Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Red Dawn Redux: A Shaky Parable For Our Times

The Guardian has taken a first look at the trailer for the remake of the 1980's-vintage action flick Red Dawn, and it raises a few questions much deeper than you'd expect from a movie this vapid.

Just in case you're not up on your late Cold War cinema, the original Red Dawn was the story of a bunch of high school pals in rural Colorado turned guerrilla fighters after the Soviet Union, with an assist from Cuba, decided for some reason to invade the United States in 1985.  The 2012 remake pretty much sticks to the original script, swapping rural Washington state for Colorado and China for the now-defunct Soviet Union in the role of the antagonist.

Or maybe it is North Korea? As I wrote when the Red Dawn remake first went into production, the film's creative team pulled back from the logical substitution of China for the Soviet Union – possibly fearing a political backlash, a loss of Chinese distribution rights, or both – and instead substituted North Korea as the resident bad guys. Though the producers seem to have later decided that the idea North Korea, a nation of 25 million that struggles just to feed its own citizens, could stage a large-scale invasion of the United States stretches credibility too far even for a Hollywood action film (though Hollywood also recently decided that a movie version of Manimal is somehow credible), so now, according to The Guardian, the antagonists are from a “unidentified Asian” country.

Near the end of The Guardian's demolishing of the Red Dawn trailer, writer Stuart Heritage raises a good point: the original Red Dawn was released in the mid-1980s, at a time when the United States was offering moral and material support to the mujahadeen of Afghanistan as they tried to repel the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union.  The original Red Dawn offered up a kinship to be drawn then between our plucky band of Colorado high schoolers and the scruffy Afghanis, who each took to the hills to fight the foreigners who invaded their lands.

Fast forward 27 years though and America's perception of Afghan insurgents has morphed from the heroic mujahadeen into the dastardly Taliban jihadi; the foreigners they fight are no longer the evil Soviets, but rather good red-blooded American boys and girls in uniform.  So while the new Red Dawn is still making the same visceral appeal to the audience to identify with the tragically over-matched band of fighters who want only to free their homeland from an invading foreign military force, the underlying role of the United States in the world has flipped – rather than supporting the insurgents on the sly as we did in the 1980s, we have become the invading heavies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  In reality, Red Dawn is now asking us to emotionally identify with the very people fighting against American troops today. (If the producers of Red Dawn wanted to keep the emotional and subtextual consistency of the original, then instead of fighting, the high school kids in RD:Redux would join a local reconstruction team headed up by a government official from the unnamed Asian nation that might be North Korea).

It does beg the question of what exactly the producers of the Red Dawn remake were thinking in dredging up this largely forgotten bit of 80s pop culture? Why ask an American audience to identify with a band of local insurgents fighting against a vastly superior military power, when at that very same moment American troops are being attacked a half a world away by bands of local insurgents fighting against a vastly superior military power, which, in this case, just happens to be the United States.

Or maybe I am giving the Red Dawn producers too much credit for being able to make these intellectual connections in the first place. After all, their choice to play the All-American lead in this film was Chris Hemsworth, a British actor best known for playing a Norse god. 
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