Friday, January 3, 2014

Film Friday: Red Dawn (1984) v. Red Dawn (2012)

The original Red Dawn was a fantastic film. The new one isn’t. . . not even close. It’s not that the new one is a horrible film, it’s just a dull, stupid and pointless film that will leave you wondering why anyone bothered. Said differently, it’s par for the modern course. Let’s discuss.
The Original
As I said, the original Red Dawn was a fantastic film in every way. It had a gripping plot that felt realistic enough to scare people that such an invasion really could happen. It was well-shot, well-paced and well-acted. The action felt real. It was exciting. And what really made the film was the story itself. At its core, this was a story of a group of teens who needed to grow up much faster than anyone ever expected in the worst possible circumstances.
The story begins with paratroopers dropping into the small, isolated Colorado town of Calumet. At first, no one knows what’s going on as the paratroopers come down outside the local high school. Within minutes, however, they start shooting and they leave no doubt about what is going on: this is an invasion.

As the movie progresses, we learn that these are Cuban, Nicaraguan and Russian troops who have come up through Mexico (after a communist coup in Mexico) or been dropped from planes which had been disguised to appear like commercial airliners. They are part of a Soviet invasion after the Ukrainian wheat harvest fails and the Soviets face starvation. As part of the invasion, a limited nuclear exchange took place between the US and Russia. That wiped out some of the bigger cities and a good part of China. Now battle lines are fixed with the Soviets holding part of the Western United States and the US getting ready to fight back. But that’s just the backdrop.
The real story involves brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen), who flee into the mountains as the Soviets secure Calumet. They are now faced with the question of what to do next. Do they sneak back into town and live under occupation? Do they continue to hide out? Do they fight back? In making this decision, they face a great many difficulties: being responsible for their friends who have come with them (C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson), being responsible for each other, their father being put into a re-education camp, spotting friend from foe, surviving in the wild, and being hunted. Naturally, they decide to fight back and they form a guerrilla team (calling themselves the Wolverines). The film then follows their exploits until Jed and Matt die. The film ends by telling us that this was the early days of World War III, and that these kids helped defend and protect America.
Three things made this film work. First, the plot was totally believable. In 1984, the Soviets had a massive numerical superiority, they were highly aggressive, our European allies were worthless, and we believed the Russians were capable of something like this. So this was the stuff of nightmares in the 1980s. The way the Soviets act in the town was highly realistic too: confiscating guns, rounding up community leaders, putting troublemakers into camps. But even more importantly, the way the kids slowly turned into competent guerrillas was realistic. These were just regular high school kids who needed to learn to use their weapons, needed to learn battle tactics, and needed to learn how to fight and how to hide. This was all new to them and the actors (and director/writer -- Hollywood conservative John Milius) did a great job showing their growth throughout the film.

Secondly, the story worked because you felt for the characters. These kids faced impossible choices and real trauma. They had to deal with death, fear, anger, loneliness and isolation, lack of knowledge, guilt, disloyalty, and learning the difference between hubris and confidence. This presented a tremendous emotional range, and the fact you could see yourself in their place pulled you in and forced you to wonder how you would respond.

Finally, the story ends the right way: America prevails and sets the world right.

The new film has none of this.
The Remake
The remake is a competent modern movie. That means that visually, it’s well done: the images clearly convey what is happening and it’s pretty to look at. The CGI is barely noticeable, which is a nice bonus. The actors are pretty. And if you like to see images of people firing guns for two hours, then this film is for you. If you want more out of a movie however, then skip one. Why?
Well, for starters, it’s impossible to buy into this one. Indeed, the plot couldn’t be less believable. According to the film, the Russians have become hyper-nationalistic and they fire something called “a laser” an EMP pulse at the US, which completely wipes out our military (“our subs drowned”... I think you meant “sank” Mr. Writer) and our power grid. The following morning, North Korean paratroopers (as if there was such a thing) take over the Pacific Northwest as the Russians take over the Eastern seaboard. Only flyover country is left free.

