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Fury Road and the Optimism of Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Stories

Brad Bird, director of the film Tomorrowland (as well as The Incredibles and Ratatouille) did some complaining in interviews recently about the popularity of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories.

Here is part of what he said in an interview with Wired Magazine:

“At one time the future was consistently presented as this bright thing where all these problems were going to be solved. I remember that feeling of wow, starvation will be solved and the air will be clean, weapons will be obsolete because we’ll understand that there are better places to put our energy. And gradually that vision has just been nibbled away at until it’s basically not there. And what’s in its place is this very dark, negative version that everyone seems to have accepted.”

I haven’t seen Tomorrowland, so I’m not going to judge the film, but many film critics point out that Mr. Bird explicitly berates society in the film for abandoning the can-do optimism of the 1960s space race in favor of gloom and doom scenarios.

I like Mr. Bird’s films overall (huge fan of Ratatouille; it’s one of my favorite animated features), but I think he is wrong here, for several reasons. (For one thing, I don’t think it’s at all correct to say that the future was “consistently” presented as positive during any time period.)

I love post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories.

I also love space operas.

I love all these genres for the EXACT SAME REASON.

They are all optimistic. They’re basically about the same thing: humanity prevailing against ginormous odds. They are about the creation of civilization out of nothing or utter chaos. They are about creating or fixing systems/worlds through acts of heroism.

It’s the same reason I love Westerns and why I’ve been grooving on Starz’s pirate show, Black Sails. It’s why I love the TV show Lost (co-written by Damon Lindelof, who also co-wrote Tomorrowland).

The idea of a clean slate, both for characters and society as a whole–regardless of whether it’s caused by an apocalyptic event or a journey to a new planet or galaxy or strange magical island–is both inherently fascinating and inherently optimistic.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a perfect example of this optimism. Set in a (really bizarre) post-apocalyptic landscape, the movie is about a society that imprisons fertile women as breeders. The leader hoards and doles out water on a whim. When his wives escape with the help of one of his “imperators,” it leads to a chase across the wasteland. The wives and their rescuer Furiosa (Charlize Theron) hope to make it to a place that is still green. Along for the ride is Max (Tom Hardy), who is haunted by the images of the people he failed to save in the past.

BIG, BIG SPOILER, SKIP DOWN TO NEXT SENTENCE IN BOLD IF YOU PLAN TO SEE FURY ROAD:

They find out the green place no longer exists. Some of the inhabitants have preserved heirloom seeds because they still hope to find a place to plant them.

So they decide to GO BACK to where they came from.

THEY

GO

BACK.

They turn around and run straight back into the army of people trying to recapture/kill them, knowing some of them won’t make it, but hoping others will so they can have the life they were seeking elsewhere.

Notice how many times I used the word “hope” in the last few paragraphs?

O.K., DONE WITH MAJOR SPOILERS.

Fury Road is one of the craziest, loopiest, most bizarre action movies I’ve ever seen. I won’t lie. For the first twenty minutes or so I was regretting the price of the ticket, thinking WTF IS this movie? By the end I was totally on board and an emotional wreck. It’s a weird film set in a bleak world–and it’s also one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen.

Stories that demonstrate humans can repair even the most broken systems/worlds are our way of facing our worst fears. In that sense, the post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories serve as modern-day fairy tales–the dark kind, before Disney prettied them up. Heroes are lost in and must fight against a dangerous environment and/or repressive society. Watching characters survive and prevail gives us a feeling of hope that we can overcome our fears.

There were points in our history when these kinds of stories were far bleaker than they are now. The “Red Scare” and post-atomic age horror movies of the 1950s are examples. During the 1970s dystopians were especially hopeless, with worlds so horrifying the heroes are ultimately powerless to change them.

But even in those cases, I think there’s an element of optimism. They are warnings, especially the 1970s movies. If we don’t stop the arms race, THIS could happen. If we don’t solve our over-population problem, THIS could happen. If we don’t clean up the environment, THIS could happen. If we don’t get over our obsession with youth culture, THIS could happen. It’s like they’re saying to us “if we get our sh*t together, we’ll be O.K.”

I think it’s also worth pointing out that “space operas” may also contain dystopian elements–that’s certainly true of two of my favorite series, Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy and Allen Steele‘s Coyote series. In fact, the main characters in the Mars Trilogy spend a huge chunk of the story living underground in fear for their lives and participate in no less than three revolutions. We even see dystopian societies pop up in the original Star Trek series, one of the vanguards of “space age optimism.”

I agree with Mr. Bird that we need to imagine bright futures–but we also need to imagine dark ones and believe we can build something out of the nothing. It’s what human beings have done all throughout our past. Why would the future be any different?

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One thought on “Fury Road and the Optimism of Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Stories

  1. Well of course it has a happy ending! It’s Hollywood!

    I think his comments were more against the dystopian settings, not necessarily that everything is going to end poorly, even after an apocalypse, but just that right now, people seem to be in love with “the end of the world”.

    Look at zombies, and all of their fandoms. Look at apocalyptic fiction, look at war movies. Even Fantasy is rife with “the world sucks and and it gets worse” as the main premise.

    I’ve not seen Tomorrowland either (and I doubt I will, even though I love sci-fi. That title alone makes me want to vomit), but clearly it’s going against this love affair with pessimism. Although, that might not necessarily be a point in Tomorrowland’s favor . . .

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