Sunday, August 09, 2015

The future isn't what it used to be

Two recent films couldn't be more at odds in their vision of the future. Mad Max: Fury Road is the long-awaited continuation of the Mad Max movie series. The movie is essentially a relentless chase scene set in a world burned to desert by climate change and bereft of civilization which has long since vanished in a haze of war and resource shortages.

(Spoiler alert: In this piece I discuss many events at the end of each film. For Mad Max fans this should make no difference in their enjoyment of the long and injurious chase scenes that are the meat of the film. I do not see how the confusing concatenation of nonsequiters that make up Tomorrowland could be ruined by my commentary. But, those who want to see the film without knowing the end should read no further--until they return from a showing.)

In Disney's Tomorrowland something's gone wrong in the mysterious Platonic dimension of forms called Tomorrowland which communicates with and influences the real world of today. Hugh Laurie plays the ruler of Tomorrowland. He laments that he has been sending messages to the real world for years about all the stupid things people are doing: wasting resources, changing the climate, polluting the planet, engaging in senseless wars. But almost no one seems to be listening. For those few who are, all they do is talk about the negative without offering any solutions.

By now--meaning present-day global society--we were supposed to have gleaming, clean, clockwork cities everywhere--with flying cars, of course. So, where did we go wrong?

The answer according to the scriptwriters is that we failed to dream big enough. We lost faith in the modern project--my words, not theirs--and that faith needs to be restored. So, animatronic emissaries are sent from Tomorrowland to bring "dreamers" from our own lowly dimension to Tomorrowland in order to stimulate their spirits and help them envision a glorious technotopian future. There is nothing inherently wrong or self-destructive about modernism. We just have to redouble our efforts.

But, isn't doing the same thing and expecting different results defined as insanity somewhere? And besides, Tomorrowland appears to be a dictatorship. That should give us pause even though Laurie's character is killed in the end. But I digress.

With one line of dialogue we can summarize the contrast between the film Tomorrowland and Mad Max: Fury Road. Most of the way through the very long and desperate segmented chase scene that makes up the bulk of Fury Road, the eponymous Max has a relatively quiet moment to deliver one of the few lines of dialogue in the film. He speaks to his new buddy Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) with whom he ends up (accidentally) making common cause to escape from his former warlord captor who happens to be her former warlord boss. Max tells her: "Hope is a mistake."

It turns out that he's wrong, that is, wrong with regard to subsequent action in the film. And, a lot of people and hardware get chewed up to prove it. If there ever were a film to illustrate the notion of creative destruction, this is it. There is a surprising amount of sentimentality conveyed (usually wordlessly) during the heat of the mayhem and during the few moments when it is in abeyance. The new connections that are made on this fiery journey lead to a more enlightened leadership of the groveling masses when the nasty warlord is finally extinguished.

This is a minor consolation in what otherwise appears to be a desert road rally gone wrong and turned into something resembling the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. After all is finished, there is still very little water for the people of the desert settlement--though it is now shared more liberally and fairly. Fuel for the ubiquitous engines-of-war-on-wheels is still extremely precious. In short, the people are now going to act out of solidarity rather than fear to deal with the very lousy cards they've been dealt. It's progress, but not the Disney kind.

In Tomorrowland there is some higher intelligence guiding our inevitable progress and ultimate triumph over the forces of nature. This film is a badly written exposition of the modern myth, namely, that humans are inexorably heading toward a technotopian future guided by some innate wisdom that insures not only that humans will survive, but that they will thrive while building ever greater monuments to civilized life--following the template of Tomorrowland, of course.

In Mad Max: Fury Road if there is some higher intelligence guiding human destiny, we do not see or feel it. Humans left to their own devices will ruin everything on Earth. They will ultimately leave it barely habitable for the few who survive. And, the only slim reed of hope is to ignore Max's dictum and focus on building relationships that are based on something other than fear and domination.

The Mad Max franchise survives not because people take its prognostications seriously, but because it is good entertainment. Most moviegoers unconsciously project their apocalyptic fears onto these films to obtain a catharsis. This allows them to put aside any serious concerns about the future as mere fantasy.

But there are a few viewers who take the film as an indication of the anxieties we face about a society based primarily on finite resources--resources which must be extracted at ever-increasing velocities to satisfy unquenchable demand. This is something that by definition can't go on forever and yet, we humans appear to be putting on no real brake--very much like the characters in the Mad Max films who almost never tap the brakes in their nonstop militarized speed-a-thon that is a metaphor for our modern way of life.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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