Sunday, June 7, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrowland and Mad Max: Fury Road

I'm sure others have noticed the supreme irony that these two movies happen to be out at the same time. If Tomorrowland is a product of 1960's optimism, Mad Max is a product of 1970's pessimism. Mad Max came out of the oil shortages of the 1970's and the birth of Neoliberalism; Tomorrowland out of the early 1960's oil glut and managerial capitalism. The 1964 Worlds Fair is an example of better living through technology brought to you by Monsanto and GM, the 1970's of oil embargoes brought to you by Arab sheiks and garbage piling up courtesy of striking garbagemen. Tomorrowland is quintessential American techno-optimism, Mad Max a shorthand for the worst possible dystopia.
So here we go.

TRIGGER WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD - I pretty much give away the entire plots of these movies, so if you care, you'll not want to read further. Still here? Okay, then, on we go:

That skyscraper looks an awful lot like Hubbert's Peak, doesn't it?
Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland is direced by Brad Bird from a script by Bird, Gene Roddenberry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and R. Buckminster Fuller. Oops, sorry, I mean Lost's Damon Lindelof.

The "where's my jetpack"? theme of Tomorrowland is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, because the entire opening sequence literally centers around a jetpack! The year is 1964, and young George Clooney, er--I mean, "Frank Walker," is taking the bus alone (where are his parents?) to the 1964 World's Fair in New York City to enter the young inventor contest. He presents his chrome plated Rocketeer-style jetpack to dour sourpuss Hugh Laurie, TV's House. House grimaces and scowls and diagnoses the boy's rare kidney disease - okay, he doesn't do that, but rejects his invention because it doesn't work. In flashback we see young George on the farm trying on the jetpack and it behaving like you would expect, it just drives him horizontally through a cornfield in a fun romp that would easily kill anyone if they actually tried it in real life. "Besides, what use is it?" harrumphs House frowning like the Grinch. "Can't it just be for fun?" smiles, young, puckish optimist George Clooney with a twinkle in his eye.

Just behind House is a young girl named Athena (goddess of wisdom, get it?) who we perceive to be his daughter. She takes a liking to young George's optimistic can-do attitude and hunts him down inside the park, handing him a special Tomorrowland pin. She tells him to follow her and her dad House into the "It's a Small World'" ride, which he does. Mercifully, we are spared the song.  Inside the ride, a trapdoor opens, and he's catapulted into a marvelous world of high-tech futurism only accessible to the ultra-elite few: Dubai.

Okay, it's not Dubai, it's the real Tomorrowland, a Grade-A, genetically modified, shiny high-tech Jetsons future on steroids and nootropics. It's filled with every sci-fi trope you can imagine - jetpacks, flying cars, monorails, robots, spaceships, skyscrapers with trees, although geodesic domes are conspicuously absent. Presumably it's all powered by nuclear power, or cold fusion, or zero-point energy, or algae, or Tinkerbell's tears, or something. A robot shows up and miraculously fixes young George's jetpack. With the jetpack now fixed by intelligent robots without him having to understand a thing, he straps it on and zips away to find Athena.

George, er, Frank, is accepted to be one of the elite scientists inside this - whatever it is - hidden compound, alternate dimension, space colony, theme park, drug trip. Considering his only qualification is a jetpack that didn't function, it seems like the recruiting criteria is rather biased. Whatever happens to his parents we're never told - is this where the missing children end up? Is Tomorrowland also using my missing socks? How Tomorrowland is funded we'll never know - is it funded by the military industrial complex? There's plenty to eat given that the entire city is surrounded by wheat fields out to the horizon - the future is apparently not gluten-free. The residents probably just all drink Soylent shakes anyway.

Unfortunately young George is in for a few grim surprises. His girlfriend is actually an android, a clear advance from Vicki the robot from the late 1980's sitcom Small Wonder, and unlike George Clooney, she stays 12 years old forever. This puts a crimp in their relationship, and not wanting to become a pederast, and with adult sex robots apparently outside the thinking of the squeaky-clean 1960's scientists of Tomorrowland, he is heartbroken (George apparently never gets a real wife or girlfriend and lives alone in his fifties- scientists are creepy).

Even worse, he invents a machine that uses tachyons - particles that travel faster than light so familiar to regular viewers of Star Trek the Next Generation - to build a machine that can see into the past. But more importantly, it can see into the future, and George sees the utter destruction of all life on earth - TEOTWAWKI in his machine. His requisite idealism shattered, George is banished from Tomorrowland for being Captain Bringdown (the effect on everyone else is unclear and pretty much ignored).

Apparently, when you leave Tomorrowland you draw a full pension, and George is able to live like a hermit and an old rickety, decrepit house in the middle of nowhere with no visible means of support, which is filled with high-tech booby traps including lasers, explosives, and a holographic guard dog. Evidently he can invent interdimensional portals but not better housing technology. There he spends his days alone in a room filled with video monitors doing nothing but watching the grim dystopia he predicted unfold before his eyes- hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, melting glaciers, droughts, political turmoil, Duck Dynasty, FOX News, the Kardashians, etc. Geez, man, get a hobby. If I knew when the end of the world was coming I'd be living it up.

Enter our plucky young heroine Casey, played by Brittany Robertson (who manages to outshine Clooney - no mean feat). She lives in Cape Canaveral and is the daughter of NASA engineer Tim McGraw, who is busily designing the latest Martian rover with Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, and Kenny Chesney. Every once and awhile Clint Black stops in to consult on interplanetary physics. Okay, that doesn't happen, but Casey is very upset that they are dismantling the launch platform because, in McGraw's words, "Dreaming is hard and giving up is easy," or something like that which sounds like the title to one of his songs. I think I have that on a T-shirt somehwere. No mention of Republican budget cuts or Ted Cruz.

At school, her gloomy teachers drone on endlessly in Ben-Stein mode about how the world is going to sh*t and how we're all living in the political dystopias of Brave New World and 1984 (I'm guessing Florida school teachers are also the victims of budget cuts). Through every speech we see our heroine with her arm raised insistently waiting to be called upon and being stubbornly ignored. Finally, when a teacher does call on her, she issues this show-stopping mic-drop: "what is anyone doing about it?" This causes the teacher to hand her a copy of Overshoot by William Catton and The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg. No, that doesn't happen, instead her teacher stands there dumbfounded like a deer in healights, mouth agape like a fish pulled out of the water, apparently having never even thought of that! Take that, pessimists!!!

Young Casey attempts to sabotage the platform demolition with drones, and while doing that in real life would earn you a felony and at least ten years in a dark hole courtesy of Homeland Security, she is released the next day with a mysterious Tomorrowland pin among her belongings. Touching the pin takes her into Tomorrowland, but she is still spatially wherever she is, leading to some uncomfortable mishaps like slamming into walls and falling down stairs. Eventually she heads to a big open field and teleports herself to the great big, shiny, beautiful future.

Artist's rendering of Google's new headquarters.
There is a bravura sequence where people are flying around with jet packs (when they crash an inflatable suit saves them - really) and taking off into space as graduation presents. Everyone is fit and healthy, and the massive buildings are probably not filled with sick people trying to stay alive like ours are, and no one is running around in those scooters like in Wall-E (a much more realistic Disney depiction of the future). Curiously, there are no television screens either, and people aren't waking around mesmerized by their cell phones. Then again, they probably get everything through brain implants, anyway. This Tomorrowland is filled with people, which makes no sense given events later in the film (see below).

Finding another identical Tomorrowland pin for sale on eBay, Casey hops on the next bus to Houston (telling her dad she's "going camping"), where the collectable store advertising the pin is manned by killer robots, including one looking like a female hipster  with cats-eye glasses and another who looks like a Reggae dude. They threaten Casey with powerful energy weapons, proving that the people of Tomorrowland weren't just working on peaceful projects all this time (and ignored Asimov's rules of robotics to boot). Small Wonder girl from George Clooney's past shows up and rescues her  and they race off in a pickup truck to George's remote fortress of solitude. 

We are informed that Athena was built especially to recruit people for Tomorrowland, based on some sort of test score that we are never told the criteria for, but assumed to be a mix of raw intelligence, creativity and optimism, much like the recruitment for Google. In fact, I can imagine Google taking notes about this idea, since they seem to be intent on building an actual Tomorrowland here on earth whose geniuses will also be hermetically sealed off from reality. I'm sure someone is already pitching holographic pins and recruitment androids to Larry Page in Mountain View right now.

Grumpy George wants nothing to do with them and tells them to go away - he's busy watching FOX News and the Kardashians. Then some more evil androids who are dressed like the villains from the Matrix show up, and our threesome escape in a rocket-ship bathtub (don't ask). Now on the run, they somehow end up in Gustauve Eiffel's secret apartment inside the Eiffel Tower, where it is revealed that the Eiffel Tower was not an architectural marvel built for the 1889 World's Fair at all, but a radio transmitter for Nikola Tesla to contact other planets (WTF? Seriously!!!) Eiffel, Jules Verne, and mortal enemies Tesla and Edison were part of some ultra-secret society/cult (called "Plus Ultra," not to be confused with MKUltra) which met in the Eiffel Tower who founded Tomorowland and were in contact with aliens/being from another dimension or something??? Apparently Einstein and H.G Wells were insufficiently practical or too socialistic to join the club. Screw you James Clerk Maxwell, James Prescott Joule, Lord Kelvin, Marie Curie, and all you other science-people the general public has never heard of! In some online info, we are informed that Uncle Walt was recruited as the chief propagandist for the movement, and built the 1964 Tomorrowland to prepare people for the big public reveal which never happened (is this also the source of UFO's?). After all, Walt Disney was already amenable to the idea of elite Aryan supermen changing the world for the better.

