History Repeating Itself: Red Dawn Rises Again Almost 30 Years Later

I’ve never cared for Red Dawn, the 1984 movie about a Communist invasion of the United States and the ragtag team of high school students who fight back from the outskirts of their small Colorado town. In fact, I can barely watch the entire thing without nodding off. It’s not that it’s boring; it’s just that the story is so one note. There’s no character development and no overall goal from start to finish. Instead, it’s just skirmish after skirmish where, quite honestly, it just doesn’t seem that there’s that much at stake.

The remake, released for Thanksgiving this year, although it’s been sitting on the shelf since 2010, goes a long way toward improving the issues of the original. Although at its core there are ultimately no significant differences, it is one thing its predecessor is not: entertaining. Bigger is not necessarily better, but in this case it does add more juicy meat to the bone.

Take, for example, the opening sequences. Both movies set the stage with expository text, narration and/or news footage of calamitous world events. Then, Red Dawn (1984) throws us immediately into the action. After Jed Eckert (young Patrick Swayze) drops off his brother Matt (YOUNG Charlie Sheen) at school, paratroopers fall from the sky outside the building. Red Dawn (2012) takes more time to introduce the same characters, beginning with the most American activity possible: a Friday night high school football game. Its paratroopers arrive the next morning.

You can immediately tell that the scale of the remake is going to be grander. Instead of a few parachutes rocking in the air before slowly landing on the ground, the sky is filled with evenly-spaced, perfectly symmetrical CGI parachutes and airplanes. And you can tell there’s a battle happening: one plane is shot and crashes into the house next door, exploding into a giant fireball. What follows in the remake is a truly exciting escape from the disaster by Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Matt (Josh Peck).

I hesitate to say Red Dawn (2012) is smarter than Red Dawn (1984), or even that it’s smart at all, but perhaps it just unfolds more logically or realistically. In the original, the kids grab supplies from a gas station and head to the mountains, immediately setting up camp in the wild. In the remake, the kids temporarily harbor at a family cabin until they are forced into the wild. You could argue that the cabin is simply a plot device, but it makes more sense to me that they would seek shelter indoors before they would outdoors.

Speaking of plot devices, Red Dawn (2012) adds a simple one that has ramifications later for an overall purpose for the team’s actions. Prior to the invasion is a blackout. We learn that the enemy used some kind of EMP to disable our technology. It makes sense; if you don’t think about it too hard, it kind of explains how they were even able to invade the United States in the first place. But when our heroes realize a mysterious briefcase is allowing the enemies to use technology, they know they have to either steal it or disable it.

Not only is there a little more story in the remake, there’s a lot more of an attempt at character development. Jed is a Marine, home from Iraq for (what seemed to me) suspicious reasons. Matt is a maverick football star who literally loses the big game for not being a team player. (Gosh, I wonder what happens when the stakes are bigger in a real-life game of survival?) The brothers both have potential romantic interests from the start, women who are fighters as tough as the men. (In the original, there are only two women, and they are emotionally destroyed by the chaos.)

The supporting members of the rebel Wolverines are less developed. They are pretty much the same in both movies: the reluctant fighter who turns out to be an unstoppable soldier (C. Thomas Howell-1984, Josh Hutcherson-2012), the father who challenges his sons to avenge him (Harry Dean Stanton-1984, Brett Cullen-2012) and the Marine colonel encountered along the way, Andy Tanner (Powers Booth-1984, Jeffrey Dean Morgan-2012).

But in the remake, the mayor’s son, Daryl (Connor Cruise) is more heroic than the original’s (Darren Dalton), his betrayal and ultimate fate more sympathetic and emotional. All in all, the cast of Red Dawn (2012) is more racially diverse than the cast of Red Dawn (1984). The optimist in me says that is because Americans are now seen as more than white males in this day and age. The pessimist in me says that is because the filmmakers were simply trying to be politically correct.

While, technically, Red Dawn (2012) is a better movie than Red Dawn (1984), I still don’t like either one. The set-up is so rich with potential, exploiting our fears of what we see and hear in the news every day. But, for me, it’s squandered on a story of such small scale. I’m less interested in what’s happening in one small town. The worldwide implications are much greater than that. There must be a better story to tell, no matter the era.

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Red Dawn (1984)
Red Dawn (2012)
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