1984. John Milius and Kevin Reynolds co-write Red Dawn, a paranoia-exploiting film about a “World War III” that only seems to involve the United States and Russia.
1991. The Cold War ends. Remarkably, without the United States being invaded by Russia.
2009. Development begins on a remake of Red Dawn, not involving Milius or Reynolds.
2010. John Milius begins writing a script for a video game based on a Chinese invasion of the United States.
2011. Homefront is released, but due to pressure from the Chinese Ministry of Culture the game’s antagonists are changed to a unified Korea.
2012. The Red Dawn remake is released. In a remarkable coincidence, the Chinese antagonists are replaced by North Korea.
Honestly? The story of the development of these two movies and one video game are probably dramatically more interesting than the movies or game themselves. Can we just stop there? No. Fine. If you don’t want to take my word for it, let’s… dive right in.
Red Dawn (1984)
We see an introductory text explaining how the United States has become increasingly isolated while the unstoppable Russian juggernaut takes almost all of Europe without firing a single shot. (Hey, did I mention that Russia was actually collapsing economically at the time? And that the United States was putting their economic foot on Russia’s throat? No? Because that was totally happening!) We also find out that a communist coup happens in Mexico… for some reason.
We open at a high school on one fine morning in rural… no, suburban… no, rural… no… ruralurban Colorado. The vague setting couldn’t possibly be a cheap attempt to get the audience to relate to the film no matter where they lived, though, right? Anyway, for some reason an invasion force lands and starts shooting up a high school. Because that makes perfect strategic sense.
Don’t worry, though! We quickly find that the Russians are not the only antagonists. They’re accompanied by Cuban allies. Why? Because having to constantly have your antagonists use Russian accents so you can differentiate them from “normal” white people can get grating, so you want to make sure you have some brown people who yell in Spanish to shoot at, too. The commander also sends one of his people to a local sporting goods store to obtain records of gun ownership in the city so they can round up anyone who owns a gun. Because no right-wing paranoia exploitation-fest would be complete without proof that gun regulation is bad news!
Okay, I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I need to step outside of this narrative. Later in the film we’re going to learn that Russia has nuked Washington D.C. and several other strategic targets and taken the western third and eastern third of the United States, leaving only the middle third unoccupied. With this much territory under their control, how in the hell do they have this much time and attention to devote to what seems to be a strategically unimportant town full of blue collar “aw shucks” type folks?
We see them applying pressure to their mayor (Lane Smith), who seems to exist completely for the sake of showing us that collaborators are bad. Actually, everything we see the Russians doing seems to be to hammer home the point that they’re very, very evil, but makes very little strategic sense. We see them setting up reeducation camps and executing civilians. Again… why? They’ve taken two thirds of the country, including Los Angeles and New York. Yeah: as far as we know they didn’t nuke Los Angeles or New York. Just Washington, D.C. (makes sense), Kansas City (… huh?) and Omaha (???). With so much territory under their control, why are they bothering with this random town of no obvious strategic value? Then again, they nuked Kansas City and Omaha, so maybe they’re just really bad at reading maps.
Since we don’t have enough things that don’t make sense, Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen (I’m not going to bother with their names) form a group of resistance fighters. They name themselves the “Wolverines” after their high school sports teams (yep), and 75% of their dialogue for the rest of the film is screaming, “Wolverines!” while firing wildly.
There’s some really uneven and poorly-paced cat-and-mouse games with the Russians. An American Air Force pilot (Powers Boothe) crashes at one point and joins up with them for a while. He mostly seems there to give the aforementioned report about how the war is going. Ostensibly he gives them some advice on tactics, but there isn’t any noticeable change between how the Wolverine’s operate before he shows up and after. Around this part of the film the script also decides it’s time to work in some vague anti-war messages about how “war is hell” and all that, which is pretty odd considering this film was about a manufactured war that basically serves as an extended commercial for a Cold War that was in its death throes. There’s also an attempt to humanize one of the Cuban commanders (Ron O’Neal) toward the end of the film which comes completely out of nowhere and doesn’t accomplish much. And… that’s pretty much that.
It isn’t even just that the Russians’ actions make absolutely no logical sense other than “evil for the sake of evil.” It’s that the film just isn’t very entertaining or pleasant to watch. The only part I enjoyed was the initial invasion, and that was just laughing at the sheer absurdity of it. (“We will take your high schools! What will you do then!” “Look on with fear, puny Americans! We blow up your cars!”) The rest of the film was a clumsy attempt to shoehorn as many war clichés as possible into what was essentially a propaganda film, and it wasn’t even a very good attempt at that.
Look. I’m sorry to sound dismissive, but this film didn’t take its audience seriously, so why should I take it seriously?
As the only “current gen” system I’m blessed with is a Wii (and that really doesn’t even count), I wasn’t able to play the game on my own. Instead, I watched playthrough videos on YouTube. So I can’t comment on the gameplay aspects of the game (from the looks of things, they were adequate but hardly remarkable), but my focus is on the story anyway.