To top that, underneath the Eiffel Tower is a giant steampunk rocketship that takes off into outer space with our threesome while the people of Paris look on in amazement (did the French government know that was there?). Even though Tomorrowland is in another dimension, or on earth, or something, they somehow need to go into space for some reason ("This part gets weird," suggests Clooney helpfully). Somehow (?) the rocket takes them to Tomorrowland, designed by Santiago Calatrava(!!), now empty and abandoned, much like Calatrava's actual buildings here on earth. So what was Casey looking at before? Was it a time warp too?

Evil Hugh Laurie struts around in a sash, boots and leather jodhpurs, seemingly the only guy left in Tomorrowland besides the evil Matrix androids (has everyone else been banished too?). His name is actually Nix as in "let's nix that idea."  Again, subtle as a sledgehammer. He's also the same age as in George's youth because he drinks anti-aging shakes which now come in chocolate flavor (*sigh*, I am not making that up). Casey takes the globular reins of George's tachyon machine and watches a 3D movie of whatever ends the world - climate change, nuclear war, the energy cliff, the California drought, ISIS, another Bush presidency, or whatever, and then watches Matthew McConaughey flying off into space to save us. Okay, that doesn't happen. We are informed by House that TEOTWAWKI is only 58 days hence!

Seriously, what's up with all the wheat?
Then House reveals his nefarious plot - apparently he's been using George's tachyon machine to beam images of the dystopian future into the heads of everyone on earth starting, oh, I'm guessing about the time of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, to warn people and get them to roll up their sleeves and fix it, darnit. So know we know the REAL reason behind Jimmy Carter's Malaise Speech of 1979. "You have starvation and obesity at the same time, what's up with that?" cries House, practically pleading, "Why doesn't somebody do something to fix all the problems???"

But rather than treat it as the warning it was, the people of earth collectively decided they actually liked the apocalypse and started making movies like  like Escape from New York, Rollerball and The Hunger Games instead of fixing all the problems. The nerve of them!  At least they managed to elect Reagan. But, you see, the negative images are actually causing people to think negatively, and here comes THE MESSAGE - it's a self-fulfilling prophecy because everybody's so gloomy. Everything's getting worse because we think everything's getting worse, and no one does anything about it because  we all think that there is nothing anyone can do anything about it. See? The future's totally up to us!!!

Earlier, young Casey's irrepressible optimism and can-do spirit causes George's apocalypto-meter to drop from 100% chance to 99.9999 percent chance, giving him hope. Unable to convince House, however, they resort to fisticuffs. George manages to destroy the tachyon gloom-machine by using his jetpack to drop his fatally wounded childhood crush into the machine below where she blows it up and sends it crashing down onto House and all the other Doomers.

Clooney and company set to work rebuilding Tomorrowland and open a magic portal to the real world where they can bring in elite people to help them put the place back in business. Casey brings her NASA engineer dad Tim McGraw through as the first recruit, along with molecular biologists Brooks and Dunn and nuclear scientists Madison County. Clooney builds a new set of recruiting androids who for some unexplained reason must all look like multicultural children aged 10-14. They will go forth and find "special" people who make a difference (and whose test scores are high enough) and recruit them for the elite otherworldly priesthood of Tomorrowland free from politics and budget cuts forever.

So, Tomrrowland is basically the Gates Foundation? Let's hope Microsoft isn't working on a tachyon machine or we're all doomed!

As the movie ends, in a montage scene we see our young recruiting androids dropping Tomorrowland pins into the instrument cases of musicians, giving it to people protecting endangered wildlife, planting trees in Africa, designing something-or-other in modernist brick lofts, gazing into microscopes, or whatever other visual shorthand for smart people solving problems.  It seems to me it would be a whole lot easier just to pony up the $5000.00 or whatever it costs to attend the TED Conference and hand out Tomorrowland pins to all the  presenters. In fact, this whole movie might have been called TED the Movie if the name TED weren't already taken for a different  movie and the sequel were coming out later this year.

Finally, at the very end of the movie, the national debt is paid off, poverty is eliminated, climate change is reversed, oil is phased out, GMO foods, aquapaonics and and artificial meat eliminate starvation, the hyperloop gets built along with the moon colony, space tourism takes off, cancer is cured, the Amazon rain forest is replanted, the ice caps are refrozen, the aquifers refilled, intelligent robots eliminate work and  unemployment, we all get cybernetic implants and finally make it to Mars. Okay, that part isn't shown, but you get the idea. That part you have to imagine when you leave the theater and log onto WIRED or the Singularity Hub, assuming you still have Internet service.

