How ‘Red Dawn’ Could Have Been Remade Without the Xenophobia

During the Thanksgiving season, we offer our gratitude to Providence for the things that make life bearable and occasionally awesome. Me, I gave thanks for my wonderful family. For the grace of a home, a job, reasonable good health and moderate financial security. For having gotten through Horrorcane Sandy mostly untouched, and learning in the process some valuable lessons about the underappreciated modern wonder that is electricity.

I’m also thankful for not having to singlehandedly defend the Northwestern United States from marauding communists! That would totally suck. Especially if I were an untrained high school kid with raging hormones and Walmart-grade munitions, as is the conceit in the movie “Red Dawn,” which opened this week in theaters across not-yet-occupied America.

For those of you who lived through the Eighties, the movie is a pumped-up remake of the kitsch-classic 1984 original of the same name, written and directed by Hollywood red-meat specialist John Milius. (Besides “Red Dawn,” Milius is notable for having co-written “Apocalypse Now” and penning many of Clint Eastwood’s most famous Dirty Harry lines, including the immortal “Go ahead, make my day.”)

Like the original, the new “Red Dawn” stars a gaggle of young Hollywood hunks and hotties as a group of footballers and cheerleaders — I originally wrote “ragtag,” but these kids never look less than Hollister-model-perfect even when they’re climbing out of dumpsters — led by my favorite Hemsworth, Chris, who has proved he can charm his way through preposterous films in the past (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), and who capably fills the late Patrick Swayze’s combat boots here as Jed Eckert, “Red Dawn’s” main man with the guerrilla-resistance plan. (This remake’s Jed can at least claim the benefit of Marine Corps training as he sends his Wolverines to war against heavily-armed adult invaders. Also, the hammer of Thor.)

Hemsworth is joined by Joshes Peck (of Nickelodeon’s “Drake and Josh,” looking to make the tough pivot from tweenstar status) and Hutcherson (lad-in-distress Peeta Mellark from “Hunger Games”), as well as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s son Connor, making his major motion-picture debut. There are also girls, who are pretty and don’t get much to do. Anyway, these kids are the last remaining resistance to a surprise whirlwind invasion of the continental U.S.

What makes this attack particularly surprising is that the nation behind it is North Korea, whose geographical location and general starvation-related discombobulation put it very far down on the ladder of potential threats to the American homeland. And what makes this surprise particularly awkward is that the nation staging the assault on the Starbucks-spangled landscape of the Pacific Northwest wasn’t supposed to be North Korea at all — in the remake’s original script, the invading forces were Chinese.

According to “Red Dawn” producer Tripp Vinson, the reasons for the switch were practical. “We had to make the change because the studio that originally financed the movie, MGM, went into bankruptcy, and came out of it without a distribution arm,” he says. “And to make a long story short, no one would distribute the film if the enemy was China. This was the reality we encountered. So we made changes to the opening sequence, did some slight editing and visual effects work, and changed the invading army from Chinese to North Koreans.”

There are fun, escapist moments in “Red Dawn” for those able to suspend their disbelief at its ludicrous setup, traverse around its gaping plot holes and swallow its manipulative, horse-pill jingoism. There are quotable zingers, some overcharged action (including a tour-de-force chase sequence early in the film that probably burned off a good chunk of the remake’s $80 million budget) and the girls are pretty, as is Chris Hemsworth.

But none of this is enough to offset the brain-punching reality of what the filmmakers had to do to make this movie releasable — reskinning its central Asian invasion to swap out China for North Korea.

It’s not surprising that China’s consumer clout is large enough to make distributors flinch at picking up a movie that would be unreleasable in that market — the second-largest in the world, and one with an endless appetite for Hollywood films, especially those that boast over-the-top action and eye-popping special effects.

And if anything, the change actually lends some ironic verisimilitude to the casting: Many of the actors playing the film’s primary enemy roles — most notably Will Yun Lee, who plays still-Chinese-named enemy commander Captain Lo — are in fact Korean American.

No, the bemusing thing is that this simple solution the producers arrived at is one that plays readily into classical stereotypes: Those that depict Asia as a Mordor-like alien netherland where every hand wields a weapon and every weapon points at the throat of the civilized West — and those that treat Asians as an interchangeable, all-same mass. Can’t offend these Asians? Well, let’s just say they’re those Asians instead. A little cosmetic adjustment to flags and uniforms, and we’re off to the races.

We’ve seen the extreme results of this phenomenon: Chinese Americans wearing “I’M NO JAP” badges during World War II to avoid by-blow hostility directed at Japanese; the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 at the hands of Detroit autoworkers looking to get revenge on Toyota and Honda; the undifferentiated attacks on Sikhs mistaken for Muslims and Arabs. Xenophobia is bad. Blurry xenophobia is, arguably, worse — at a minimum, because it enlarges the potential target pool.

It’s obvious that “Red Dawn”’s producers were primarily motivated by Gen X’er nostalgia, not a particular desire to milk — or feed — geopolitical anxiety. “Look, our focus was to create a story that people would enjoy, and that would avoid disappointing everyone who, like us, were fans of the original,” Vinson says. “To me, the movie is about these kids stepping up in an impossible situation — the ultimate underdog story. We make it clear in the very beginning that this is an alternate world, it’s a different America. So it’s not about who the enemy is. The enemy could be anybody.”

But if this isn’t our America, and if enemy could be anybody — and given that the film’s appeal is inextricably rooted in us-versus-them jingoism — why bow to the darkest fringe-element xenophobes and conspiracists by making them Asian? Why even make them human? (As versifier Beau Sia put it in a somewhat epic Twitterpoem on the subject, “Why not centaurs invade Maine? / Just as probable.”)

Given the appeal of the fantastic in contemporary cinema, I think Vinson and his fellow producers missed a huge opportunity — especially given that we no longer live in a time when people associate the color red with the threat of global communism.

Why not aliens instead of Asians? Extraterrestrial invaders, attacking from a staging base on the red planet Mars! At least advanced technology would provide an explanation for some of the plot’s obvious gaffes — an EMP attack that knocks out nukes and radar but does nothing to cars, consumer electronics and the power grid?

Or why not go with Beau’s sarcastic suggestion, and depict an assault from the mythical creatures of faery — elves and trolls and goblins, spirits of fire and creatures of darkness, wielders of the red metal copper due to their fear of deadly iron?

Hell, why not an uprising of the undead, an invasion of vampires, who have decided to make their unlives easier by rounding up and lobotomizing humans and keeping them in camps like cattle, milking them for fresh, red blood?

Of course, these decisions would’ve had to have been made when the film was in development — and they would’ve required a producing team willing to make a clean creative break with the source material they loved. But remakes that acknowledge how times and tastes change are a more sophisticated form of homage than mirror-image reflection, and while they’re riskier, they also stand a better chance of breakout success.

Wolverines against nosferatu! “Red Dawn” meets “Breaking Dawn”! Don’t tell me that wouldn’t be huge! Every underdog trope, every patriotic theme, every soul-stirring rally-to-the-flag moment could remain intact, without the potential to inflame hate — unless, that is, hating Twihards is a crime…and if so?

Guilty as charged, officer.


Then there's the racist/xenophobic reaction of Red Dawn on Twitter:

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal