And the pièce de résistance of the symphony of awesomeness that is Mad Max: Fury Road …
|I cackled maniacally every time this was on screen (quietly, though - I was in a movie theater)|
.... this truck outfitted with a flame-thrower/guitar/bass, stack of amps, and drums on the back! This is exactly what I would have if I were a post-apocalyptic warlord! How did we ever imagine a dystopian wasteland without this?
As the above trailer hints at, the movie should really be called Fierce Furiosa rather than Mad Max, because Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is the real star of the show. Max (Tom Hardy) is quite literally along for the ride. A lot of reviewers have praised the movie's feminism. Furiosa’s on a mission to transport a group of slaves (known collectively as the Wives) to freedom from their warlord owner, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the guy who played Toecutter in the first Mad Max movie).
Along the way they meet the Vuvalini, a group – motorcycle gang, really – of tough-as-nails women, most of whom are over 70 and would eat you for breakfast. Director George Miller consulted with Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame) about the real life experiences of sex slaves around the world in order to capture the experience of the Wives. Also, each Wife has her own personality. My favorite is Capable (Riley Keough), who brings a few moments of human kindness in the midst of overwhelming brutality.
No wonder this movie has gotten under the skin of so-called “men’s rights” groups. This headline says it all: “Mad men mad at Mad Max for having mad women.”
Did I mention that the scenery is beautiful? Namibia was standing in for Australia (apparently the Outback had too much rainfall for the apocalypse). And then there’s the character of Nux, who develops in ways you won't expect (he’s the one who says, “What a day! What a lovely day!”).
And the haunting blue tinted scenes with people walking on stilts. And the giant sand storm. And did I mention the flame-throwing guitar?
I could go on about all the things I loved about this movie. If you want more in the genre of standard movie reviews, some good ones are here, here, here, and here. But let me move on.
The Lessons of Dystopia
Amidst all the flaming guitars, car-crunching destruction, and face-melting action, you’d think it would be hard to find a philosophical moment. At first, it is. I find that the best philosophy is done in moments of quiet reflection or free-flowing dialogue. You don’t get much of either of those in this movie. But once the credits started rolling and my pulse died down, I thought about dystopias.
Whatever it may say about the zeitgeist, a lot of people almost relish the idea of living in a dystopia, as the t-shirt slogan below suggests. Or at least people like to imagine that they’re tough enough or smart enough to survive the downfall of civilization.
That’s all fine, I guess, but I don’t have these survival fantasies. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t last a day on The Walking Dead before becoming zombie chow. I’d be one of the War Boys’ blood bags in Mad Max: Fury Road in about two seconds if I got within ten miles of the Citadel.
For me, the real lesson of dystopian science fiction is that we should defend, cherish, and celebrate civilization. We seem to have forgotten that dystopias are supposed to be horrific, even if they're as thoroughly entertaining as Mad Max: Fury Road. And by “civilization” I don’t mean some insidious, coercive force of homogenization that erases all differences and disagreements. A true civilization could celebrate diversity and encourage debate (my favorite example is the Culture of Iain M. Banks).
By “civilization” I mean the infrastructure that allows us to avoid what Hobbes called the “state of nature” or the “war of all against all.” I’m talking about the 17th century English philosopher, not the cartoon tiger, although the tiger has deep thoughts, too. This infrastructure includes physical infrastructure, like roads, electricity, food and water supplies, etc., but it also includes what you might call “ethical infrastructure” – the ideas that disagreements should be dealt with by means other than violence, that everyone deserves a basic level of respect, and so forth. Civilization in my sense requires people to accept the idea that the Wives paint on the wall before they escape: “We are not things.” (See this article by Donna Dickens - point #7 - for a nice discussion of this idea). As the phenomena of sexual slavery and rape during wartime have shown, the breakdown of civilization usually hurts women and children the most.
Physical and ethical infrastructure are the soil in which we can grow to be sane, decent human beings. At the beginning of the movie, Max says, via voiceover, “As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me… or everyone else.” Especially on my second viewing, I reflected on the struggles that characters like Furiosa, Max, the Wives, Nux, and the Vuvalini have with trying to be sane and decent people in an insane, indecent world. Even for all of our civilization, I think most of us can relate.
I certainly don’t mean to say that our civilization (the world’s, America’s, or whatever) is perfect, or that ideas like “civilization” and “sanity” haven’t been used to hurt or oppress people. We have a long way to go. In a thousand years, our descendants might doubt we had a “civilization” at all in the early 21st century. Given our current problems of massive income and power inequalities, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, slavery, poverty, children dying of preventable diseases, and so forth, our descendants might look on our “civilization” the same way we look at Immortan Joe’s Citadel. Part of me hopes they do. As odd as it sounds, the lesson of dystopian science fiction like Mad Max: Fury Road is that we should value what civilization we have as a means to our descendants someday considering our world to be dystopian.
Now if only our dystopia had more flame-throwing guitars!