The Ridiculous 'Red Dawn' Remake Is Even More Absurd Than You Think

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Not just because the forthcoming film portrays a North Korean invasion of America, but because the world and America's place in it have changed so dramatically since the original cult classic.


In 1984, the year after President Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as "an evil empire," the writer and director of Conan the Barbarian unleashed upon America a film that would set an as-yet unmatched height in jingoistic absurdity: Red Dawn. The movie portrayed a surprise Cuban-Soviet invasion of the U.S., and a handful of mujahideen-like Coloradan teenagers who, led by Patrick Swayze and Frances "Baby" Houseman*, bravely resist and -- spoiler alert -- ultimately prevail over the forces of darkness. 


Red Dawn's outlandish plot had just enough of a kernel of realism to take itself seriously as a patriotic action-adventure fantasy ("I have never seen a movie, nor will I in the future, with a crowd as crazy amped up as when I saw Red Dawn in 1984," conservative economist Jim Pethokoukis recalled), yet was also outlandish enough to be enjoyed as a piece of summertime camp. But now Red Dawn 2 is coming, slated for a November 21 release whether we want it or not, and with a premise orders of magnitude even nuttier than the original. The trailer, just released, is above; yes, the North Koreans invade and conquer America.

The biggest problem with Red Dawn 2, based just on the scant information currently available, is that its premise is positively nutbar, and for reasons far beyond North Korea's poverty and military weakness. Before we get to that, though, there is the trailer itself, which in only two nonsensical minutes manages a number of wild inaccuracies. Of course the movie is inaccurate, you might be thinking, it's an action film that doesn't claim realism. But, beyond the obviously silly premise, the film also plays on a number of fears that are similarly bunk but less obviously so, and makes surprising factual mistakes that suggest the producers haven't looked too closely at, say, the Wikipedia entries of its subjects. Here are a few, if for no other reason than to help Red Dawn 2 viewers sleep a little easier.

U.S. Central Command is in Tampa and Covers the Middle East: At one point in the trailer, a panicked American warns "they've taken out CENTCOM," which might sound like an important core Pentagon office or military decision-making body. It is, but only for the Middle East. The "central" in U.S. Central Command stand for the center of the world map, for which CENTCOM is responsible. That may be a real buzzkiller of a nitpick, but it gives you a sense of just how seriously Red Dawn 2's producers took their mission that they couldn't be bothered to Google the appropriate U.S. theater command: U.S. PACOM, or Pacific Command.

An EMP Blast Is Not Going to Destroy the Military: The film adopts a fringe conspiracy theory that has long been pushed by a small, right-wing coalition led by Newt Gingrich: that terrorists or a rogue state could devastate America with an electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP. The idea is that detonating a nuclear weapon way up in the stratosphere would send out an EMP that would fry all of our electronics, from helicopters to coffee makers, easing the way for a foreign invasion. In fact, EMP is untested at best and ineffective at worst; studies suggest it might actually stop as little as five percent of electronics. Even if it did work, America is really big and knocking out our entire lower 48 would require many, many more warheads than North Korea could possibly possess.

The Days of a 'Pearl Harbor' Surprise Attacks Are Over: And it's not just because the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have covered the globe with a blanket of satellite and electronic surveillance that monitors, among other things, foreign military movements. If a bunch of North Korean troops were to even drive to the nearest airport, we're probably going to know about it. And the U.S. military just isn't as centralized as it used to be. At any given moment, the U.S. has about 100,000 troops afloat and 200,000 on foreign military bases, many of those bases located somewhere between North Korea and the U.S., and all of them made for quick deployment. The Navy alone has six enormous, self-contained fleets floating around the world's oceans, not to mention 11 aircraft carriers. Even if an invading force were able to somehow magically subdue the million-plus active duty military personnel on U.S. soil, you could probably set your watch by the American counter-invasion.

China Is Not Invading America: OK, China is not actually in the movie, but its script originally had the invasion led by Beijing with help from Pyongyang. The studio decided to drop China as the villain, probably to avoid alienating the lucrative Chinese film market. But the idea that North Korea could do this all alone is so patently silly, and the fact of China's original place in the script is so likely to follow news coverage of Red Dawn 2, that it's almost as viewers are meant to mentally substitute Chinese soldiers for the North Koreans. So it's worth quickly noting why that's almost as unlikely as, say, a land invasion from the Great Maple Menace to our north. China has no incentive to attack America, its most important trade partner and thus the central pillar in the economic growth strategy around which its entire polity is organized, and every incentive not to. Even if China did want to attack, its military isn't nearly strong enough. And even if it were strong enough, some analysts say it is too riddled with internal problems

The big problem with Red Dawn 2, maybe even bigger than the holes in its premise and its execution, is that it portrays a world that no longer exists and a category of threat that Americans no longer face. The Soviet threat was real in 1984, though not quite for the reasons portrayed in the original Red Dawn. Moscow controlled tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, a secret biological weapons program, and a military built for war with the West, but not always itself or its grasp of international events, making unintentional global devastation a fractional but terrifying possibility. 

There's little reason to think, looking back, that Soviet tanks would pour across the Bering Strait and through Canada into the Midwest, that continental Europe would unilaterally disarm, or that Cuba had the means or desire to even fuel a thousand airplanes, much less fill them with a crack surprise invasion force and sneak them into each of the lower 48 states. Still, it was the Cold War and it was the Reagan '80s, a time of high American nationalism. More to the point, there was some reality to the threat, however exaggerated, and Red Dawn seemed to both capture and dispel Americans' not wholly misplaced anxieties.

The Soviet Union and United States had a real beef, one that could have foreseeably led to the sort of worst-case scenario portrayed, if fantastically, in Red Dawn. But that is just not the world that we live in anymore. China and the U.S. don't have the sort of existentially conflicting interests that defined the Cold War. Terrorists or rogue states like North Korea or Iran can threaten to harm the U.S., and in a nightmare scenario might even do so severely, but America today is so militarily dominant, and presides over an international system that so tightly bonds the world's interests with American supremacy, that serious existential threats are largely a thing of the past

That's what makes Red Dawn 2 so ridiculous, and so unlikely to resonate in the way that its predecessor did: not that impoverished little North Korea could invade America, but that any country or countries ever could or, more importantly, would. The era of state-based existential threats is largely over for America -- that's the good news -- but the bad news is that the years of jingoistic American resistance films may sadly end with it.


* - Correction: This post originally referred to Jennifer Grey as "Ferris Bueller's sister." As commenters have pointed out, her role alongside Swayze in Dirty Dancing is clearly the more relevant. We regret putting Baby in a corner.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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