If you’ve ever jumped out of a plane—or party bus, or attack helicopter—to take part in the cultural phenomenon of attempting to kill 99 of your closest friends on an ever-shrinking post-apocalyptic island, the opening moments of Pete Travis’s 2012 film Dredd should be familiar to you.
Via gruff voiceover, Karl Urban’s fascist cop, the titular Judge Dredd, sets the scene for a bleakly compelling American future.
“America is an irradiated wasteland,” Dredd begins. The majority of America, that is, that lies outside the confines of Mega-City One, a massive walled city “stretching from Boston to Washington D.C., [in] an unbroken, concrete landscape.” Within this dusty Coruscant, 17,000 serious crimes are reported daily. Judges—supercops who act as judge, yes, but also as jury and executioner—deal out swift justice, authorized to arrest and execute criminals if they have sufficient evidence. But in the swathes of Mega-City One that the Judges rarely visit, violent criminals—like Lena Headey’s prostitute-turned-drug lord, Ma-Ma—reign and kill indiscriminately.
This is a familiar set-up for fans of games like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode, which, like Dredd, take place in a kill-or-be-killed post-apocalypse. Right from the start, Dredd establishes that all of its action will take place within a forcefully confined space and that its chief actors are people who will not hesitate to kill, because those who hesitate will be killed. Like a Battle Royale, its tension results from the way that it slowly constricts the play area, pushing its violent characters— each with their own grimy ambitions— into close quarters with each other.
To that end, we see Ma-Ma’s viciousness early on as she goes about the business of ruling Peach Trees, a low-income apartment complex the size of a city block where her gang resides. There, they manufacture Slo-Mo, an inhalant narcotic that slows time down dramatically for the duration of the user’s high. Judges rarely come to Peach Trees, but Ma-Ma manages to draw Dredd’s attention when she and her gang skin three rogue drug dealers, force them to inhale Slo-Mo and drop them from the top of the building, inflicting an eternity of pain for the strung-out victims on the trip down. Peach Trees’ residents scream and scatter as the corpses hit the ground with red, meaty thunks.
When Dredd and his partner Judge Anderson—a psychically gifted new recruit—arrive at the scene of the crime and arrest one of the members of the Ma-Ma Gang that performed the execution, Ma-Ma is quickly alerted to their presence. As in a Battle Royale, the circle begins to shrink. Fearing a large-scale crackdown if the captured gang member finks, Ma-Ma orders a techie underling to quarantine Peach Trees. Metal shields slide over the walls and windows, imprisoning Dredd and Anderson. Over a loudspeaker, Ma-Ma tells Peach Trees residents that the shields will not be lifted until the Judges are dead. Ready, set, go. Blackout. Where we droppin’?
With that, the duo is pitted against the rest of Peach Trees—not just the Ma-Ma Gang, but every resident of the complex that had something on the day’s agenda besides hiding out in their apartment. Impromptu gangs squad up, grabbing whatever weapons they can find to hunt down their opponents. And Dredd and Anderson get out of the expansive central courtyard as quickly as possible, heading up the stories to take out Ma-Ma, hidden away in her penthouse HQ.
They get close, but Ma-Ma and her sweaty tech underling shrink the circle again, trapping the Judges on the west quadrant of the building’s 76th story. This is as small as the circle gets. From the state-sized city that serves as the arena as the story opens, Dredd and Anderson have their backs pushed up against the wall until they’re cornered onto a stretch of hallway. Battle Royale players may feel themselves wishing that Dredd and Anderson could loot the area, mine Peach Trees for building materials, anything to distract from the stomach-gnawing tension of knowing the odds stacked against them.
From here they should be sitting ducks—especially as the Ma-Ma Gang captures Anderson, and their matriarch sends in a squad of corrupt Judges secretly under her employ—but Dredd and Anderson come out on top. It’s the kind of “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” ending you would brag to your friends about. Dredd even gives Ma-Ma a taste of her own twisted medicine, doping her up on Slo-Mo and dropping her from the roof of the building—except when he does it, it’s not just the act of a sadistic killing machine—it’s so that a transmitter she’s holding will be out of distance from the explosives she has set up at the top of the building.
If it isn’t clear already—and I’m guessing I clued you in when I called the Judge a fascist up top—Dredd isn’t a great guy. He does his job by the book, to be sure. But, that book gives its law enforcement officers a wild amount of power—the power to hold life and death in their hands, and to deal it out with impunity.
And, in that way, Dredd and the Battle Royale games which followed, tap into the same guiltless power fantasy. Dredd, like the players in a Battle Royale, has the power, the intelligence and the authority to kill anyone who would stand in his way. There’s no external law, no society, no pesky morality to worry about. He doesn’t need to worry about consequences, either. Dredd won’t be held accountable—in fact, he’ll be rewarded. I can almost see “Victory Royale” shining across the screen as Ma-Ma’s skull hits the pavement.
It’s hard to lay all the blame at Dredd’s feet. After all, Battle Royale is—by design—a helluva lot of fun to play.