Uh... no. The Russian economy and military are sclerotic. The only way they’re getting troops to the US is on American Airlines. Their equipment is rusting in the field and has proven to be no match for ours. The North Korean military is worthless and probably can’t make it to Seoul, much less the West Coast. The film says, “they had help,” but there’s no one out there with a big enough military to pull this off... we couldn’t pull this off. As for this EMP, the writer apparently doesn’t know this, but for decades now, the US military has been buying electronic equipment that is hardened against an EMP. So claiming that an EMP weapon stopped our military is just stupid. Plus, the only way to stop our entire military would be to use this EMP all over the planet, which would cripple the bad guys too. Not to mention that anything that wasn’t running at the time wouldn’t be affected by the EMP. And even if you can overlook all of that, the entire North Korean and Russian militaries are not enough to hold even one state, much less two thirds of the country. And if they tried, our EMP-hardened nuclear missiles or our hidden subs would turn North Korea and Russians into smoking husks.
Then it gets really stupid. After the “kids” form their guerrilla group, some Marines show up to tell them that they need to capture an EMP-hardened telephone the Koreans are using so that the American military can use it to coordinate a counter-attack. WTF? First of all, our military has lines of communication that don’t rely on the iPhone, so they don’t need to get their hands on a special EMP-hardened phone because they have one. Secondly, what’s the point in having a single phone? Do you speak into it and then rush it to the recipient so they can hear the message? Third, despite this EMP attack, the lights are on, i.e. the power is working (heck, even Subway restaurant is working and seems to have no problem getting their normal supplies despite the country being chopped up and invaded). If the power is working, why can’t they just make a regular call? Or how about building a new radio now that the EMP blast has passed?
Beyond the plot, the film suffers from uninteresting characters. The Wolverines are led by Thor, who is a Marine who was on leave. So think about this. The heart of the original was seeing this group of teenagers come together and grow into an effective unit. You get none of that here. Here you have a designated leader in a Marine with combat experience who quickly trains them in military tactics. So much for growth. They even eliminate any distractions by killing the boys’ father at the opening and never showing you what is happening in the rest of the community. And having wiped out the growth and the emotional content, the film becomes just a series of attacks and counterattacks until the credits roll. Essentially, the film is little more than a first-person shooter with a minor subplot involving Thor repeatedly telling his brother Nerdki that he needs to put the group before his desire to save his girlfriend. Yawn.

The film finally ends with Thor getting killed and Nerdki giving the same speech Thor gave to the group originally as he inducts new members into the group. There’s no resolution to the invasion or even a suggestion of a resolution. I guess the steal-a-phone plan didn’t work.


Here’s the thing. Like so many other films these days, this one is pretty to look at and the action is ok until it gets really, really dull and repetitive. There isn’t a single moment that you care about any of the characters. I can’t even name them and I knew the names going in! The plot is total nonsense and feels like nonsense. The bad guys are cardboard, but so are the good guys. There are no highs and no lows, and the film ends rather than resolves. This is a clinic on how not to make films: a nonsense story that no one in the audience can buy into, characters you don’t care about, and a plot that is little more than a rambling series of action sequences with no actual climax.

Compare that to the original, which was a clinic on how to make a compelling film – a plot that forces you to put yourself in the position of the characters, strong characters who need to overcome increasingly difficult obstacles (both emotional and physical), high stakes that keep rising, and a climax that is the most tense moment of the film. Skip the new one, watch the original.


shawn said...

I haven't seen the new one due to all the bad reviews, so I can't speak to that with much knowledge. But let me say that it's weird to me that technically, film making has improved by leaps and bounds over many of the films from my youth. Sadly, I think story telling has gotten worse.

Point in case: Elysium. Visually, it is a beauty. And I thought the story was okay, but was filled with many tired liberal tropes (evil capitalists, evil idle rich, noble criminals). At no point is it explained why the healing booths are for the people of Elysium only. Are they super expensive to build, maintain and operate? And no one discusses if it is wise to cure all illness when the Earth is already overcrowded as evidenced by the slum that future Los Angeles is shown to be. One of the dumbest moments is towards the end of the film when the man who was making money by selling fake I.Ds to get to the poor to get to Elysium has Damon's character upload the program to turn everyone on Earth into a citizen of Elysium. So how is he going to make money now?

