dissidents goes to: THE COMICS
On the one hand the government of the comics does allow a referendum on democracy (which fails), but on the other hand pro-democracy activists and elected officials have a habit of winding up very, very dead. The comics win this round!
ROUND THREE: NECESSITY OF SINISTER FASCIST OVERLORDS
Dredd is intended to be satire: that is to say, the creators of the comic weren’t advocating an authoritarian police state where ‘separation of powers’ has been replaced by ‘face-obscuring helmets and giant eagle shoulder-pads’. Sometimes, however, satire gets lost in translation – especially when the original format is adapted.
Despite the plans for the sequel, The 2012 movie is pretty unambiguous in Mega City One’s need for its trigger-happy soldier-police – basically, it’s them or ruthless criminal gangs. In fact, the entire plot revolves around the plan for one gang’s grab for power, using narcotics manufacturing as their income base. Of course, their entire operation would be impossible if drugs were simply legalised, but hey, if real-life politicians can’t reach that conclusion, what hope is there here? Just try to duck when they machine-gun your entire neighbourhood.
In the Mega City of the 1995 film you stand a pretty good day-to-day chance of getting a grenade through your front door, and like the newer film, the opening narration remarks on the necessity of the judges in a chaotic world. There’s little implication that any other system is possible – the Judges are there, and the only question is just how many crimes are deserving of the death penalty. Chief Judge Fargo (the city’s führer) even remakes that his badge stands for ‘freedom’.
Freedom looks an awful lot like an imperial stormtrooper…
The moral ambiguity of the comics vary from issue to issue, but there are instances in which the criminals are at least somewhat sympathetic. Bear in mind that when everyone is unemployed and poverty is omnipresent, crime seems like a sensible career choice. Seeing as pretty much every other Mega City on the planet has adopted the same system, there’s not even anywhere you can run to for political asylum. Aside from the Cursed Earth, of course…
The ‘Always At War With Eastasia’ award for justifying the regime goes to: THE COMICS
So there we have it! The Mega City One of the comics narrowly beats the 2012 film for the title of Most Depressingly Dictatorial, with the 1995 incarnation in wussy non-despotic third place. In both the comics and the recent film the law is applied sadistically and disproportionately, Judges themselves are corrupt and brutal, and gang warfare only serves to justify the government’s existence – but fact that any chance of change was turned down by referendum gives the comics the edge in total and utter hopelessness. Not only are the Judges in place forever, but the people want it that way. Now that’s some damn good fascisting.