Mad Max Fury Road
The Lost Meaning of Revolution
Revolution:activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation.-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
George Miller’s new retelling of his Mad Max fable is a movie about revolution, a word much devalued in our current age. It is set in a time in the not too distant future when control of water has become control of life and politics. The CEO of the company that controls both the lives and the water resouces of a parched land rules with an iron hand and doles out the water with just enough frequency to keep the populace under his sway. Those of us who have treked the vast deserts of Australia, Africa(where the movie was filmed) or America’s Southwest know that Miller’s conceit is not too far fetched. In 1997 I was the Executive Producer on a PBS documentary series called Cadillac Desert about water and the west. The metaphor of the title (from Marc Reisner’s book) was that water was a luxury in a part of our land that was never really meant to be settled by humans.
Mad Max takes us on an epic road chase that has echoes of John Ford mixed with Hieronymus Bosch. The amazing retro vehicles of the earlier Road Warrior movies have been taken up a few notches and the movie is as visually arresting as anything I have seen in the last few years. There are scenes of the slave labor that work off the epic photographs of Sebastian Salgado.
But what is most interesting for me is that the movie seems like an anti-Marvel epic. First, the movie is not trying to sell you action figures. There is not the least hint of branding or ancillary marketing associated with the film. Second, most of the action stunts have a real quality to them and a logic that does not take you out of the movie. I know we all laugh at the outrageous gravity and physics-defying action sequences in the Marvel universe, but George Miller will have none of that. There is a long chase sequence in Mad Max in which our protagonist, Max flies back and forth on a fifty foot pole, all while the vehicles are careening through the desert at top speed. This is not computer graphics.
But I want to come back to my first thoughts about the movie. Somewhat like the The Hunger Games, this film takes the position that when faced with tyranny and corruption, there are no half measures. Both Max (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa (an amazing Charlize Theron) are deeply damaged heroes who know there is no going back to the old system. And Miller’s film says there is no escape to some imaginary “Green Land”. That fantasy ended years ago.
Clearly most science fiction today is moving in this dystopian direction. It wasn’t always this way. When Isaac Asimov wrote I, Robot in the 1940's the idea was that humans could always make technology the servant of the greater public good. Asimov laid out the Three Laws of Robotics.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Clearly our current cultural view of the future is not so benign. Rebellion is the oxygen of current science fiction. Which leads me to the question: why is the cultural theme of “revolution” so popular with the millennial generation, which seems so politically passive?
People in Thailand use the Hunger Games Salute to signal resistance to the regime. Kids wear Che Guevara T-shirts with no idea of what he did. The word “revolutionary”is the 29th most overused marketing buzzword, according to Adam Sherk.
My guess at why the word revolution is so devalued is that we don’t understand that (to quote Webster’s)”a movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation” is hard work. The word “revolution” has been coopted by the one percent.
A long hagiographic profile of the conehead Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen in the New Yorker this week illustrates this problem. The article quotes Andy Weissman remarking about Andreessen and his ilk, that “that it’s good, it’s very good, to creatively destroy everything that has gone before.” Andreessen constantly talks about the “software revolution that is eating the world”, but when faced with the possibility that this revolution may actually be increasing income inequality, he is totally unconcerned.
But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe — America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it — Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool.
“Humanity should simply retool”. It sounds so simple. That a forty-five year old auto worker whose $24 per hour job has been replaced by a robot should just learn software coding and go to work at Google. Good luck with that. But Andreessen’s fantasy life is even wilder as he posted on Twitter.
“Posit a world in which all material needs are provided free, by robots and material synthesizers. . . . Imagine six, or 10, billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be,” particularly as “technological progress is precisely what makes a strong, rigorous social safety net affordable.”
Here is a man with a billion dollar net worth, surrounded by a fawning wife and partners, who has the gaul to imagine that he is helping move the world towards such a vision.
This is why the word revolution has almost no meaning. Marc Andreessen’s revolution is so easy. Just leave the world to him and his uber-libertarian buddies on the Forbes 400 and pretty soon we will all be living a life of leisure composing poetry and eating sushi.
Personally, like the characters in Mad Max Fury Road, I know the path towards justice and equality flows not through software but through struggle. In the movie it is a war of all against all, but here in the real world it is a political struggle. It doesn’t have to be violent, and as Dr. King proved, non-violence resistance and voting are the clearest path to victory. Let’s hope the milennial’s fascination with on screen revolution could be translated to the hard work of social change.