Next case in point: Prometheus. Visually, one of Ridley Scott's best. But as has been said before, the story is chock full of stupidity.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, That bothers me too. You would think that at worst, they would make stories of the same quality as before. But they really do seem to have taken a huge leap backwards in that regard. I suspect it's a combination of things: (1) drop in talent level as Hollywood became more bureaucratized/corporate, (2) the bubble effect, with Hollywood telling itself that audiences are stupid and films need to be dumbed down... which feeds on itself and causes over-simplification spiral, (3) laziness of directors as non-story components improved and became more capable of carrying stories, and (4) the increased importance of overseas markets causes them to strip out complexity from scripts.

shawn said...

Andrew said: "(4) the increased importance of overseas markets causes them to strip out complexity from scripts."

This didn't help the story in the case of the Red Dawn remake, as it the villians were initially Chinese, which would make sense as they have the necessary military might and financial capability to mount an invasion. All of which was for naught, as they also have a large share of the international market and so the villians were changed to the North Koreans so as not to offend the Chinese market.

Neil said...

The original Red Dawn is a fun movie but an incredibly flawed one. It’s written as a sobering horrors and dehumanising effects of guerrilla conflict story and directed as a chest-thumping actioner. Milius also doesn’t seem very engaged by his protagonists and frequently opts to tell their story from the perspectives of others often to its detriment (example: the bizarre decision to depict the tracking device episode mostly from the Russian point of view). But in spite of its flaws and sometimes even because of them the original an interesting bad movie, the remake is not.

Anonymous said...

Really? They made the lead character a Marine? Talk about completely misunderstanding what made the original so interesting.

BTW, i may have posted this once before but there's a documentary on John Milius which will hopefully make it to Netflix one day. The trailer is a hoot.

tryanmax said...

It's been a long time since I've seen the original Red Dawn, so my recollection isn't strong enough to comment on that. However, I did recently see the remake. While I agree that they sucked the heart out of it and used a completely implausible premise, I will give it credit for a couple things:

1) It has different looking main characters. We've talked before about the problem with action films using interchangeable, indescribable pretty boys that make it impossible to follow the story. Although the characters here are pretty (and Swayze and Sheen weren't?) they are distinguishable. Sadly, that's all it takes to set a film apart these days.

2) I thought the bookend speech was actually an improvement over the original, even if such a thing wouldn't fit in the original. I don't think it's necessarily pessimistic to say that the war didn't immediately end with the capture of the magic box. The strong implication is that the resistance grew until they could push out the invaders--essentially the same as the original.

A couple of other points that I don't know how to categorize:

1) The speech that Thor and eventually Josh gives is quasi-anti-interventionist in a way that would probably irritate conservative hawks, but it is still conservative in that it finds a justification to fight. A leftist speech would likely encourage us to welcome and embrace our new communist overlords.

2) Thor's admonishment to Josh to stop fawning over his girlfriend could be taken as an indictment against women in combat role, which is somewhat surprising in a modern film, though probably completely unintentional.

PikeBishop said...

Gotta disagree on one small point on the original. The action sequences weren't all well done. Somewhere in the middle the kids witness a "titanic" battle which seems to consist of one tank and one jet aircraft. This confusing, poorly done sequence goes on for about ten minutes and drags the film to a complete halt. The small actions and raids, as stated before are much better. Milius is best when he keeps it small.

Favorite lines:

"I thought there were a billion screaming Chinamen." "There were."

(voice in the crowd) "We're gonna die!"
SWAYZE: Then die standing up.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, It definitely didn't help them because it was very bad PR here, the Chinese weren't attracted by losing Asians, and no one thought North Korea could pull this off. But that is the new thinking in Hollywood -- don't offend the Chinese.

AndrewPrice said...

Neil, I don't see those as flaws at all, and I think the staying power this film has demonstrates shows that it's not a bad movie. This is a movie that resonated very much with the public and has continued to resonate even with the Soviet threat long gone. This isn't a great movie and I doubt it's in anyone's top 10, but it's certain a good movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Not only that, he has combat experience from Iraq and when he's doing the training montage... which takes about a minute... he explains to them all kinds of technical aspects about the things he learned in Iraq. They completely miss the point to the original.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Agreed that the characters are easy to tell apart for a change. That is a definite positive.

