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Posts Tagged ‘Dystopia’

“People don’t believe in heroes anymore”

With all the coverage received by the new trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road I thought it was time to look back at the original 1979 movie.  Many people associate Mad Max with the sequels Mad Max 2 (1981), subtitled The Road Warrior in America, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and have forgotten the original movie. 

“A few years from now” in a unspecified place the MFP are the traffic police who maintain order on the streets.  Cop, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) becomes the target of a biker gang after he is involved in the pursuit of an escaped killer calling himself The Nightrider (Vince Gil).  When he  loses everything, Max goes out to seek revenge.Mad Max

As described in the opening title card, the film is set “A few years from now”, it isn’t the apocalyptic world where the desert has reclaimed the world.  A lot of Mad Max is set in relatively lush green scrubland.  It is the beginning of the “maelstrom of decay” described in Mad Max 2.  The world isn’t going out with a bang, humanity is slowly giving up as the gangs take over and the world is tearing itself apart.  Is the film set in a dystopia on fringes of society or in a future on the brink of collapse?  This is never really made clear, but in many ways the film is all the better for it.  In a vast landscape filled with nomadic motorists the traffic cops are the only thing keeping the world in check and hanging on to civilisation, they are the heroes that Fifi (Roger Ward) refers to.Mad Max

So the film isn’t an apocalyptic nightmare, that’s the second and third films, but is it the violent revenge thriller that it is labelled?  It does have its violent moments but most of those aren’t actually shown, they are surprisingly off camera, probably for budgetary reasons.   I am not convinced if released now it would receive the 18 certificate it got on its original release.  Is it then an observations on the effects of the 70’s oil crisis’ on Australian motorists? Is it an existentialist look at what people do to cling to their humanity and the idea of society?  The film is less than ninety minutes long but still manages to devote more than ten minutes to the opening chase scene. Only the final twenty minutes makes up the revenge story that the film is known for.  Any meaning we may be looking for is most clearly observed in the scene where Max wants to quit, he admits to Fifi that he is scared, not scared of what could happen to him, but scared that he may start to enjoy it, scared that he is going to become a “terminal crazy”, this is kind of what we see.    As Max, the innocent and good man gives up on society in favour of revenge, society itself gives up and we see the results in Mad Max 2.  So does that make it a cautionary tale against lawlessness?  Am I reading too much into it, at it is merely a visceral tale loss and revenge designed just to entertain on the most base of levels?Mad Max opening chase scene

Director, George Miller claimed the films budget was around $400,000.  Made in a pre CGI time this resulted in a very inventive movie that makes the most of its money.  This is what I love so much about the film, it’s a genre film like Roger Corman and early Walter Hill, it’s a film that is improved by its limitations not constrained by them, it is a film directors like Michael Bay, McG and James Cameron should revisit, they could learn something.  The real draw for the film is Mel Gibson, at 23 he was an unknown, with one movie and a couple of TV credits behind him.  Given the baggage he now carries with him, it is easy to forget what a charismatic and likeable star Gibson was back then.  Demonstrating the lighter and comic part of the film with the same ease as the more hollow shell of a man set on a path of revenge.  He manages to bring a sense of despair and melancholy to the part.The Rover and Mad Max Posters

The legacy of Mad Max and the apocalyptic movies set in sand covered landscapes that have imitated and been inspired by it probably belongs to Mad Max 2 and not to this film.  In the 35 years since its original release there hasn’t been another film quite like Mad Max, not even its sequels.  With David Michôd’s The Rover just opening and Fury Road due out next may, now is a perfect time to remind yourself of the original Mad Max. 

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When I was in my early teens I loved The Running Man (1987), it was my second favourite Arnold Schwarzenegger movie after The Terminator (1984) that at the time was one of my favourite movies (Total Recall (1990) and Terminator 2 (1992) were yet to be made and I didn’t appreciate Predator (1987) until I saw it again a few years later). I had avoided watching The Running Man for the last ten years through fear of been disappointed at the way it had aged. Should I have been worried? Well, yes and no. It is dated but it gets away with it surprisingly well. It is only dated in as much as you would expect any twenty-five year old sci-fi movie to be (even Alien looks dated today), but it still has its charms and its thrills. The costumes and the sets are very 80’s, but you would expect them to be. The acting is as good as you can expect from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The action is plentiful, but not as bold, bloody or as violent as I remember.

Set in a future totalitarian/dystopian society, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is framed for a massacre he tried to prevent and sent to prison. He escapes but is recaptured and coerced into taking part in a bloodthirsty reality TV show, The Running Man.

Directed by Paul Michael Glazeer (best known as Starskey in the TV show Starsky and Hutch) it is by far the best of his handful of movies. Loosely based on a short story by Stephen King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Legend has it that the filmmakers didn’t realise at the time they made the film that Richard Bachman was Stephen King. The dystopia is set in the aftermath of a failed world economy result in the world (or a small corner of southern California at least) having a wide gulf between rich and poor. The story is very different but a lot of the ideas and themes remain. There is an underlying ideal in the movie of truth, justice and overcoming oppression.

