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The Forgotten Oscars 2013: Our annual celebration of unsung sci-fi, horror, and action films

By MICHAEL NEEL  |  February 27, 2013

Best Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle for Dredd
Release Date: September 21

Forget the Sylvester Stallone atrocity from 1995. This year gave us Dredd, based on the Judge Dredd comic series 2000 AD, which stayed much more faithful to its comic book source (at least according to rabid Dredd fanboys, so I’ll take them at their word).

In the post-Matrix world, ultra slow motion has become a common filmmaking technique. Often it is simply used for dramatic effect, like in 300 or Watchmen, as a stylistic way to depict an action scene. It can be effective, but filmmakers often forget that the reason it was so successful in The Matrix (aside from the fact that The Matrix did it first and people had never seen anything like it before) is that it was motivated by the story: as Neo learned to use his special powers, he was able to control the Matrix and do all of his cool bullet-time and mushroom-inspired kung fu fighting. The ultra-slo-mo bullet-time technique was a visual representation of Neo’s powers; by contrast, many movies imitate the technique without any motivation from the story. In 300, for example, bullet time is simply a means of making every scene either ultra cool or incredibly annoying, depending on your tolerance for indulgent filmmaking.

Which brings me to Dredd. Dredd tells the story of the titular Judge, fantastically played by Karl Urban (one of the Riders of Rohan from The Lord of the Rings films), who, despite the fact that only his mouth and nose are visible, manages to use his killer scowl and badass posture to create a badass hero that is equal parts Dirty Harry and RoboCop (RoboHarry!). Dredd takes place in an America of the future, where all of civilization lives in Mega-City One, which stretches from Boston to Washington, DC, and houses 800 million people, since the rest of the country is a vast post-nuclear wasteland. Poverty and crime are rampant, with 17,000 crimes reported daily, so the legal system has been streamlined: cops are judge, jury, and excessively violent executioner. After all, why hang someone when you can shoot a fireball into their mouth and watch as their head lights up like a jack-o-lantern while smoke comes out of the top of their head? It’s like an R-Rated version of Yosemite Sam sitting in boiling water — except in this case, Sam’s head burns from the inside out, and he’s not popping up in the next scene to hit on a cross-dressing Bugs Bunny.

>> READ:Phoenix review of Dredd<<

A new drug called Slo-Mo has hit the streets of Mega-City One, which slows time to one percent of its normal speed and makes things all sparkly and pretty, as though a six-year-old girl got ahold of the film and decorated it with cray-pas and glitter. When a character takes Slo-Mo the cinematography portrays it in such a powerful way that is easily one of the best depictions of drugs on screen I’ve ever seen. It’s a neat piece of eye candy to satisfy the viewer for a bit, but you can’t expect an audience to enjoy a whole movie like that (unless they’re on acid, in which case you can have tap-dancing dinosaurs and singing candy canes and your audience will love it). Taking a page from The Matrix, the filmmakers incorporate the Slo-Mo drug effect into the story: sure, skinning your enemies alive and throwing them head-first off of a 130-story building is cool, but giving them some Slo-Mo and showing the scene from their point of view is even cooler: the shots are full of crazy vertigo — almost like from a dream. You feel for the victims — they’re drug dealers and bad guys, but they don’t deserve their horrible punishment. Seeing the scene from their POV effectively makes you experience their unique mix of terror and pleasure, as their plummet to the courtyard below is depicted in beautiful, extra-bright and trippy colors, yet at the same time gives them more time to see their imminent death coming at them and ponder their last moments on earth. This is a very small scene in the movie but a very important one: the woman responsible for the skinning, drugging, and throwing is Ma-Ma, the film’s villain, and this one act establishes her as a depraved and ruthless maniac. After all, every good action movie needs a villain that can rival the hero and make life tough for them — can you imagine Die Hard without Hans Gruber? It would be two hours of Bruce Willis running around barefoot and talking via walkie-talkie to the cop from Christmas Vacation.

There are some other scenes that also make great use of the Slo-Mo drug technique that I won’t spoil for you, but, like the free-fall scene, each one effectively use Slo-Mo as a motivator for the cool way that the action plays out. And the rest of the film, which isn’t shot with the Slo-Mo technique, is just as well filmed, creating a gritty yet stylized look that perfectly blends with the costumes, sets, and the stellar and ultra-disgusting effects. The special effects are some of the best I’ve seen in a while: every splatting body, gooey gunshot, and massive head trauma is executed (pun intended) with creativity and great attention to detail. Dredd is relentlessly violent, and the filmmakers do a great job of mixing up the style of the kills, so that you don’t get sick of seeing the same old head-shot over and over again. Director Pete Travis and the rest of his crew integrate the Slo-Mo camerawork effect into the story of Dredd just as well as the Wachowski brothers did in The Matrix, and as a result the film achieves the highest level of fantasy filmmaking, where the world seems real and you’ve just dropped by for a visit. Just try not to get eviscerated.

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