On the book end speech, I don't mind it, but the lack of a resolution doesn't work in this kind of film. All war films wrap up in some way that eventually tells you how things turned out. It's often done with a voiceover or a scrolling script that tells you how this was just one stepping stone on the way to ultimate victory etc. etc. Leaving a story like this hanging just has the sense of "why did I bother watching this?"

In terms of the politics, I think they were mixed. Thor is definitely anti-interventionist and the film seems to say that America needs to stop being so militant. On the other hand, Obama is the Commander when this goes wrong and that surprised me, and the idea is deeply paranoid. So perhaps the message is huddle at home with a massive military.

On the women in combat, I didn't get that at all. And in fact, they have women in the group and they never even make an issue of it -- they fight just like the males. In fact, their little group is a rainbow of diversity. I think the only reason they mention the girlfriend, honestly, is to create a plot point and some conflict because there's nothing else going on in the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That wasn't meant as a titanic battle. It was just a small border action of a war that wasn't going anywhere at the moment. That was kind of the point, that they were sneaking the pilot back across the border at a point where little was happening.

Those are very memorable lines.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew agreed on that non-titanic thing, but still, long, poorly shot, confusing to follow, all those comments I stand by.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, It could have been shorter. :)

Individualist said...

I saw both films... the first is awesome

I thought in the second film that is was not just an EMP bomb but a virus that took out the communications programming capabilities. Essentially screwing up the IP protocols shutting off the internet. If you could do that effectively it would be a good weapon but then again subway would not still be in business swiping credit cards so even that does not work in the film.

The whole steal a phone thing is the "Hero saves the World" escalation that Hollywood movies suffer from today. It is not enough that the Wolverines slow down the Colorado enemy troops and boost morale by their successes as in the first one. In the second one they have to go James Bond on us and do something to end the war by "stealing the secret phone".

The only thing I will give the second movie over the first is that the death of Thor (that is the military kid right - I forget the names) showed the Fog of Chaos of Vary very well. He was the leader everyone rallied around and pop he gets shot in head just like that throwing everyone into disarray. That gives you a sense of the desperation of warfare as you inve4st in this guy as the action hero that leads everyone to safety and in real war he can be removed in an instant.

Other than that though I'd have to agree with you Andrew. Movie was watchable but that is about it.

AndrewPrice said...

Watchable and not much more is a good way to describe this film.

Thor is the leader -- Hemsworth. He plays the older brother (and the combat hardened Marine).

I think you're right that this is typical Hollywood "Hero Saves the World" syndrome. Heaven forbid that a character not save the whole world in a film anymore.

Anonymous said...

Loved the original Red Dawn, it's a classic and will always bring a smile to my face when I see it.

I was annoyed at the change from Chinese to North Korea as the bad guys as it sucked any left over credibility the story can have in this day in age as opposed to the original plot not being to far fetched. But I loved the original so I was going to see it, just not at the cinema, after the release I didn't hear much about it so when I got the chance to see it I had zero expectations.

And as I have talked about before, with very low expectations come a lot less disappointment. I didn't hate this, as mentioned it looked good and the action looked good but as mentioned in the article the story which made the original so good was gutted and it was hard to care about the characters.

Oh well, at least I didn't expect anything more.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I had low expectations as well and this came in right about where I expected -- watchable (once) but pointless. It's too bad they didn't either follow the original storylines to give it some feeling or try something new and exciting to give it some punch. Instead, it feels very mechanical.

As for the original, I've always had a love-hate relationship with it. I love the film. It's really well done, I love the characters, and it's a real classic. It's also probably one of the few true "cold war" films that wasn't unbearably cynical. On the other hand, it makes me kind of sick to think of my country (Colorado in particular) invaded.

EricP said...

Nicely compared/contrasted, AP. The original is beyond near and dear to my heart, and watch it every Independence Day at minimum. As for the update, only gripe I'd add to yours is Adrianne Palicki wore too much in the clothes department (fortunately have her work on Friday Night Lights to rectify that).

