When we go to the movies, there’s nothing we love more than a violent dystopia. In Mad Max: Fury Road (now on circuit in South Africa), the hero joins forces with a revolt of female concubines to wage high-speed war in steampunked vehicles, dispensing death and disfigurement. It is one of the most grotesque and, at the same time, most perfect dystopias ever presented on screen.
Thirty-six years after putting Mel Gibson in leathers as the original Mad Max, director George Miller knows there’s a lot more you can do with the genre now.
When the first film came out there was outrage – and not just over the violence, which prompted calls for it to be banned. There was, especially on the left, distaste for its exploitative take on heroism. We’d spent the decade rebelling against a decaying order, amid chaos created – as in the movie – by oil scarcity. And now here was Gibson, restoring order with amoral violence.
We sensed then that the dystopian premise was being used to legitimise violent retribution and to redefine fictional heroes in the narrow sub-category of the vigilante. Nearly four decades later, it’s obvious, given our appetite for these movies, that dystopia has completely replaced the love story as the vehicle for our dreams.
The audience implicitly understands the conventions of dystopian movies. There is always a descent into tribalism; it always involves slavery and violence against women. The hero returns to the two-dimensional status he had in epic poetry 3 000 years ago.
The hero of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road may be a pro-feminist metrosexual but he is, above all, an ultraviolent fighting machine and an endurer of hardship.
Either we are failing to imagine heroism as the journey from alienation to redemption, or something in the real world is making such complex heroism seem pointless. I think it is violence.
The first Mad Max was one of several late-1970s movies that prompted outrage over the depiction of self-proclaimedly “psychopathic” violence. But if you watch these movies now they look tame.
In the 1970s, to actually witness what a .50-calibre bullet does to a human body, you would have had to be reporting or fighting on the frontline of a dirty war. No TV channel in the world would have shown you the images. You would have seen, from grainy news footage, what a napalm strike looks like from afar. But close-up images were so rare that the still photo of Kim Phúc taken in 1972, in the wake of a South Vietnamese napalm attack, became politically controversial and iconic.
The postwar generation in the West protected their children from onscreen violence because they had seen it close up in World War II – and they had felt something no movie audience ever really feels: terror. Driving through random shellfire or seeing children’s bodies dragged along in bloodstained curtains or hearing the random shots and machete blows of a shantytown pogrom, the look on your face and the feeling in your heart is very different to those depicted in Mad Max.
Nowadays, in all action movies, the .50-calibre bullet routinely explodes the ribcage, the knife across the throat jets blood into the air, the orc’s brains are filleted even in movies aimed at children. No action movie set is properly dressed without random body parts strewn around.
Today, anybody who wants to can view barbarity for real on the internet: beheadings in Iraq, kids dismembered by bombs in Syria, the thermobaric mushroom clouds raised when a rocket battery hits a civilian town. So people know, as the audience for Mad Max in 1979 did not, what is coming if society does break down.
And here lies the brilliance of the 2015 version. The subtext of most modern dystopias is the futility of rebellion. Rebellion leads to chaos, the powerful have multilayered defences – or, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, society is so screwed up that death is preferable. In Mad Max: Fury Road, rebellion happens. It is spectacular, it is feminist, and it is led by Charlize Theron.
We can only hope that, like the original, it proves to be a cultural turning point. – © Guardian News & Media, 2015
Paul Mason is the economics editor of Channel 4 News