Theatergoers will flock this weekend to an imagined story set in a steampunky dystopian hellscape. Or will they just be looking in a mirror?
We’re all about the apocalypse and its aftermath these days, from “The Walking Dead” to “The Last Man on Earth.” So it’s not surprising that the 1980s dystopian “Mad Max” franchise has been revived, this time with actor Tom Hardy swapped in for Mel Gibson as the wandering eponymous hero. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which releases this weekend, is the rare blockbuster that will likely please critics and action-loving audiences alike.
It is a little surprising that we spend so much time and money on watching stories about all the horrible ways our civilization will end. But the preoccupation is not new. Since humans started telling stories, we’ve been imagining the end: how it will come, who will survive and what will happen afterward.
The genre of apocalyptic literature has always been both religious and political, meant to pull back the curtain and show us what’s really going on behind our everyday reality. Ancient readers of the Book of Revelation, for instance, would have understood it as both a prophecy about the end of time and as a specific critique of the Roman Empire.
One great way to see what a culture thinks about ultimate reality is to take a peek at its apocalypse stories. “Mad Max” is plenty entertaining, but it also tells us something about what we believe about the warring forces that drive human behavior — and where we think our salvation lies.
The first “Mad Max” installment was released in 1979, and according to James McCausland, who co-wrote the screenplay with George Miller, it was “based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.” Our own greed and lack of respect for limits, in other words, brought on the apocalypse.
In this fourth installment — released 30 years after the third one — the force of evil is a regime that withholds a vital life force from the poor: water. It does so through maintaining a monopoly. To those who join in maintaining this power, it gives the promise of heaven, or in this case, Valhalla, the Norse hall of the gods to which Viking warlords aspired to go in the afterlife. The mantra: “I live. I die. I live again!”
The imagery here is all deeply religious and elemental — most obviously the Citadel and the surrounding landscape itself, resembling most of Dante’s “Inferno” circles collapsed into one fiery, dry, nightmarish hell that swings between great excess and great poverty. Sufferers are taunted by just enough water to make them feel its absence. Some prisoners are kept as human blood bags and milk producers.
The war rig is literally fronted by a blinded electric guitarist ecstatically playing loud rock ‘n roll, backed by drummers. We discover that Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has rescued a group of beautiful women kept as sex slaves. They’re headed for “the green place,” and when they get close they see a tree that clearly recalls images of the Tree of Life.
In between all the heart-pounding action is a quiet tale of people defeating evil after all decent civilization has broken down. “Mad Max” asks, and answers, an important question: In this godforsaken world, what actually matters? What can turn the subjugated subhuman back into a person?
As with many of its pop cultural cousins — think of “The Hunger Games” — “Mad Max” gives a thoroughly postmodern answer. Oppression, we believe, is not countered and defeated by a stronger alternative religion. There’s no better regime. In our dystopias, institutions are just bad.
Rather, our stories are about individual people banding together in hopeless defiance of towering tyrants, whether they’re political or religious. There isn’t a Valhalla or a good government. We’d better find meaning where we can, and where that usually happens is in small, humanizing interactions between individuals, not within institutional structures. That might look like Max choosing to take care of others, or it might look like former sex slaves and regime hacks discovering their humanity in small acts of kindness.
This anti-institutional inclination isn’t just an invention of dystopian storytelling; it also reflects what we believe about the world today. The recent Pew study on America’s changing religious landscape found that since 2007, the number of Americans claiming to be religiously unaffiliated has risen by 6.7 percent.
In March 2014, Pew released a study that suggested that millennials are far more unmoored from institutions than their predecessors, with 50 percent claiming to be political independents and 29 percent claiming no religious affiliation. Only 19 percent of millennials agreed with the statement that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted.”
And yet that same 2014 study found that 86 percent of millennials were certain or at least amenable to the belief that God exists, nearly 50 percent described themselves as patriotic, and a huge majority of them — 85 percent, far more than preceding generations — are optimistic about the idea that they will have enough to live on in the future.
So if “Mad Max” is any indication, those who believe in institutions, like those who feel called to build churches, are fighting an uphill battle in convincing many young Americans that they aren’t merely out to impose another kind of agenda upon them.
But Max’s actions point toward what appeals to those who are searching for meaning: rescuing the oppressed, paying attention to the needy, delivering water to the thirsty, all without seeking public acclaim.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them,” Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.
“Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place,” the prophet Jeremiah writes.
Maybe the filmmakers and the prophets have a lot in common.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of a forthcoming book on the politics of apocalypse. She tweets @alissamarie.