I left Tomorowland optimistic about the future as got in my 14-year old rusty car that doesn't start half the time into the dimly-lit parking lot and and drove home over the potholded streets avoiding all the speed traps set by cops who are trying to fill budget cuts. I'm told Tomorrowland missed expectations at the box office, meaning some people might not get THE MESSAGE. Since almost half of Americans don't have $400.00 in case of emergency, a lot of them probably couldn't scape together the 15 bucks required to see Disney's message of can-do optimism, or perhaps they were busy having their cars repossessed. I wonder how Tomorrowland played in Detroit, where in 1964 it was one of the richest middle-class cities on the planet? Or how about New York City, where, unlike in 1964, inequality levels are at the same as Rwanda's? I don't know if it will be a hit in the European market, but China is where all the action is anyway.  Oh, and speaking of Disney: - Disney Fires Workers, Then Makes Them Train Their Replacements (refinery)
In October of last year, about 250 Disney employees, white collar workers who did data management at Disney Parks, were gathered in conference rooms and told their last day on the job would be Jan. 30, 2015. But, it got worse: They also learned they'd be expected to spend their last few months training the workers who'd replace them — immigrant workers brought in on temporary visas from an outsourcing company in India, according to a New York Times report. 
“It was so humiliating to train somebody else to take over your job,” one former employee, an American man in his 40s, told the Times. “I still can’t grasp it.” 
Americans are used to jobs disappearing overseas, but this is a newer phenomena: white collar workers coming to the States on a temporary visa called H-1B, to replace American employees inside the States — mostly, so the company can cut costs. 
According to the law, that type of visa should only be given to foreigners with advanced skills when Americans can't be found to fill the positions. In other words, they shouldn't come at the expense of American jobs. In this instance, that appears not to be the case.
Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, indeed. Why doesn't somebody do something about all the PROBLEMS???

Comments:

I was reminded of this comment I saw on Naked Capitalism:
You are viewing science in a mystical/religious sense rather than as a tool for investigating nature. It’s an absolute fundamental concept of science that science can not prove anything, and getting that wrong is not a minor mistake. It’s the difference between someone who knows what science is and can use the word “science” in a conversation with intellectual honesty, and someone who can’t.
Tomorrowland is the epitome of seeing science in a mystical/religious sense rather than a tool for investigating nature, or as a way of thinking. Rather, it's depicted as a a cornucopia where all our dreams come true. Even more frustrating, it depicts scientists as some sort of ethereal priesthood removed from ordinary humanity, rather than regular people like anyone else with all the weaknesses, blindspots, biases, limitations and foibles as the rest of us. the depiction of scientists and other creative people as "special" anointed ones with the ability to solve any problem with enough grit and determination is not the solution - it's part of the problem!

I'm sure most people leaving the theaters were cheerily thinking "well, those smart people will think of something - they always do!" Tomorrowland seems almost designed to encourage this mindset. This kind of thinking is incredibly toxic. Disney calls itself the Magic Kingdom, but science is not magic. It also promotes the idea that when you wish upon a star, all your dreams will come true.that's not what science tells us. I'm also thinking of the wheatfields depicted around Tomorrowland and George's jetpack. The idea of a young farmboy tinkering in his garage and inventing a new miracle technology that changes the world has become a founding myth like George Washington and the cherry tree. You see it today with our appeals to 'entrepreneurship" to solve all our problems.

Somehow, I don;t think the causes of our problems is some all-pervasive pessimism or not enough people thinking of solutions. Lots of people are paid to do that full-time. They have apparently not heard of Sevareid's law - the major cause of problems is solutions.

Many people have written about how techno-optimism seems to be a quasi-religion in America. The original Tomorrowland was built at the end of an extraordinary period of invention which transformed an agricultural society of farmers into an urban-dwelling society of office workers enjoying all sorts of conveniences--cars, radios, televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, telephones, air travel, etc. It seemed like anything was possible. The descendant of Tomorrowland is Disney's EPCOT center (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), located in Florida. Ironically, both EPCOT center and Cape Canaveral are expected to be underwater at the end of this century, along with the entire Florida peninsula. Maybe EPCOT will be transformed into a floating community. Tomorrowland is the Vatican in the church of Progress.

The reaction of a lot of reviewers to Tomorrowland is about the same as that of Gil Scott-Heron in Whitey on the Moon. They condemn the trite simplicity of the message that if we just click our heels together and wish hard enough we can solve our problems. I guess the negative tachyons haven't entirely subsided yet. A better explanation might be that the Uberization of movie reviews mean that reviewers can't get paid anything or make a living, that is, if computers aren't writing the reviews for them, hence the eye-rolling.

In the future, hood ornaments are people. Job creation!
Mad Max: Fury Road

Which brings us to the inevitable sequel to Mildly Annoyed Max and Increasingly Perturbed Max: Mad Max:Fury Road, or as I like to call it, Burning Man gone feral, or the logical endgame for ISIS. It's post-apocalypse done right.