The sets and costumes look very dated as you would expect of a futuristic movie from the 80’s but if you look beyond that, the story is strangely prophetic with the ailing world economy and the obsession with reality TV. We also see the producers of the show misrepresenting the facts to the audience, something else that has been in the news recently with various TV scandals. There are lulls between the action scenes and Schwarzenegger’s woefully delivered one-liners, but again it gets away with it. The action scenes benefit from being real and not CGI, but they are also limited by this, leaving the feeling the battles should have been more epic. There is a knowing glint in Schwarzenegger’s eye as his reluctant hero of the revolution tells us: “I’m not into politics, I’m into survival.” By 1987 the future (now former) Governor of California had already expressed an interest in politics. Is this like the movie itself a lucky coincidence coupled with rose-tinted hindsight? I’m note sure but whether intention or not, the movie is far more satirical than I remember, although too light-hearted to be truly cutting or cynical.

It is very much Schwarzenegger’s movie, María Conchita Alonso is on hand as a bickering sidekick/love interest, but is given little to do beyond pouting and has no chemistry with Schwarzenegger. Real life game show host Richard Dawson has fun as Damon Killian, the Running Man TV show slimy producer/host. The “stalkers” who are sent out to hunt and kill the contestants include former NFL star Jim Brown and former professional wrestlers Charles Kalani, Jr. and Jesse Ventura.

Following The Hunger Games earlier this year other similar themed movies like this are been dusted off, while it isn’t in the same league as Battle Royale (2000) it is still worth checking out. I’m not sure how much new audiences will take from the move, but anyone who enjoyed it in the 80’s will probably be pleasantly surprised.

A note for those who haven’t noticed, Harold Weiss is played by Marvin J. McIntyre, better known as Truman Sparks in Fandango.

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Catching up on an old episode of The Matineecast got me thinking about movies set in dystopian futures. Ryan referred to dystopias that are not that far in the future, and via the movie Pleasantville (1998) he and his guest Sasha James Talked about how a nostalgic view of America in the 1950’s could be a dystopia for people from the present day. My first thought was that we could now be living in what would be the dystopian future that people in the 50’s feared. With dwindling natural recourses, and rising costs, losses of civil liberties and an over reliance on technology coupled with the threat of war and terrorism, we are probably closer to dystopia than utopia. With this in mind I have avoided movies set in an unrecognisable world to concentrate on dystopias that are not that different to the real world.

Movies like Gattaca (1997), V for Vendetta (2005) and In Time (2011) exist in a society that has adopted practices that oppress the masses and it is through rebellion that people are able to find a better life. There are other films like1984 (1984), Brazil (1985) and Code 46 (2003) that revel in their desperation and futility by pulling rug from under the hero, and the audience with it. Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Children of Men (2006) find a happy balance where the despair is tempered by a glimmer of hope. The brilliance of Fahrenheit 451 the way we see a character comes to distrust what he has been taught to believe in and chooses to fight the system from within. We see a similar idea explored in the interesting if a little overrated Equilibrium (2002), set in a society where emotions are outlawed it also explores what it is to be human. Both these ideas are explored in the underrated and misunderstood RoboCop (1987). In there own way the characters in Rollerball (1975) and Death Race 2000 (1975). This is very different from District 13 (2004) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) whose protagonists are and remain outsiders. An interesting case is The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) whose main protagonists desire is only to escape the system but her desires bring her into the sphere of those who are trying to change things.

When you mention Mad Max many people think of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, in some ways the best film in the trilogy, but the original low budget Mad Max is actually equally as good in its own way. Set in a near future world were society is crumbling and law & order has begun to break down people will do what it takes to keep moving to stay on the road. It was relevant in its day but it has found new relevance in recent years. If we think about the glue that holds society together, it is not fear of prosecution, but a moral belief of right and wrong, if you take that bond away the world as we know it will crumble. We see the early days of this in Mad Max, and the subtlety with which this idea is displayed within a violent revenge thriller is why it is possibly the best dystopian movie. This breakdown of society is in the background of neo-noir Trouble in Mind (1985) and retro-future comic book inspired Streets of Fire (1984) but lacks the despair of Mad Max. The other movie that perfectly depicts society at a tipping point is Strange Days (1995). Made in the mid 90’s with LA’s troubles fresh in the memory and set just five years in the future, now more than a decade in the past, some would argue the world is a worse place now than what was depicted. Given the reality TV obsession of the last dozen years and current distrust of media and governments, The Running Man (1987) now seems strangely prophetic. Battle Royale covers some of the same ground but is all the more shocking in the way it casts children against society.

It is human nature to try and change and shape society, but some movies have taken this to an extreme. By travelling back in time from a dystopian future to change the present and reshape the future, their present. This is handled in different ways in different movies, the hero of Twelve Monkeys (1995) is haunted by memories of his own death and with it his failure to save the future. Millennium (1989) takes a different point of view as the characters from the future battle to hide the existence in the present through fear that it will change and potentially destroy the future with the effects of the paradox of time travel. While Millennium is afraid of the effects of paradox, The Terminator (1984) exists within a paradox. It is only within an effort to kill the hero who can save the world that he is conceived. The one thing all these movies have in common is the way they only give us glimpses of the dystopian future, a future created in the present.

One thing that is clear, there are as many differences as there are similarities within the genre, but the movies that are the best and that age the best are the ones that have a deeper relevance. This can be an overt plot, a subtle subtext or just a theme that anchors the story in reality.

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