Whose Survival? Mad Max: Fury Road and Two Forms of Human Adaptation
Judging by what I read about the new Brad Bird film Tomorrowland, he and I share a general distaste for apocalyptic pessimism. Where we appear to separate is in the way that Bird’s apparently future-oriented optimism is more directed toward the past, reveling in retrograde utopias planned and built by/for scientific experts. But for me calls for blind optimism are almost as wearisome as stark nihilism. Mad Mad: Fury Road surprised me in that it ended up avoiding both traps.
After setting up a world of absolute environmental degradation, a rot so deep it contaminates human beings’ bodies, it offers the audience a utopian escape as bate. Roughly following the plot of a high-octane Book of Exodus, Fury Road gives us a Moses in Imperator Furiosa, an Egypt built on slavery and profane religion in the Citadel, and the light of a Promised Land in the distance. All at once, however, the film snuffs out that utopian spark and presents our protagonists with a remarkable choice: flee the world into oblivion or return to overthrow the Citadel and put its parasitism to death.
This parasitism manifests most obviously in a patriarchal form, as women in the Citadel function almost as pure property, comparable to the pigs milling underground in Beyond Thunderdome. But their subjugation is not the only one, and the film dedicates a large portion of its plot to the redemption of a War Boy, Nux, to illustrate this point. Women are hooked up to milking machines like livestock and interred in bank vaults, their bodies treated as little more than machines for biological and social reproduction. Why Imperator Furiosa is an exception to this rule is unclear, though her status as a janissary kidnapping victim/favoured slave might explain it.
Stopping there, however, would leave out the other important social group that resides in the Citadel, namely the War Boys. Their muscles provide the energy that keeps the Citadel’s machinery running, especially the symbolic lift that separates the two worlds. Promised glory and a redemptive afterlife as compensation for absolute obedience and their shortened “half-lives,” the War Boys are subjected body and soul to the parasite just as the women are, albeit to differing degrees and effects. Because their bodies are perceived as more dangerous than the women’s, the men are indoctrinated, at least treated to the illusion of Valhalla and integrated into the ideological and military power of the Citadel rather than just being its chattel. All the same, Nux and his comrades are nothing more than war fodder in the end, far more accessories to their muscular vehicles than actual human beings. After all, when the political cartoon caricature of a capitalist, the People Eater, counts the cost of their expedition to reclaim Immortan Joe’s “property,” he has no room on the bottom line for the War Boys caught under the wheels of their own chariots. All the while, of course, the expendable masses teem below looking for drops of water; little bits of survival, dispensed for the sole purpose, it seems, of giving Joe an army of abject subjects at his mercy. All of these modes of exploitation and oppression are qualitatively different, but those who struggle struggle against a common dehumanizing foe, personified by Joe and his army of machines.
What I find most enlightening and entertaining about Fury Road and its themes is its depiction of different forms of human survival. It is not content to use “survival” in the most generic sense to justify resignation or an exploitative revelry in violence. There is an element of catharsis in the spectacle here, but the main emotional release in the film comes at the end when the weak overcome the strong and the revolution happens. Survival is initially just a basic fight or flight for Max, who uses his car to flee from danger. Like all the characters in the film, though, he cannot escape the Citadel, whether in body or in mind, and that drives him into the story in the first place. Survival means something different to the rulers of the Citadel and its satellites in the Bullet Farm and Gas Town: parasitizing on the power of human capacity to think, to work, to fight, to reproduce the species. For Furiosa and the refugee sex slaves, though, once we find out that Eden has been swamped and spoiled, survival can only mean liberation. It is that final definition that the film favors in the end: abolition. It rejects the simplified world of the parasite, where things are as they are and human beings’ beautiful strength is alienated and sucked into its great iron guts. This view is the view of the oppressed masses, who are the only ones who really recognize that humanity itself cannot survive by this slow cannibalism.
One of Robert Biel’s most important themes in his magnificent book The Entropy of Capitalism is that capitalism is something like a parasitic organism, keeping its hosts––humanity or nature to twist Spinoza’s phrase––alive only so as to capitalize on their abilities to perpetuate itself. Alienation and exploitation, the ravages of militarism and the exacerbation of scarcity for the purpose of accumulating more and more in the dragon’s hoards: these are the death throes of a system without a future. Humanity only has a future without the parasite, the barbarism that so clearly manifests itself in visions like Fury Road. We have all the information we need to see that capitalism has to be destroyed, and it will be our own conatus, our own right to preserve our own being, that will finally put it to death that we might find life.