The Franchise You Didn’t Know Existed, Part II

Catch up with Part I here.

Previously, we discussed the overarching themes of the 1993 treatise on social order Demolition Man.  Today, we will discuss its companion piece, the justifiably-overlooked Judge Dredd, in which Stallone plays a descendent of his character in the previous film and acts as an agent of the fascist system unwittingly instituted by its protagonist.

At the end of Demolition Man, the forces of rampant Liberalism were cast aside under a cloud of corruption and murder, allowing the more seemingly freedom-loving Libertarians to return to the surface world and take control.  This meant an end to the various well-meaning initiatives put in place by the previous regime, in favor of an improvised order more appealing to the base desires of the populace.  Forced politeness was repealed, and with it the automatic fines for verbal profanity, a measure which was particularly god damn unappealing to anyone who would pay to see an R-rated action movie in 1993.  The ban on meat was also brought to an end, allowing the formerly second-class citizens to partake in as many rat burgers as they wanted.  

Judge Dredd takes places even further into the hypothetical future.  It is important to point out that at no point is there any acknowledgement of a connection between these two films by the director, the script, or the star.  Judge Dredd was meant to be viewed simply as another venture into futuristic science fiction by Sylvester Stallone, following up on the success of Demolition Man.  A juxtaposition of the two films, however, should make it clear to the viewer that explores the long term consequences of the other.  The film opens with a text crawl narrated by James Earl Jones, quoted below:

In the third millennium, the world changed.  Climate, nations, all were in upheaval.  The Earth transformed into a poisonous, scorched desert, known as “The Cursed Earth.”  Millions of people crowded into a few Legalities, where roving bands of street savages created violence the justice system could not control.  Law, as we know it, collapsed.  From the decay rose a new order, a society ruled by a new, elite force.  A force with the power to dispense both justice and punishment.  They were the police, jury, and executioner all in one.  They were the judges.

This opening narration makes it clear that the inevitable result of the change in social order celebrated at the end of Demolition Man was first anarchy, followed by a stifling authoritarian order instated to restore some semblance of civility.  The victory for “freedom” won in the first movie was short-lived, the net result being supercops with the authority to kill according to their own judgement and whims unleashed in the cities.  Technology has advanced since the previous film to the point that flying cars are ubiquitous and dense urban areas cover a landmass the size of a small state, but the people who inhabit them live under what would charitably be described as Fascism.

In this film, Stallone plays one of the aforementioned judges, named Dredd.  Hence the title.  Dredd is so committed to his office that he has a catchphrase he throws at any suspect with the audacity to “plead” not guilty.  At no point does the audience see him, or any other judge for that matter, find a suspect not guilty, so it is fair to assume that it happens rarely.  In other words, anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with Judge Dredd can rest assured that they will be the lucky recipient of some amount of jail time greater than zero, and that is if they are fortunate enough to dodge the death penalty, one of his favorite punishments.

Dredd’s unwavering belief in the infallibility of the justice system, if it can be called that, of which he is an agent and its associated violent ends, is remarkably similar to the ethos of John Spartan, Stallone’s character in Demolition Man.  They are similar enough that it is not much of a leap to consider Judge Dredd to be a descendant of Detective Spartan.  At some point after the events of Demolition Man Spartan and his love interest Lenina Huxley reproduced, that spawn moved to New York and went into law enforcement as the Earth’s climate went to shit thanks to the now-in-power carnivorous Libertarians who assumed the free market would solve global warming, and a few generations later here we have Judge Dredd.  Born and raised to be a violent asshole.

Dredd is not the only distant relative of a member of the San Angeles Police Department to be dealing with the consequences of Demolition Man in the megacity of New York.  In the first film Stallone deals with an Officer Erwin, who memorably chides him for being unfamiliar with the advances in excretory hygiene made between 1996 and 20whenever.  Like most of his colleagues, he proves inept when faced with the mayhem wrought by a late-20th century criminal, exclaiming that as police officers, they “aren’t trained for this kind of violence.”  The actor who plays Erwin co-starts in Judge Dredd as a just-released small-time hacker named Fergie who is sent back to prison by Dredd for five years over a minor offense.  Considering Erwin’s uselessness in what is sure to be a more violent society at the end of Demolition Man, it makes perfect sense that his descendants would fall into the gutter of society, lacking the physical strength and initiative to run with the big dogs of the brutal future.

Dredd is eventually falsely convicted of murder by a justice system that is more interested in consistency and order of application of the law, enshrined in the form of a book that is clearly meant to remind viewers of the Bible, and is shipped off to prison.  Fittingly, he is seated on the prisoner transport next to Fergie.  Dredd was set up by a conspiracy reaching the highest levels of the government, so after the transport crashes (the destiny of most 90’s action movie vehicles) Dredd and Fergie unravel the conspiracy with the help of his former partner.   The mastermind and the crazy villain the mastermind can’t control die thanks to Dredd’s efforts, the “MegaCity” ruling council is cleansed of all corruption, and Dredd’s name is cleared.  Having seen the tenacious grip this system has on the concept of justice, one would expect Dredd to vouch for social change and a return to due process for the accused.  Instead, he turns down a seat on the ruling council to go right back to his old job of imprisoning/killing anyone who seems to be comitting a crime.  Nothing gets worse, nothing gets better, the march of Fascism just keeps trampling along to the beat of millions of footsteps, and the bombastic orchestral victory music howls at the audience.

Demolition Man is a film about the appeal of personal liberty to those in a highly-ordered society, but it only tells half of the story.  Its sequel Judge Dredd – and I think I’ve proven the word “sequel” to be applicable here – tells the other half, showing the audience the full, ugly consequences of allowing social order to break down, namely the iron fist of central authority crashing down to preserve the state and continue human progress.  Surprisingly, the film comes down on the side of said iron fist. The message of the two films is clear – civilization inevitably comes at the cost of personal liberty.  Not only is the audience presented with a dystopian future, but they are meant to believe that such dystopia is actually mankind’s glorious destiny.  Chew on that next time you see one of them on cable.

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