Film * George Miller * Post-Oil Apocalypse * 1981
Ever since the credits rolled on this one, I’ve been trying in vain to think of a situation where the sequel to a movie surpassed the original to such a massive extent. The original Mad Max was not a very good film. I can forgive a low budget if there’s a story and a vision, but that movie was such an incoherent, noisy mess I just couldn’t understand the reverence some have for it. Luckily, enough people saw something there to give Miller another crack at it, this time with a little more money to enhance his vision. I was skeptical going into The Road Warrior, but it won me over pretty much right away.
Where Mad Max lacked any kind of context, The Road Warrior takes a hot minute to bring the audience up to speed concerning the state of the world. It goes a long way to grounding an otherwise kinetic, impressionist film. That’s all I ever needed from the first movie! Just a few seconds of stock footage of World War II and an narrator telling me “yo, World War III happened and everyone blew each other up and also there’s no gasoline.” That last bit is actually the most important part, which I’ll examine later on. As for the story itself, that little bit at the beginning is all we need to understand why everything is so utterly fucked. Well, the expanded budget helps a lot as well.
Don’t get me wrong, The Road Warrior is not some mega-budget blockbuster. Not even by 1981 standards. Dudes are clearly running around in used shoulder-pads with spikes sewn into them. It’s just that Mad Max was made on so little that even the modest increase in budget is instantly noticeable. The world feels ground-down and desperate. The desolation of the setting helps as well, because this film is Australian as all hell. There is no attempt made to hide this, and I appreciate hearing Mel Gibson’s proper accent (fun imdb fact, he was born in NYC, which surprised me because I assumed he was a natural Australian, turns out no, we have to claim him). Anyway, the cash infusion gives the world a much-needed identity that the first film lacks.
All right, enough about the first movie. Let us never speak of it again. The Road Warrior takes place on a blistering stretch of desert highway in a desolate wasteland. It is about two opposing camps of survivors, and the lone wanderer caught between them. We are first introduced to the baddies, who wear black leather and race around on motorcycles and are scavenging, raiding, douchebags. Max, who is our wasteland ranger, is ever on the hunt for gasoline to power his ridiculous car. He has a cute dog. In this opening scene, he gets into a tussle with the bad mens and prevails for the moment. The first antagonist is a crazy motorcycle-man with an aversion to pants and a liking for a pretty little blonde boy. I’m not kidding about the pants thing, by the way, this dude’s ass steals every scene it’s in. Butts!
The good guys are all dressed in white because these films do not trade in subtlety. They have built themselves a large camp in the middle of the desert, which is a small wasteland fortress surrounding a working oil pump. There is also a large tanker full of refined gasoline, which is a treasure beyond worth in this horrible future beyond the oil economy which still somehow relies on lots of gas-powered vehicles. Maybe don’t think about that too much (because I will do it for you, in a moment). The good guys have the gas, which they would like to transport to some fledgling civilization out on the coast, for the benefit of humanity. The baddies would like that gas for themselves, so they can continue their outlaw lifestyle of murder and rape. Max would like some of that gasoline so that he can continue wandering the wastes in search of inner peace, or something. I don’t know, he is very mysterious. Obviously, these three things cannot co-exist, so things blow up real good.
Let’s talk about the oil economy a little bit, because this is what is at the root of every Mad Max movie. This is made clear by the helpful bit of narration which begins The Road Warrior: “To understand who he was, you have to go back to another time, when the world was powered by the black fuel, and the desert sprouted great cities of pipe and steel.” I really like that last image, so please take a moment to appreciate it. Okay, now that you’ve enjoyed that bit of language, what this opening accomplishes is twofold. The first, as I’ve mentioned, is to give the setting and story some much needed context. Most of the film is a horrible, beautiful ballet of death and destruction, but at least now we understand why this has happened. The second accomplishment is to root the film in an actual historical time and place, which is to say at the tail end of the Age of Oil.
Well, that might be a little dramatic, considering it’s over thirty years later and fools are still out here driving in big, dumb SUV’s. Let’s back up a little, then. I’ve spent a good deal of time talking about the unfettered technological progress humanity has achieved over the last 150 years or so. The rate of discovery and advancement is unparalleled in human history, and many of the artistic endeavors of this time period have been reacting to this trend in one way or another. It turns out that human society can’t really handle these advancements very well, as two World Wars can attest. I know I bring this up often, but there is no hyperbole to match the sheer velocity of our technological advancement as we hurtle into the unknown 21st century. An obvious question is: how did this begin?
The answer is obviously long and complicated, with many interlacing answers. I mean, we’re talking about an unprecedented trend of scientific and technological advancement which the world has never seen before. I don’t have the time and you don’t have the patience to get into all of that. So in the interest of short attention spans, I will give you the unthinkably abbreviated answer. Oil. Now, the Industrial Revolution didn’t “start” in any one place. But it did become a viable transition to a new world order because of coal. Coal represented a cheap, abundant source of energy. With that cheap, easy energy, one could power all sorts of machines and inventions that were previously in the realm of magic and fantasy. Once people figured out that coal could be used to ramp up production of all sorts of things, it was only a matter of time before people figured out that its liquid cousin would be even more valuable.