Unlike the ridiculous, inconsistent plot of Tomorrowland (a Damon Lindelof specialty) Mad Max's plot is simplicity itself. It's basically one long car chase sequence, where in the last act of the movie, they turn around and head back the other direction. That simplicity is a virtue as, unlike Tomorrowland, we are actually able to follow the plot (it probably helped out at the box office too, since nobody could understand what the hell Tomorrowland was about).

Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy of Star Trek: Nemesis fame replacing Mel Gibson. I'm guessing the producers wanted to avoid the all the  political baggage associated with Gibson, although in my opinion the sad, explosive disintegration of Mel Gibson's personal and professional life would have made him ideal for the role now in 2015, as opposed to the the young, fresh-faced actor at the beginning of his career. A grizzled, bedraggled, bitter man ranting about Jesus, women getting raped by packs of n*ggers and Jews controlling the world would be perfect for a post-apocalyptic hellhole, but old Mel may have objected to the anti-patriarchal tone of the movie (about which more below). Hardy has maybe ten lines of dialogue, and his main role is to grunt and look beaten down, which is harder than it seems.

Max, who is haunted in visions by the people he could not save including a little girl we take to be his daughter, is captured at the outset of the film and taken to an oasis citadel in the middle of the desert ruled by a dictator/cult leader named Immortan Joe sporting an unkempt plume of white hair and a breathing mask that makes him look like an alpha-displaying baboon, which I'm guessing is not an accident. I assume he is called "Immortan" because he has lived long past his prime because of these devices, outliving most people who probably die at, like, thirty, giving him Stalin-like cult status due to his longevity. Max is kept alive as a prisoner and used as a blood donor since a tattoo declares him to be a universal donor (type O).

What i love about Mad Max movies is how well they depict primal human social relationships when the formal institutions of society break down: clans and warlordism. We revert to tribal societies and the "big man" system where leaders are defined by 1.) Their ability to control resources and divert them to their followers - note that "lord" means "giver of loaves," early temples were grain distribution storehouses and temple priests were the first accountants. Feudalism, remember, is "government by personal relationship," and it's the most ancient and durable form of government for small-group social savannah apes such as ourselves. Typically elites were able to command more and more surplus for themselves and make everyone else dependent upon them, institutionalizing their power, as depicted here. 2.) The ability to control the thoughts and feelings of their followers and legitimate their power with religion and ideology. Early priest-kings  depicted  themselves as rainmakers with a special hotline to the gods. They used religious ideas centered around their own charismatic authority to motivate their followers and provide for social cooperation, and 3.) the ability to make war and deploy force- iron weapons, horses, tanks, etc. Early state making was defined by warfare, and the need to fight led to command-and-control hierarchical social structures.

We see this depicted viscerally early on. From a platform atop his mountain, Joe addresses the mass of desperate rabble below holding bowls and jerry-cans. He than declares that it is only though his largesse that people are able to survive. He then gives the signal and a gusher of water flows through two giant pipes sticking out of the mountain crashing down onto the parched masses below. It's the original trickle-down economics - literally!

It's interesting to note that that water is depicted as even more rare and necessary than oil to the desert dwellers - a concession to our new drought filled future perhaps? Joe then begins reading to the masses from the only book preserved in the post-apocalypse: The Bible, Atlas Shrugged. Okay, that doesn't happen, but it just as well might have, since its the logical conclusion to Ayn Rand's philosophy.I can imagine a lot of scenes like this taking place in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago, only with chariots instead of cars. "Forward to the past," as George Miller says.

So, really, Joes' source of power isn't really all that different from to today's' elites - just substitute "jobs" for "water," and "economics" for the religious cult.

Inside the mountain we see the source of Joe's power - a massive Steampunk-style pump-works powered by humans inside of giant treadwheels. He gives the signal and they start walking, pumping water from deep below the earth. He also seems to have hydroponic gardens inside the mountain, meaning he's probably the only one able to grow a lot of food, not to mention brew Fosters. Because only he controls the pumps, he is a virtual God. Actually, more like a literal god - hes is the center of his own cult of personality, surrounded by "war boys" - nuclear mutated albinos. Joe's war boys believe that dying in battle will get them to Valhalla. A simple glance from Joe causes them to go ecstatic ("He looked straight at me!!").


In the real world, these kinds of male-dominated warrior cultures often tend to reward death and place a low value on human life. Its not mentioned, but I wouldn't be surprised if these guys also get seventy-two virgins in the afterlife, since there are no women for them (why in a minute). Again, one is reminded of today's ISIS fighters. Historically, highly unequal polygynous patriarchal societies with lots of males who don't have access to women or opportunities to start families are hotbeds of war, poverty and violence, and the poverty and violence is then justified post-hoc by various religious philosophies.

