Second Opinion: Red Dawn

The word “meh” may not seem like a strong one, but when you’re describing a movie – or any other work of art for that matter – it’s worse than a bellowed “F*ck you.” The implication is that this film, or what have you, which was custom made to evoke an emotional response, has completely failed to do so. So if I painted you what I thought was a pretty picture designed to make you feel all warm and cuddly inside, and you responded by vomiting all over the canvas, well, at least I connected with you on some level. But if your response was to nod politely, take another bite of your gyro and keep working on your Sudoku puzzle, then I would be a failure. On a completely unrelated note, today we are talking about Red Dawn.

Red Dawn is a remake of a ridiculously blunt Cold War fever dream about a group of normal high school kids – played by future stars Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Leah Thompson (amongst others) – who were forced to turn guerilla resistance fighter after America is successfully invaded by Soviet Russia and its allies. The Cold War was kind of a big deal in 1984, as you may remember, and helped make this film into a box office success. It’s rather surprising, actually, that the concept hadn’t been dealt with more often by the mid-1980s, since the threat of World War III was such a palpable concern throughout the whole world for decades. The original Red Dawn was over the top but enjoyable, and it sucker punches the audience with a gut-wrenching finale that clarifies, in no uncertain terms, that war is hell, even if it’s the attractive ones who are doing all the fighting.

The new Red Dawn is the product of a different time, when World War III seems rather unlikely but the concept of occupied territories riddled with resistance fighters is kind of familiar. So when North Korea invades the United States – as ridiculous as that sounds (and we’re getting to that) – the pervasive sense is not one of crushing inevitability but of general malaise. The occupying forces, in this modern context, are difficult to separate thematically from the one country we all know has actually sent military units into foreign lands, and that country is pretty much us. So the guerillas – the attractive teenagers fighting to protect their homeland – are essentially Afghans and/or Iraqis, and the bad guys are the United States.

The purpose of the original Red Dawn, to play off of existing anxieties about a seemingly inescapable and impending conflict, is here reversed into a strange allegory for our own country’s hubris. The significantly more hopeful ending to this new version celebrates the revolutionary “Wolverines,” keeps the consequences minimal, and since it seems significantly less likely nowawadays that we’re going to be invaded any time soon, the only corollary we can reasonably draw is that insurgency against the United States is something at least kind of laudable.

And really, all of that would be fine if the movie was more interesting.

Red Dawn was supposed to have been released two years ago, in November 2010, but was mothballed along with The Cabin in the Woods while the studio, MGM, went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Like The Cabin in the Woods, the film is only just now being released this year. Unlike The Cabin in the Woods, the Red Dawn remake underwent extensive post-production tinkering in the interim. Most significantly, the invading force was changed from China – a country large enough, at least, to seem like a plausible invasion threat – to North Korea, a country with a smaller population than the state of California alone. 

So it would be easy to pin Red Dawn’s problems on this “hindsight is 15/30” tinkering – inspired, incidentally, by China’s growing economic significance to the foreign film market (read: nobody wants to piss the country off too much) – but while the movie is pretty hard to take seriously for just this reason, it’s not the root of the problem. The problem is that it’s basically kind of dull and doesn’t amount to anything. The teenagers, played by the likes of Chris Hemsworth (also of Cabin in the Woods), Josh Peck and Josh Hutcherson, don’t have much personality between them and don’t really achieve anything conclusive, leaving Red Dawn feeling more like the pilot of episode of a short-lived CW series than a feature-length motion picture. There’s a bad guy but he doesn’t get any screen time with the leads. There’s a MacGuffin they need to capture but it doesn’t end the war. There’s a lesson to be learned but it’s nothing they couldn’t have taught Josh Peck on a high school football field.

In other words, “meh.” I declare “meh” to the whole thing. Red Dawn has a pleasingly subversive quality, but it’s not bolstered by the kind of characters, melodrama or action-packed nonsense (or even, god forbid, action-packed seriousness) that could have made the film memorable enough to recommend. You won’t be yelling “Wolverines!” at the screen this time. At most, you’ll quietly ask, “Wolverines?” and get a non-committal answer, “Meh…”

Read Fred Topel's original review of Red Dawn.

Follow William Bibbiani on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.