The true value of oil wasn’t really understood until the mid-to-late 19th century. However, once the applications of this substance was known, production ramped up with the same breakneck speed as everything else. The difference with oil is, however, that its refining and use in production greatly sped things along. Machines that were clanking along with steam and coal power were made vastly more efficient and fast, and the whole great machinery of civilization soared. Literally. We learned to fly, and powered all that knowledge and advancement with cheap, abundant, easily transported fuel. Not only did this nigh-magical fuel source power new-fangled cars and power plants and trains and tanks and whatever, but soon other uses were discovered. Oil production begets natural gas, another cheap, abundant fuel source. Not only that, but it was eventually discovered that petroleum products can make plastics. Or be used to create efficient, cheap, and potent fertilizers. And tires and asphalt and a thousand other things we don’t think about. The point is, oil is the backbone to modern civilization. There is no way to sustain the lives of 7 billion people (and counting!) without it.
The problem here should be obvious. Oil is not a renewable resource. There is only so much in the ground, and once it’s gone, it will take many millions of years to make more. The inherent limitations here are clear. If every aspect our society – from transportation to production to farming – is utterly and completely dependent upon one fuel source, and that source disappears, we are in a fair bit of trouble. Now, there are mitigating factors to this unavoidable, certain fate. Like, we could think of another way to power civilization. However, if humanity continues to use oil, eventually it will run out. That’s not even a debate we can have with facts in the universe. At some point, we will have to stop using oil to run civilization. Either we make the effort to transition to another energy source which can do all the things cheap, abundant oil can do, or we simply run out. Obviously, the first choice would be preferable.
So far, it doesn’t seem like humanity has any real interest in that first option. It’s much easier to simply harvest as much cheap, easy oil as possible as fast as we can. The consequences of this are apparent. Since the first oil derricks were constructed in the fields of Pennsylvania in the late 19th century, we’ve gone full speed ahead with the harvesting and use of oil. By the mid 1970’s, the United States had pretty much tapped itself out of all the easy-to-reach oil. Any further extraction would require technology which did not yet exist to extract more difficult stores of oil. It was more economical to simply buy foreign oil, which was still easy and abundant in the Middle East. The problem with that is, the Middle East is not a stable region, socio-politically speaking. In the late 70’s, they got mad at us and shut off their source of oil.
This did not go well for us! Our economy tanked as fuel prices skyrocketed and America had a glimpse of the grim, post-oil future. This is when Mad Max was conceived. It is this realization that created the post-apocalypse of The Road Warrior. We’re not so much as addicted to oil as we are dependent on it to continue existing. Obviously, individuals can exist just fine without it, as we have done for millennia. Modern civilization, on the other hand, cannot.
The world of The Road Warrior is one built in a post-oil society. The resource still exists, except that it is neither cheap nor abundant. It is still necessary for survival and for the foundation of society. When gasoline shows up, it is instantly contested by various powers. It’s an immediate source of conflict. Nobody questions this, or seems very interested in figuring out another way to live. Even after everything has fallen apart, and the old cities have burned and died, humanity refuses to revert back to the old ways. Why ride a camel when you can drive a fuckin’ bad ass, modded-out Interceptor around the wastes? In this sense, The Road Warrior is a pessimistic film. Humanity is terminally short-sighted. Why learn a new mode of existence when you can fight and kill for the old one?
I’ll end this by catching up to 2017. After the fuel crisis of the late 70’s, a few things changed. First, car companies stopped making ridiculous, inefficient boat-cars and switched to little compact economy cars. The 80’s were terrible for cars, and most of the ire is directed at these little crapboxes. As someone who spent childhood summers riding around on the blistering vinyl seats of a Chevy Citation, I have a visceral hatred for those fucking things. Still, it was industry trying to mitigate the effects of a fuel shortage. Soon enough, however, The UK figured out an efficient way to get at that hot North Sea oil and OPEC remembered how much it liked money and turned the taps back on for us. By the 90’s oil was cheap and abundant again, and everyone was happy and buying giant SUV’s and we all instantly forgot any lessons learned from a scant few years prior.
The new millennium dawned, we started bombing the shit out of the Middle East, and things started getting wiggy again. Oil prices skyrocketed to over $100 a barrel (which is still insanely cheap considering all the things we use oil for, but whatevs) and suddenly we’re looking at another crisis. This was due to many things. One, the North Sea reserves started to tap out, and it’s likely the vast Saudi Arabian reserves are playing out as well. Those are pretty much the last of the easy, cheap-to-exploit oil fields. However, technology has come to the rescue once more, because when it became apparent that the easy stuff was quickly becoming scarce, we created another alternative.
No, nothing renewable, you goof. Nah, we learned how to exploit tar-sands! Previously, this kind of oil field was considered way too expensive to bother with. Lots and lots of mining and refining and all kinds of difficult, dangerous, dirty things were needed to make it usable. Well, once the easy stuff was gone it was still cheaper and easier to use this stuff than to develop something else. And that’s pretty much where we’re at. Alberta and North Dakota are full of the stuff, and right now they’re booming. Oil is kinda cheap again. It will never be as cheap or abundant as it was in the heady days of the 50’s, of course, but it’s enough to keep civilization rolling along for a while longer yet. So long as we refrain from blowing everything up, we can avoid the Road Warrior future for another few decades at least.
Oh, and I can’t believe they killed the fucking dog.