In other words, the social order of Joe's citadel is depressingly realistic given what we know about human behavior and social relations. It's like Mad Max was written by historians and anthropologists, while Tomorrowland was written by engineers who have never set foot outside the lab.

Some people have criticized the use of cars and trucks in Mad Max when oil is scarce, but to me this makes perfect sense- oil is liquified modernity, and whoever controls it is sure to have power (as we already see today with nation-states instead of individuals). The ancient world's elites were defined by their ability to command and provision horses and chariots for battle (Mesopotamian kings, Indo-European chiefs, Roman equites, medieval knights, etc.), so the  control and command of oil- powered vehicles would be the symbol of a future elite it seems to me - commanding horsepower instead of horses. Internal combustion engines are an incredibly useful and powerful technology that are hard to replace or substitute, so it makes sense that as they get rarer they would be treated with almost mystical awe - heck the car is already a fetish object in the United States right now. There is certainly no logical reason for our car culture. Immortan Joe's war boys carry steering wheels as totems, smear grease on their face, make the sign of the V-8, and even ritually spray chrome on their teeth before going into battle for that shiny smile. "Machines are more permanent that human life," as director George Miller puts it.

IJ is sending Charlize Theron, aka Imperator Furiosa (Seriously, the best part of post-apocalypse is the cool names you get to have) to bring back a new shipment of fuel from wherever it is produced (fracking wells?). Despite the lack of technology, somehow Furiosa has a cybernetic left arm (?). Unbeknownst to him, Furiosa is instead making a break for it, and stowed away on board her truck is Joe's harem of wives. See, Joe has apparently monopolized all the nubile young females in the entire citadel for himself and stashed them away in a harem (everyone else being sterile and mutated from radiation or something - I don't know). Just like the real world, elite males restrict reproductive access of females to themselves to pass along their genes exclusively which probably happened in antiquity as well. We know that with the rise of agriculture around 8,000 BC only one man passed his genes along for every 17 women, and this was probably why. Access to female was partitioned by wealth, with most men ending up as slaves, servants, serfs, eunuchs, flunkies, roadkill, cannon fodder, nomads and hermits. Shades of our own future with most men having no jobs, wives or prospects in the new economy, and only a small amount of alpha males able to afford the costs to reproduce.

Furiosa and her fellow wives in Immortan Joes' harem are sick to death of being sex slaves and milking cows in the patriarchal society (he's got some sort of breast milk spigot going?). When Joe discovers the double-cross, he calls on his allies in Gas Town and Bullet Farm and sends out an army to get them back, a la Helen of Troy. His massive flotilla (drivetilla?) of cars is played off by the guy who steals the entire movie from Hardy and Theron despite having hardly any screen time - the Doof Warrior, a guitar-rocking heavy metal guy in a gas mask and red onesie, tied to a bungee cord and perched atop a massive truck filled with speakers with taiko drummers on the back. Did I mention that his  guitar is also a friggin' FLAMETHROWER!!! The Internet has gone nuts for the Doof Warrior, and collectively agrees that he alone is cooler than all 120+ minutes of Tomorrowland, as the still below proves:

This still is more awesome than all of Tomorrowland.
Geez, no WONDER people loved the post-apocalyptic future in Tomorrowland! Note to Hugh Laurie: if you want to talk people out of embracing the apocalypse, for Gods sakes, DO NOT SHOW THEM THE DOOF WARRIOR!!!

Anyway, Max spends pretty much half the early part of the movie shackled in an iron mask as a human hood ornament/portable blood bag for the war boy called Nux (not to be confused with Nix, above, or the Knights Who Say Ni. I know it's confusing). The chase scenes are marvelously done, and even though I wasn't planning on seeing this in 3D I'm glad I did - trust me, spring for the extra cost, in this case it's worth it. Interestingly, one of the reason that the movie's chase scenes are easy to watch and follow is because of George Miller's directing technique. He keeps the the center of your attention in the center of the frame at all times, so that when it's cut together, the action is seamless and easy to follow because your eyes aren't wandering all over the screen. This is the difference between a good action director and a lousy one. Somebody please inform the talentless hack Michael Bay that CGI shit spinning around the screen with no frame of reference and no concession to the laws of physics induces confusion and nausea rather than awe.


Mad Max: Center Framed from Vashi Nedomansky on Vimeo.

In his zeal to get to Valhalla Nux ends up destroying his ride, and he and his hood ornament Max end up in a standoff with Furiosa and her maidens. After freeing himself from his mask, Max says to Furiosa, "what do you think you’re looking at, sugar-tits,” rants about the Jews, and tells several of the wives, "you look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault," and orders them to "blow me!!!" Oh, sorry, that's the Mel Gibson version playing in my head. Back to the real movie.

