By Steven Moore
This summer I decided to spend time focusing on the post-apocalyptic genre of film. As a consequence, I have been spending many afternoons wandering the wastelands of humanity. I’ve been traipsing through not only the films I will be reviewing, but also less worthy candidates to round out my explorations. An unexpected consequence of spending so much time in the wreckage of society is that my general feeling about humanity has taken a few hits. When stripped of our politeness and the threat of consequence, most of us are horrifyingly savage and brutal–if movies are to be believed. If I wasn’t already a misanthrope, I surely will be come summer’s end.
My first foray into the apocalyptic wasteland was the well-regarded classic Mad Max. After watching Mad Max, I wasn’t looking forward to watching its sequel. However, I am nothing if not determined to punish myself, and so I forged on. Due to Netflix’s ever shifting instant watch availability, I was forced to wait longer than I would have liked to finally sit down and watch The Road Warrior. Immediately, the difference was clear. The film starts with a newsreel-style retelling of the end of the world. The previous film is framed as a backstory for Max and a backdrop for the apocalypse itself.
Storytelling techniques, characterization, production value–all are not just a step up, but a flying leap beyond the original film. This isn’t just a budget issue, this is a director who learned from his mistakes and made something far better. Where the original Mad Max had an indefinite sense of landscape and character, this film clearly defines who these people are, how the story is going to be told, and what kind of world we, the audience, can expect to inhabit. The Austrialian landscape provides the perfect setting for a world on the brink of ending. The most present concern, fossil fuels, still resonates (perhaps even more loudly), and everyone emits the stink of desperation.
The first film is a great backstory to this film, and gives a kind of characterization to Max that is rare in the “stranger walks into town” story. With the background of the first film, you understand why Max makes the choices he does, what motivates him, even why he has a leg brace. The Road Warrior benefits from the first film, enabling a hero with the complexity of a man with a past. It provides a layer of depth unique to this genre, and to film in general. Post-apocalyptic films, by definition, do not focus on the past, and as a result, often leave the backstory of the characters as something off in the blurry distance. The focus instead rests on the aftermath of tragedy, with very little regard to the tragedy itself. (In a film like The Road, which I will be reviewing later in the summer, the tragedy itself isn’t even made explicit, and the lives that lead up to the tragedy are never explored.)
However, in The Road Warrior the focus is on Max and his explicit tragedy and subsequent willingness to do anything to survive, even leaving someone trapped in a car to presumably die. People are nothing more than a form of currency to him, and although he does not partake in the vicious and appalling acts that the gangs commit, he often seems bored by the brutality around him and does very little to stop it. Even his great hero moment, which does eventually come, only comes because he has no other choice.
In the end he is treated as a myth, the great Herculean hero that showed up one day, set everything right, and disappeared again. I found this to one of the most hopeful of the post-apocalyptic films I have watched so far. This is a picture of humanity rebuilding its myths, fighting for the very ideas that brought us to dig in the dirt and plant seeds. Even though Max is not a part of humanity’s continuing struggle back to humanity, he knows its importance and helps fight for it. Even the most misanthropic know the value of human connection.