What Mad Max’s Hellscape Tells Us About Religion and Politics In 2015

Tom Hardy portrays the title character in a scene from “Mad Max: Fury Road.” (Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Tom Hardy portrays the title character in a scene from “Mad Max: Fury Road.” (Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Theatergoers will flock this weekend to an imagined story set in a steampunky dystopian hellscape. Or will they just be looking in a mirror?

We’re all about the apocalypse and its aftermath these days, from “The Walking Dead” to “The Last Man on Earth.” So it’s not surprising that the 1980s dystopian “Mad Max” franchise has been revived, this time with actor Tom Hardy swapped in for Mel Gibson as the wandering eponymous hero. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which releases this weekend, is the rare blockbuster that will likely please critics and action-loving audiences alike.

It is a little surprising that we spend so much time and money on watching stories about all the horrible ways our civilization will end. But the preoccupation is not new. Since humans started telling stories, we’ve been imagining the end: how it will come, who will survive and what will happen afterward.

The genre of apocalyptic literature has always been both religious and political, meant to pull back the curtain and show us what’s really going on behind our everyday reality. Ancient readers of the Book of Revelation, for instance, would have understood it as both a prophecy about the end of time and as a specific critique of the Roman Empire.

One great way to see what a culture thinks about ultimate reality is to take a peek at its apocalypse stories. “Mad Max” is plenty entertaining, but it also tells us something about what we believe about the warring forces that drive human behavior — and where we think our salvation lies.

The first “Mad Max” installment was released in 1979, and according to James McCausland, who co-wrote the screenplay with George Miller, it was “based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.” Our own greed and lack of respect for limits, in other words, brought on the apocalypse.

In this fourth installment — released 30 years after the third one — the force of evil is a regime that withholds a vital life force from the poor: water. It does so through maintaining a monopoly. To those who join in maintaining this power, it gives the promise of heaven, or in this case, Valhalla, the Norse hall of the gods to which Viking warlords aspired to go in the afterlife. The mantra: “I live. I die. I live again!”

The imagery here is all deeply religious and elemental — most obviously the Citadel and the surrounding landscape itself, resembling most of Dante’s “Inferno” circles collapsed into one fiery, dry, nightmarish hell that swings between great excess and great poverty. Sufferers are taunted by just enough water to make them feel its absence. Some prisoners are kept as human blood bags and milk producers.

The war rig is literally fronted by a blinded electric guitarist ecstatically playing loud rock ‘n roll, backed by drummers. We discover that Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has rescued a group of beautiful women kept as sex slaves. They’re headed for “the green place,” and when they get close they see a tree that clearly recalls images of the Tree of Life.

In between all the heart-pounding action is a quiet tale of people defeating evil after all decent civilization has broken down. “Mad Max” asks, and answers, an important question: In this godforsaken world, what actually matters? What can turn the subjugated subhuman back into a person?

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Alissa Wilkinson

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