In gratitude for getting his mask off, and with nothing else better to do, Max decides to help Furiosa and the wives get to the "green place" where Furiosa grew up, with Nux tagging along. So I guess everyone really is moving to Portland.

After  more harrowing experiences, Furiosa is united with her all-girl desert-dwelling clan. When asked where the green place is, they assume it's where Furiosa came from. D'oh, we were there all along! The sisters have been saving seeds and are ready to plant a new civilization, all they need is water. Hey, they happen to know a guy who has lots of the stuff. Rather than strike out across an impassable desert in search of someplace better, Max, Furiosa, Nux, the wives, and the Ya-Ya Sisterhood decide to return and confront Immortan Joe and his minions to get back to the water supply and plant their seeds.

You can pretty much take it from here. In the chase the other direction, Nux gives his life to save the others, Joe is killed (by having his mask ripped off - eww) along with his son Rictus (shouldn't he be called Immortan Ted or something?), The Bullet Farmer, the People Eater, the Organic Mechanic, and even the Doof Warrior (NO!!!). Returning to the citadel, they inform the confused residents that IJ is dead and the caravan is not coming back.

The film ends on a surprisingly optimistic note, with the mountain being opened up and the resources withheld for so long are turned over to the people. Joe's minions and toadies, sick of his bullying, accept the new regime without question and Furiosa and the wives become the new rulers. Max, his work done here, wanders back into the desert to continue his search for someone to help with his anger management issues, at least until the inevitable sequel: Mad Max 2: Rise of the Doof Warrior.

There's supposedly some sort feminist message here that's gotten a disproportionate amount of press coverage (they love controversy!). If there is - I'm all for it. Patriarchies suck for everyone. Rule by women is much better than sociopathic alpha males. I don't know why anyone would object to this. Yes, the men are mostly assholes, and the women decent, but this reflects real life in my experience. Kick-ass women are okay in my book. And don't forget, men are heroes too (Max and Nux).

Unlike Tomrrowland, Mad Max feels visceral and real. People behave like actual people, and the relationships have much more heft despite the breakneck action sequences and minimal dialogue. I felt much more emotionally invested in these characters and what happened to them than anything in Tomorrowland. It felt like there was actually something at stake here unlike the other movie.

In Mad Max's world, the laws of physics apply, scarcity is real, you have to make and do things yourself, and you have to know how they work. Trucks break down, require fuel, and have kill switches. Doors jam, metal rusts and bolt cutters are needed to get your metal mask off. Perhaps part of the reason it feels so visceral and real is that a lot of the visual effects and stunts were real:


Final Thoughts

Watching just how well Tomorrowland simulated the future that we thought we would actually be living in by now on the screen, I kept thinking of this memorable quote from David Graeber's article in The Baffler:
"...as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies...I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.” 
"Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?" 
"Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to happen? There are two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic (in which case, we need to know why so many intelligent people believed they were not) or our expectations were not unrealistic (in which case, we need to know what happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects)."
Graeber argues that elites prefer to trade off a more technologically-constrained future for increased power and control.
End of work arguments were popular in the late seventies and early eighties as social thinkers pondered what would happen to the traditional working-class-led popular struggle once the working class no longer existed...From the perspective of those living in Europe, North America, and Japan, the results did seem to be much as predicted. Smokestack industries did disappear; jobs came to be divided between a lower stratum of service workers and an upper stratum sitting in antiseptic bubbles playing with computers. But below it all lay an uneasy awareness that the postwork civilization was a giant fraud. Our carefully engineered high-tech sneakers were not being produced by intelligent cyborgs or self-replicating molecular nanotechnology; they were being made on the equivalent of old-fashioned Singer sewing machines, by the daughters of Mexican and Indonesian farmers who, as the result of WTO or NAFTA–sponsored trade deals, had been ousted from their ancestral lands. It was a guilty awareness that lay beneath the postmodern sensibility and its celebration of the endless play of images and surfaces. 
[...] 
By the sixties, conservative political forces were growing skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading Soviet threat allowed for a reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic arrangements, or indeed directions that could support a campaign of reversing the gains of progressive social movements and achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites saw as a global class war. The change of priorities was introduced as a withdrawal of big-government projects and a return to the market, but in fact the change shifted government-directed research away from programs like NASA or alternative energy sources and toward military, information, and medical technologies.
Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit (The Baffler)

It strikes me that in America today we have people with devices straight out of Tomorrowland walking around looking they just stepped straight out of Mad Max. I thought of this during a recent trip to Target. Much of the American public, especially in economically depressed areas, look like extras from Max Max as James Howard Kunstler often likes to point out. Giant bloated and distended bodies, shaved heads, outlandish hairstyles, long scraggly beards, elaborate tattoos covering much of the body, piercings in every orifice, and garish ill-fitting clothing including leather biker-wear are all de rigeur everywhere in modern-day Middle America, as any trip to Wal-mart will prove. Yet these same people have computers straight out of Tomrrowland in their pockets, swipe credit cars to pay for merchandise from the other side the world, have artificial pacemakers and titanium hips implanted inside them, and find their way around with satellite navigation.

