One of the most recognisable and popular characters to have sprung from 2000AD alongside Judge Dredd, Halo Jones, Nemesis the Warlock and Rogue Trooper, Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dog of the series of the same name created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra actually originated in the pages of Starlord in May 1978, only transferring to 2000AD when Starlord ceased publication later that year.
Undeniably the figurehead of 2000AD, Judge Dredd has crossed to many media, two feature films and a forthcoming television series as well as audio dramas and many fan films, among them the acclaimed Judge Minty. Released in 2013, the writer/director team behind that short film, Steve Green and Steven Sterlacchini, have turned their attention to Johnny Alpha and his sidekick Wulf Sternhammer in Search/Destroy.
Having already screened at many festivals the non-profit project is now available to view directly online where with a simple green cathode ray title card it channels the feel of the troubled late seventies which gave rise to the characters. Opening with a western-style showdown, that post-apocalyptic setting leaps to space, expanding the scope with the Doghouse, operations base of the mutated bounty hunters known as Strontium Dogs.
With seven of their number having gone missing in six months, a ticket is raised to investigate but it carries a low reward, insufficient to draw the attention of anyone but Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer (Matthew Simpson and Kevin Horsham) who follow the lead to Dacre’s World in the Mestasis System, but the trail will take them further and higher than some petty murderous mercenaries.
Capturing the decayed nihilistic anarchy of the comic which railed against British institutions, never expecting to become one itself, unlike those who created the heroes of Marvel and DC the writers of 2000AD saw the future differently from those who bask in the land of sunshine and opportunity, this damp grey island of endless invasions given an even more grim and sober perspective under the heel of Thatcher.
For those who understood what it was to be unwanted, a second class citizen trying to survive in a system which degraded them, Johnny Alpha was a working class hero, an underdog whose abilities made him useful and efficient but never popular with those in power, something which Green and Sterlacchini have captured effectively though contrary to their protagonist they will receive no remuneration, only admiration.
At only twenty minutes long it is fast moving and while obviously a fan film it never feels amateur and some aspects are hugely impressive, the digital enhancement of physical weapons, Johnny’s ever-changing eyes, while in space it looks like the modern era of Doctor Who; in another time and place that may have been shallow praise, but not anymore.
Even had they not been wearing perfect recreations of their comic costumes Simpson and Horsham would have looked the parts, and while both are adequate in their performances if neither is given the chance to shine it is because of lack of opportunity rather than ability in what can never be more than an introduction more concerned with violence than plot, though each confrontation does have the saving grace of being well-staged.
Ironically their best moments are during the passage to their destination as they kill time in their miniscule quarters, a playful scene which adds nothing to the story but adds colour to the characters by showing them “off mission” as the tannoy announcements expand the ship beyond the three walls which the budget allows and by extension the world which they inhabit in the same way as was done on the original Star Trek.
It’s not a small project, not only in terms of the multiple filming locations, from Rochester’s Fort Borstal to Sheffield’s Wentworth Woodhouse, from Romney Marsh in Dungeness to the Magna Science Adventure in Rotherham and a trip to Brighton Beach – well, it was good enough for Doctor Who in 1980 so why not? – but also in the sets and physical hardware and costumes for the multiple extras, and if the digital Chukwalla doesn’t quite work it is the only significant misstep, leaving only the question of which characters the team should tackle next.