So. We get an opening sequence featuring some truly awful dubbing of stock footage of Hillary Clinton (Is she supposed to be President? Vice President? Secretary of State? Who knows! We don’t, because the game never tells us!) and some news footage featuring North Korea conquering South Korea (pretty implausible), Japan (okay, what?), and then detonating a nuke in orbit to knock out the entire American power grid. They proceed to conquer over half of the United States and irridiate the Mississippi river to divide the country in half.
We then move from video cutscene to gameplay cutscene. Oh, hey, look at that! The game takes place in Colorado, which is also the setting of Red Dawn. How… cute. Your character is almost immediately roughed up by some Korean soldiers and then taken on a guided tour through the occupation zone on a prisoner bus. What follows is actually a more extreme version of how the Russians treated civilians in Red Dawn as you see civilians being rounded up and dragged off, or shot in the streets, all for no apparent reason. Once again, logic is simply waved away in favor of “look how evil they are!” (Then again, what did you expect from a game that opens by explaining that North Korea has conquered nearly all of Asia and then successfully invaded America?)
In case you couldn’t tell, there’s another prisoner on the bus to helpfully inform you over and over that what you’re seeing is very, very bad. Fortunately, your bus is blown up and you escape. Let’s play our game!
One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of this game is that it was “too short,” and I have to say that’s actually probably one of the most merciful things about the game. I mean, yeah, that keeps it from being impressive… but was there any serious danger of it being that? To me, the game’s length mostly results in less… bad.
Your character runs along playing good little resistance soldier as you discover all kinds of lovely horrors–a school being used as a labor camp, a baseball field being used as a mass grave, a town being slaughtered… you get the picture.
So yeah, basically? Red Dawn on steroids in the form of a short, mediocre video game whose main defining feature is how incredibly offensive and ridiculous it is.
Oh, want to know the best part? Even though the developer that made it went bankrupt, someone actually bothered buying out the rights to this trash and there’s going to be a sequel. Ick.
Red Dawn (2012)
Okay. So this paranoia-fest of a franchise has one last chance to deliver an at least mildly entertaining piece of media. (Other than the surely hotly-anticipated Homefront sequel, that is.) How’d it do?
Look, I’m not going to sit here and argue that the 2012 version of Red Dawn is a good film. Because it isn’t. But I would go so far as to describe it as “reasonably competent,” which is more than I can say about either the 1984 film or the related 2011 video game.
Yes, the antagonists are never given any clear motivation for their invasion and the audience is somewhat forced to supply that motivation in the form of modern anxieties about the nation in question. But the invasion itself at least makes a lick of sense. Our setting is actually a fairly major city (Spokane, the second largest city in Washington), so it makes at least a bit of sense that they’d commit quite a few resources to its occupation. The few war crime-level atrocities that are shown are relevant to the plot, unlike in the 1984 film when they shoot up a high school for no apparent reason or the game where they round up people and shoot them in the street just to give us the atmosphere of an Evil Enemy committing Evil Acts because They Are Evil.
Then again, is it really better to have an enemy with no apparent motivation than one whose motivation is Because We’re Evil? The latter is certainly more offensive, which makes this film somewhat more watchable… yet it also makes it somewhat less interesting.
From a technical standpoint, this film has some pretty glaring flaws. Both its beginning and ending feel incredibly rushed, which isn’t particularly forgivable in a 93-minute film that could’ve easily been longer. There’s a pretty transparent attempt to cram the film’s entire exposition into about thirty seconds of dialogue with all of the main characters at a bar after a football game. There’s also a pretty forced romantic subplot between our protagonist (Chris Hemsworth) and the girl who provides a lot of the exposition in that bar scene (Adrianne Palicki). When it comes to our two lead brothers, Hemsworth is a dramatic improvement while Josh Peck is a major step down. He gets better as the film goes on, but his first few scenes are so brutal I really don’t understand how they made it into the finished film.
If the film has one redeeming quality, it’s that it accidentally makes its viewers think. Hemsworth at one point makes a reference to the fact that in the conflicts he’s been involved in as a soldier, his side has been “the good guys” enforcing order while guerrilla “bad guys” tried to cause chaos. His takeaway from this is that he and his ragtag group of rebels are now the “bad guys.” Of course, he pairs this observation with the fact that fighting for your homes and freedom makes a lot more sense than any of the wars he’s been involved in in the past.
Thing is? I don’t think he has the “good guys/bad guys” dynamic quite right. I think it’s pretty telling that in order to have a film that’s unambiguously comfortable with American patriotism, Red Dawn essentially had to put America in the place of America’s military enemies in every armed conflict of the last few decades. I’m not sure if it was the film’s intent to provoke debate on this topic, but at least it’s something.
Although infinitely more watchable than its original incarnation, the 2012 version of Red Dawn is still really not a successful film. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but there’s a “shock value” event after you think the main action of the film is over, which leads to a Hollywood ending the film didn’t really earn. It’s still dramatically superior to the original film’s ending, but it’s better in the same sense that the rest of the film is: bland is superior to incredibly stupid, but only just so.