Contrary to that constantly repeated artistic adage, some things can be judged by first impressions — if they are humiliatingly bad. I didn’t need to watch the trailer again for Red Dawn, the remake of the 1984 cult-classic of the same name. But past the next couple of trailers and Skyfall, I still remembered Red Dawn. Maybe it was the racist undertones (faceless Asian people invading America), or the self-aggrandizing heroics (high school students joining resistance groups to fight the enemy), or its reactionary jingoistic cheesiness (“forces that threaten our freedom”) but I was repulsed enough to check out the movie.
It turns out that Red Dawn isn’t racist. You would think that a film that portrays an Asian invasion of America at the height of social anxieties about China’s rise is a little suspicious, but the movie is so incompetent that the plotline never has a chance to send a message. The 1984 version also focuses so much on “the other enemy” that it abandons plot development — meaning director Dan Bradley, whose previous experience was stunt coordination, didn’t have much to work with in 2012. In 1984, the invading forces were the Soviets; in 2012 the invaders morphed into the Chinese, and morphed again post-production into the North Koreans so the film could gain access to the Chinese market. If we develop an intense hatred for the UK tomorrow, the Royal Fetus would still fit into the script.
If you can overlook the glaring plot hole on how North Korea, a country that cannot feed its own people, can wage an all-out assault on America, the movie still doesn’t explain why North Korea cares about Spokane, Washington to send thousands of paratroopers there, or why the invaders decide to specially execute the father (Brett Cullen) of US Marine Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), or what happens to anything outside Spokane (except how the resistance movement / country “Free America” is still fighting the North Koreans from East and West). We don’t know how the North Koreans are invading from the East Coast. Oh, it also doesn’t explain why they are invading at all, save for the fact that North Korea hates our way of life and is hellbent on our destruction.
Absent a plotline, good acting and even decent special effects (someone just took a crash course on Autodesk Maya) the camera’s spotlight is left perplexingly on a bunch of teenagers who heatedly debate the entire diplomatic posture of the United States on whether to surrender or fight. Then Jed Eckert decides that “he must fight” — and with that, everybody wholeheartedly joins him. Soon Eckert trains the “Wolverines,” which is the name of their high school mascot (cute!). While North Korea engulfs Spokane with Humvees (?!), five high schoolers learn how to snipe targets.
It is at this point that the movie diverts from the more-watchable 1984 version — which becomes much more brooding and despairing — into a pretty photomontage of teenagers holding guns. Betrayal, loss of morale and the cold-heartedness of Jed Eckert (played in 1984 by Patrick Swayze) is painted over with broad brushstrokes of red, white, and blue. To be honest, it would have been much better if the background was just a wavy American flag, because then the uncharismatic actors could refrain from moving or talking.
It’s clear that MGM’s intention for the remake was, after scrutinizing target demographics, to rehash old fears for gain. Cynically, all movies primarily aim to profit; Red Dawn just happens to be an egregious punching bag for it. But viewed with another lens, Red Dawn is just another fun, harmless movie about patriotism. As one IMDB reviewer wrote, “If you can stomach patriotism perhaps you will enjoy this movie otherwise you might be forced to regurgitate your findings into a lackluster falling star review,” like I just did. And despite losing $23 million at the time of writing, this aberration still raked in $42 million.
That an environment exists where Red Dawn is seen in a non-kitschy light is a far bigger problem. The idea that anybody can take up a gun, become a vigilante and fight off the constant threat of oppression is the only coherent message people take home from the movie’s garish photomontage. It is not surprising that this movie would appeal to gun enthusiasts. “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” now a rallying cry for the NRA, was popularized in the 1984 version. Red Dawn validates the necessity of assault rifles, high capacity magazines and concealed weapons in the age of huge prison complexes, decreasing crime rates, growing police forces, private security and gated communities.
These things stem from the same institutional attitude that proponents — and opponents — hold about guns. As an institution, vigilante justice, and the guns that come along with it, is put upon a pedestal that even the strongest advocates of gun control unwittingly put guns on. To gun enthusiasts, the Second Amendment enshrines gun ownership as an American institution. To opponents, the NRA and politicians have created an unholy institution to eliminate restrictions.
And while such views have a grain of truth, reality goes beyond that: there are the gunmakers who perpetuate Red Dawn’s vision behind the scenes. If gun control advocates want to fight effectively, they need to deploy capitalism’s uncanny knack of eliminating intangible features in products, like Red Dawn’s intangible justification of guns as an institution. They need to treat guns as another commodity that, like Justin Bieber or Grey Goose vodka, sells a vision beyond the product. The conservative pundits that blame video games for violent tendencies are barking up the wrong tree, but aren’t totally left-field: a videogame gives the same consumerist ego rush that makes gun ownership a legitimate hobby. The difference is that it’s easier to distinguish between the Xbox and the real world than it is to differentiate fantasies of self-protection from actual self-protection.
Without revealing the commercial intentions of the product, it’s impossible to deconstruct the impenetrable fortress of gun ownership— this is why mainstream discussion seldom goes beyond disparaging the other side. Treat guns as just another product, as opportunistic as Red Dawn is in morphing an invading army’s nationality, and legislative action might go somewhere. And hopefully, movies like Red Dawn will go away.
Original Author: Kai Sam Ng