We often refer to certain movies as being dated in one fashion or another. While this is often seen as a mark against said film, one of the more interesting things about revisiting movies from the past is to note how they are byproducts of the time in which they were made. Films, even the especially exploitative or silly, can communicate the fears and cultural mores of their time. Take for example 1984’s Red Dawn. Say what you will about its overt cheesiness or its seemingly never-ending lineup of '80s heartthrobs, it stands alongside The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove as one of the most significant Cold War films ever made.
It reflects, in a more stark and brutal fashion than most films of the era featuring predominantly adult casts, America’s overwhelming fear of Communism. In the film, our country is actually invaded by our two most arch, at the time, “red” enemies: Cuba and Russia. It then falls upon a group of children to lead a rebellious offensive against the communist foes. It’s a premise so far-fetched that only the shared national paranoia of all-out nuclear war with Russia and/or Cuba, still lingering in 1984, could provide adequate suspension of disbelief within the audience, right?
So wait, now it’s being remade? MGM’s long-gestating remake of Red Dawn finally sees the light of day on November 21. The new version stars Chris Hemsworth in the Patrick Swayze role as the leader of a faction of pint-sized freedom fighters battling back the advancing armies of North Korea. The question that has been raised, and rightfully so, is why would anyone try and recreate Red Dawn in post-Cold War America? Could it possibly work? Luckily, we were able to catch an early screening of the film at Fantastic Fest and can evaluate it from precisely that perspective.
The first hill the new Red Dawn must climb is that, while America does not exactly enjoy a warm and fuzzy friendship with the entire global community, our enemies are no longer the superpowers. The threat of nuclear annihilation has long since past, and none of our current foes possess the means to infiltrate our borders on so grandiose a scale. While Russia does make a cameo in the new Red Dawn, North Korea is one of the few openly communist countries left in the world, and therefore the most logical rival to feature.
However, the reason the remake still works, in so much as it is still relevant, has nothing to do with communism. America is still a country with a fiercely guarded sense of self. It was never the political ideologies of Russia that we feared; it was the idea of being invaded, of the compromise of our sense of secure freedom. Think about it. America not only has the Marines, Navy, and Army, but also a branch of the military called the National Guard. The idea that a nation, any nation, could penetrate our defenses and tarnish our idyllic notion of independence is what continues to terrify us as a country. So, in all honesty, it could just as well have been Argentina that takes over America in the remake and it would still work.
The Red Dawn remake is not ignorant of its inherent hurdles and takes the appropriate tact of being entirely self-aware. It recreates cheesy scenes from the original film and pokes fun at the absurdity; the deer blood-drinking scene is particularly well handled. But more than that, they acknowledge that, much like in the original, the logistics of the takeover are a bit, shall we say, flimsy. North Korea, according to a 2008 census, has a population of around 24 million. Even if every single person in the country joined the military, it would still be an insurmountable task to take over a nation of 314 million people. One of the Wolverines (that's the unofficial name of the band of kids fighting back) actually says, “How could this possibly happen?” as the Koreans invade. The fact is, however, that every goofy brick in the conceptual foundation of the Red Dawn remake was present in the original, and it therefore earns a great deal of benefit of the doubt.
Moreover, the remake features a thematic element that was not explicitly investigated by the original. The fact is, for better or worse, the lovable Wolverines are terrorists. They use guerilla tactics and sneak attacks to inspire rebellion among the rest of the population against an oppressor. The remake could have easily skirted this distinction in light of the hot button issue terrorism has become in this country after 9/11. However, they fully acknowledge the fact that they are resorting to terrorist tactics and even mention the colonial Minutemen as a point of inspiration. There is that sort of nontraditional combat built into America’s history, into its birth, and to blanket classify that type of freedom fighting as a negative would be hypocritical.
The Red Dawn remake finds ways to strike the same successful jingoistic chords as the original, but by delving into the lingering collective fears of a nation instead of getting bogged down in which flag flies over the armies of our invaders. It acknowledges the sins of the past film, sins of logic, and yet infuses new context into this relic of a story. One way or another, if you screamed “Wolverines!” in 1984, you will find yourself similarly exalting when you see the 2012 Red Dawn.
[Photo Credit: MGM]