>> But that is the new thinking in Hollywood -- don't offend the Chinese. >>

... or the gay lobby ... or minorities ... or Islam ... etc. and on and on unless you're Republican and/or or Christian.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Eric. The original really does grab you, especially if you grew up under Reagan and you recall the constant threat the Russians posed... and the liberals doing their best to disarm us. It also touches upon the American spirit in a way that few movies do. I firmly believe that anyone who invaded this country would be shocked at how many average Americans would be right out there defending this country.

On the new one, sadly, Hollywood's motto seems to be "Your first duty is to not offend," unless the piece is a political hit piece aimed at conservatives. It makes for some very, very dull films. I can't think of any period in film history where Hollywood has been less willing to actually tell an engaging story.

EricP said...

Be sure to check out Lone Survivor when it opens wide next week. Very Black Hawk Down vibe, and Peter Berg's got his mojo back after the meh Battleship. Most definitely ditched the moral equivalency of The Kingdom, too.

AndrewPrice said...

The ads look pretty decent. I'll give it a shot.

Koshcat said...

I haven't seen the new one but I always liked the original. Again, another movie that really didn't need a remake. It was fine as it was.

A game "Homefront" came out a couple years ago with the premise of the US being occupied by Koreans. What I find interesting is that it sounds like they did a better job forming a back story than the new Red Dawn movie did. It is a little fantastical but a little scary at the same time:

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, You could string together a story that might be plausible about an invasion, but this story didn't really care. They just made up a deus ex machina to shut down our entire military and then pretended the Koreans could pull it off.

Here's your link: LINK

tryanmax said...

For anyone interested in the double feature experience, both versions of this are currently available on Netflix streaming.

AndrewPrice said...

Cool, thanks!

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I saw the original and enjoyed it. Maybe not as sold on the believability aspect as you, but agree, hardly an impossible stretch. Never saw or wanted to see the remake, and your review tells me I chose wisely.

EricP said...

There's just no lack of impending, or I guess overhanging would be a better description, doom in the remake like AP mentioned there was in the original. There really can't be anymore, either, at least not without denying our lives are more global on so many levels. We can talk almost instantly with someone on the other side of the world; we can own something from in another corner of it in a matter of hours or days; the USA is far less homogenous than it was thirty years ago (for better and worse); etc.

Throw in the rest of what AP (and others) mentioned, and voila: who really cares what fate ultimately befalls Thor, Tyra and Co.? However, I will still always shed a tear when Jed breathes his last.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, Your comment gave me a thought. Do you know how this film would have worked much better? Open with a bright light on the horizon that looks like it could be an atomic bomb. Then all the power goes out. No internet, no news, no nothing. Spend some time watching the people struggle to deal with not being able to get online or call their friends etc. Grocery stores and gas stations with shortages. This would set up the movie really well because (1) it's the modern fear (and could actually support a movie all by itself... see TV show "Revolution"), (2) it would be incredibly disruptive, and (3) it takes the audience out of the comfort zone and make the unbelievable more believable.

Rumors begin of more bombs. The authorities struggle to control a city in a panic.

Then the Korean/Russian/Chinese troops roll into town dressed like American soldiers. They take over and you see house to house searches for guns, people shot on their doorsteps, leaders rounded up, traitors, etc. That's when the kids bolt into the woods and begin to fight back.

There's your set up. That give you a sense of isolation. It gives you a hint of how this could have started in a way that made more sense. And it lets you dribble out information throughout the film to explain it.

Then you just need to focus on the "growing up fast" story to make the characters work.

Also, rather than doing this stupid EMP, how about going with a very real danger -- Chinese chips in American weapon's systems? Imagine if they have a kill code that destroys the chip upon receipt.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You chose wisely. It's not that it's a horrible film, it's just a pointless, forgettable film.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, one thing on the EMP critique--I've done a little reading into it, and if the pulse came from a heavy-duty bomb, it could probably knock out most electrical equipment, plugged in or no. And though most primary military infrastructure has been hardened against an EMP by now, the same can't be said for a lot of secondary stuff, because there's so much of it and funding's a pain in the neck, etc.

As far as the most important points go, however, you're right, because so much of our military is overseas and would be unaffected, and quickly turn the offending country into a crater. So yeah.

