By Steven Moore
A true post-apocalyptic world is an awesome thing to behold: humanity stripped of everything that makes us human; compassion, appreciation of beauty, and altruism all crumble like the cinder blocks of supermarkets and shopping malls, to be replaced by only the hardiest of weeds–self-interest and survival instinct. The 1975 film A Boy and His Dog is a true post-apocalyptic vision, taking place long after everything has gone to hell and the landscape contains only the scraps and decay of humanity.
The world has fallen to the destruction of World War IV, which was swiftly followed by a moral apocalypse, in which the dirt “belongs to anyone strong enough to take it for his own,” and men do nothing but search for food and women. The premise is that most men are off fighting wars, so the real victims of a nuclear war would be civilians, women, and children. This insight is one of the many understated insights of the film. Very few women are left, so men wander the desolation, looking for women.
Vic, played by a young Don Johnson, is a child of the war. His parents were killed in the carnage, and he has been forced to grow up alone but for his psychic dog. He has no moral compass, no sense of what is right. He is the symbol of human baseness, what we would become if left to our natures. His dog, Blood, is the result of some wartime experiments that gave dogs the ability to psychically communicate with some humans. Blood helps Vic find women with his sense of smell. The pair eventually come across a subterranean subculture that owes a lot to Brave New World and Orwellian dystopia.
The film is based on a book of the same name and is pretty faithful, though it cuts out some technically difficult scenes. While Blood’s abilities are explained at length in the book, the film only lightly touches on them, which left me a little unclear on the relationship between Blood and Vic initially. The real controversy of the film is in the final line, which makes light of the surprise but complicated ending. What the book presents as a serious moral question, the film makes into a joke, undercutting any sort of weight the film might have had.
This is a difficult movie. Vic is no hero, and his actions are appalling. The general cavalier attitude toward rape almost made me shut it off ten minutes into the film. However, the backstory forced me to confront the question: would it really be that different? What else would a world in which very few women are left, run by men who grew up without any guidance from adults, look like? Can you blame a person who has never been told that forcing yourself on another human being is despicable? I hope I know the answers to these questions, but this movie did make me think. In the end, Vic chooses someone else over himself. Although his choice is his dog, isn’t that what social morality is about–putting someone else over yourself? There is a glimmer of hope that something in us is good, even when it hasn’t been nurtured.
The overall quality of this film is pretty bad, partly because it hasn’t aged well and partly because it didn’t have much of a budget. There are also a few silly moments, where the “love interest” knocks out two grown men with nothing but a bouquet of flowers. A general pulp feel permeates everything and distracts from the serious ethical questions the film is exploring. It would make a great remake, although it would probably be even more controversial in this day and age. As the author of the original book notes, the final line of the film, not present in the book, undercuts nearly every question the film explores; however, if you can ignore it’s own undoing and stomach deplorable behavior in the name of exploring some important questions about humanity, A Boy and His Dog will be worth it.