In general, I don't put a lot of stock in criticisms that accuse Hollywood movies of influencing social behavior. Yes, some films glorify violence, but rather than inspiring horrible acts, I think Hollywood mostly responds to what's already out there in the culture, catering to particular audiences and what they want. But every once in a while, you come across a film that's so gross in its attitudes that you actively start to worry about what it might say about our country. Sweet Jesus, I hope the new Red Dawn isn't a hit.
This remake of the 1984 original, which made more money than The Terminator back in the day, essentially keeps the old formula, with a few alterations. Brothers Jed (Chris Hemsworth, a lot more fun as Thor) and Matt (Josh Peck) are hanging out with their buds in Spokane when, oh shit, a whole mess of North Koreans invade, taking over the town in minutes. Dude, that sucks, but don't worry: Jed and Matt and some of their equally attractive young friends are gonna band together to defeat them foreigners.
Red Dawn is just the latest remake attempting to capitalize on a rampant wave of '80s nostalgia: Footloose, Arthur, Clash of the Titans, A Nightmare on Elm Street, even the Expendables movies. Hollywood's constantly recycling old successes, but the choice to do it with Red Dawn is especially weird. More so than those other films, Red Dawn played into a specific '80s obsession: a growing dread that our way of life was being threatened by those horrible Ruskies. Updating the scenario to the 2010s, the filmmakers initially made the villains the Chinese but after finishing production realized, oh wait, that might annoy a vitally important overseas market. And so changes were made after the fact to turn the bad guys into North Koreans, who scare the hell out of precisely no one. In '84, Red Dawn was about not backing down in the face of our greatest national foe. In 2012, we're totally happy to neuter our jingoistic movies so as not to offend a country whose money Hollywood very, very badly wants.
If this movie's greatest sin were digitally altering some Chinese flags to North Korean ones, then Red Dawn would just be another dumb, melodramatic action movie. (Jed and Matt don't just kick ass—they also grapple with their feelings, particularly Matt's lingering resentment that Jed took off after their mother died.) But Red Dawn's most irritating element is its willful blindness to the reality of the world we live in.
It's not that the movie's hawkish, kill-'em-all attitude is maddening. (Lots of action movies have the same, mindlessly fascist tone.) It's that the film operates under a belief that America is a good and just nation that has never done anything wrong and must always be on the watch for evil countries trying to take down our freedom. Look, I may not be interested in a documentary like 2016: Obama's America, but I can at least understand how a film like that plays into one view of what's going on in the country. But this new Red Dawn is utterly, scarily devoid of a basic understanding of current events. The movie plays up the fact that Jed is a Marine who did a tour of Iraq, which makes him an ideal leader for this ragtag bunch of pretty, vacant people squaring off against scowling North Koreans. But the way that the movie tells it, Jed was in Iraq to do, uh, heroic, awesome things. There's not even one moment in which Red Dawn troubles itself with the notion that perhaps the way Jed and his buds feel about these invading North Koreans is precisely the way the Iraqis felt about him coming to their country. At a time when everything from War of the Worlds to Battlestar Galactica has subversively retold the Iraq story by making the heroes the insurgents, Red Dawn just plows forward, confident in its belief that as long as America is in trouble, we can do whatever the hell we want.
The movie's obviously supposed to stir up a lot of patriotic fervor by showing how a group of kids can rise up against an invading force to defend their homeland. That would sure be a swell notion if anybody on the screen represented anything you'd want to be proud of. With its Dawson's Creek-worthy romantic travails and brooding/whiny characters, this Red Dawn insists that the youth of America are just one badass training montage away from becoming boss guerrilla warriors. But they're really mostly just image-conscious, spoiled brats—the sorts of self-involved twits you meet at the beginning of a horror movie and then take vindictive pleasure in watching get mowed down one by one by the crossbow murderer hiding in the woods. But not here: In Red Dawn, they're little drama queens psyched to liberate Spokane. And we're supposed to root for them.
The original Red Dawn was directed and co-written by John Milius, an iconoclastic Hollywood filmmaker who was part of the '70s golden age when nervy studio films were getting made. Unlike a lot of his colleagues, though, Milius was politically conservative, and his Red Dawn pulsed with a paranoid but genuine passion. (You may have not agreed with his perspective, but at least you knew he believed it.) By comparison, this new Red Dawn is just trash that stumbles along utterly oblivious to what it says and what it represents, and it expects you to go along for the ride. I've never rooted so hard for the bad guys in a movie before.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.