I didn't watch the remake, which I suspected would be all angsty and crap. Besides, it falls subject to the usual rule--unless there's something that makes it compellingly different, why would you watch the remake when you can watch the original?

tryanmax said...

T-Rav, You mean Chris Helmsworth doesn't do it for you?

El Gordo said...

Is a bit late but ... Happy New Year to all of you! I wasn´t here for a while.

Andrew, your idea for the opening is intriguing and a vast improvement over what we got. Makes you wonder who writes these movies and what are they getting paid for?

"Also, rather than doing this stupid EMP, how about going with a very real danger -- Chinese chips in American weapon's systems? Imagine if they have a kill code that destroys the chip upon receipt."

Reminds me of the Battlestar Galactica pilot. The Cylons sabotage the defense networks and reduce the most modern ships to cannon fodder.
Pilots helpless in their drifting ships. It was very scary and effective.

There may a reason why it can´t work like that but most people won´t know it. We know for a fact that the Chinese have been thinking about unorthodox lines of attack. We also know we are overly dependent on GPS...

El Gordo said...

"T-Rav, You mean Chris Helmsworth doesn't do it for you?"

By the way, has anyone seen the trailer for the new Hercules movie? It is the most derivative thing ever. Every shot reminds you of a movie you have already seen. And while Hemsworth is not in it, the casting director was obviously instructed to look for "a cross between Chris Hemsworth and Liam Hemsworth".

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, Thanks! I think it would have made for a much more intriguing start as it would have felt more modern and more believable and given people the same "this could really happen" feeling the original had... something the new film just doesn't do.

It is a bit like BSG, isn't it? The truth is that I've been reading military articles worried about this for years ever since they found Chinese chips in things that should have been made in the US. They actually blame those chips for a handful of systems failures and some jet crashes. So the issue is right there. And yeah, that would have been scary and effective. Imagine a few scenes or even flashbacks or just a soldier explaining, "Our system just shutdown. There was nothing could do because our own computer stopped."

PikeBishop said...

Speaking of EMPs. LIttle known fact that an EMP was part of the backstory for the "peaceful" invasion of the Soviets in the ABC 1987 minseries "Amerika." It was never fully developed but there are hints strewn throughout as a lot of technical things didn't work anymore. If I recall San Neil and the Soviet officers use military field phones to communicate.

KRS said...

I'm getting to this discussion way late, put I thought I'd leave a few opinion droppings for posterity:

I was in my 20's when the first Red Dawn came out. I'm the son of a WWII vet, but I grew up with Vietnam and the toxic aftermath in the cinema. Red Dawn was the first blazingly and unabashedly patriotic contemporary war movie that I ever seen - in my life!

This was a big, BIG deal because all of our contemporary war movies were Oliver Stonesque orgasms of cynicism or lone wolf heros damaged by their wartime experiences in Vietnam.

Unlike those movies, Red Dawn was taken as "Americans good, other guys bad, so kick their butts WWII style - we're JUSTIFIED!" I saw it several times in the theater and the audience stood up and cheered each time.

Red Dawn, intentionally or not, was relief from the endless march of Hollywood cynicism and national self-loathing of the Woodstock baby boomers (my older brothers). It was an emotional release and the few faults it had were ignored by the audience for that reason.

One point of order - the paratroopers in the original were Cuban with Mexican allies and they were led by a Cuban Colonel who was conflicted about his duty. The Soviets brought in a Soviet officer (player by William Smith - the baddest of all bad- a## character actors in cinema history), to escalate the fight against the Wolverines. So the deal with the Norks doing the dirty work is not out of line with the original, it's just not believable in today's context.

Bottom line is that I believe nothing would have saved this sequel because the social circumstances of the nation are not compatible to the concept.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, That is true about the original Red Dawn. This was the first really pro-America war film since the early 1960s probably. It was proudly patriotic and I remember people responding to it accordingly. It was the kind of film that made you sick and angry when it started, but had you fist pumping by the end because it stood up for us... the good guys. :D

The paratroopers were Cubans, but I understand they also brought in Nicaraguan troops rather than Mexican. And you're right, the Russians came in later specifically to fight the Wolverines.

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