And again I'm thinking of Dubai. Nowhere on earth looks more like the actual Tomorrowland than Dubai, except surrounded by the parched deserts of Mad Max rather than amber waves of grain. But most of us will never set foot in Dubai. It's for an international jet-set elite. Just like the interdimensional Tomorrowland, it is inaccessible to most of us.

And that's the problem.We don't see tent cities surrounding Tomorrowland; in Tomorroland there are no homeless spikes. Its tall buildings are not reed-like Pikettyscrapers designed to optimize sales for footloose absentee owners which lie darkened and empty half the time. But Tomorrowland does depict scientists and elites living in a world separate from the rest of us, and that's looking uncomfortably like the real world. From gated houses in the Hollywood hills, to"enterprise zones" like Guragon in India, to Google's human terrarium in California, to Bangkok where a few malls use more energy than entire provinces, to plans to set up seasteading "tech-incubators" outside of international laws and labor regulations, the rich are seceding from society, and in place of technologies to benefit us all, they see us as just another resource to be extracted, used, and thrown away if inconvenient. Anyone outside of Tomorrowland had better fend for themselves is the new reality; and most of us are on outside. Rather than technocrats with a conscience, the tech elite are behaving more like Immortan Joe. It's Tommorrowland's technology coupled with Mad Max's social relations. It's like a movie where Tomorrowland is surrounded by the oil-guzzling hot-rod barbarians of Mad Max.

In the same part of the world as the futuristic city of Dubai with its indoor ski slopes, artificial islands, medical rejuvenation facilities, and kilometer-high skyscrapers, is the Islamic State, a self-described Caliphate ruled by Sharia Law straight out of the thirteenth century, which is currently charging across the Middle East, beheading people, and torching oil refineries. This seems to be the bellwether of our future. And therein lies the contradiction. Which one is spreading and which is receding?  It's not Tomorrowland versus Mad Max, they seem to be both occupy exactly the same space like the imaginary Tomorrowland depicted in the movie and our world. I know which one I live in. One thing's for sure - it probably won't have a happy ending.
 
Mad Max reminds us that its is still possible us to find hope and redemption in a world gone mad. To me, that's going to be a far more important lesson for most of us than Tomorrowland's simplistic bromides about wishing for a shiny jetpack future.

Your world in 2015.

13 comments:

  1. Great piece thank you. It saves me watching at least one of the movies.

    "But most of us will never set foot in Dubai. It's for an international jet-set elite. Just like the interdimensional Tomorrowland, it is inaccessible to most of us"

    One thought on Dubai, I know a lot of aspirational middle class types who have visited Dubai. For a lot of my countrymen it seems to have some kind of glamor although based on their reports it sounds pretty much like a ghastly if over sized mall.

    As with Tomorrowland the dream of reaching places like it distracts people the reality most are moving into.

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    1. Maybe in Europe, but I think hardly any Americans want to go there, even people with money. Personally, I don't see the appeal - let's spend a lot of money to go sit in a tall building in the middle of the desert?

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  2. I've seen other reviews of both movies; this was by far the best, tho it must be noted that the others didn't set themselves free by declaring a spoiler alert and going over the whole plot of each. The best part, of course, is that he doesn't limit himself to a thorough analysis of both movies, but also contrasts both with reality and with prior and current notions about the future.

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    1. I assume that by now people have either already seen the movie or don't care enough to mind finding out what the plot is. Of course, most reviewers don't have that luxury.

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  3. Thanks for writing this because I can't afford movies.

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    1. I suppose security is too tight nowadays to sneak in anymore.

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  4. Well, when a trillion dollars a year is flushed away by the military industrial complex, I don't wonder where the future went. A trillion dollars a year spent on construction instead of destruction would have transformed this whole planet into Tomorrowland between 1980 and today. Instead, we have Mad Max beyond Tomorrowland.

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    1. http://crooksandliars.com/2015/06/report-reveals-85-trillion-missing

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  5. The Mad Max films are all far more thoughtful and reflective than commonly given credit for. What I love about them all is how despite entertaining you with violence, they also convey convincing cautionary anti-war, anti-violence messages. Look at how the opening monologue to The Road Warrior reflects the Cold War tensions of the early 80s and the hubris of industrial civilisation:

    "For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war, and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel they were nothing. They'd built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped."

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    1. I think what people miss about post-apocalyptic dystopias is that even when they are over the top they reveal so much about our world and the fundamental human condition. It’s social relations stripped to their bare essence which is why people find them so compelling in our safe/sanitized corporate zoo.

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