With recent analyses of the record-breaking drought in the Western states in front of mind, I thought a big budget movie about what happens in an age of peak everything, would be just the ticket. So this Memorial Day Weekend, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road.
For you fans of the Mad Max I, II, and III*, this stunning new 3D release picks up the post-apocalyptic narrative of resource depletion – fuel, water, women of child-bearing age – where a constant state of warfare on the move is the norm. In these, and in others of its ilk, humanity has done something profoundly stupid and profane to the environment and each other, and a price must be paid. The Mad Max franchise sets a high bar for fast-paced chases and thrilling stunts, and this one is no exception. Critically acclaimed, it will likely be around through this summer for your viewing pleasure, and may even make back its sizeable budget.
Our fascination with end of the world narratives is of ancient origin. Most share plot lines familiar enough to be plausible, and possibly serve as a morality tale, even a way forward. In the post-apocalyptic format, humans survive to face a world only movie makers can imagine. Sometimes, they end with more whimper than bang, e.g. The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same title. Critically well-regarded, The Road was only a modest success. For a big box-office hit, we want heroes; we prefer that someone (or something) intervenes and saves humanity in a splashy and surprising way. Enter Mad Max (Tom Hardy), but equally, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Cue the dusty, ragged, cheering extras in the final scene of Mad Max: Fury Road, when the chief villain has been dispatched, and precious water, stored in giant aquifers beneath The Citadel, is released. As in a classic Western to which it has been compared, Fury Road offers resolution, if not quite redemption, at the end. Max survives his inner and outer demons and melts into the tumult; Furiosa, revived by a transfusion of his blood, lives to fight another day. You are probably not surprised that the script for the sequel, Mad Max: Furiosa, is already written and the leads cast.
We walk away from this movie with enough adrenalin coursing through our systems to last all evening, and plenty of substance to talk about. The latter, for me, is what makes a film great. As I poked around the reviews, I was surprised and pleased to discover this note: “Eve Ensler, author of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ consulted with [Director, George] Miller on the script—which suggests that women, as the creators of new life, will, inherently, always be the gender that holds hardest onto hope for the future. Furiosa looks at the insanity of the male leadership around her and decides enough is enough.” Rogerebert.com. Go Vuvalinis!
But we don’t know who to cheer for, who will roll the credits on the story of drought, or how this movie may end. For some educated guesses and possible plot twists ahead, I recommend you take in two fine reports on California’s drought from recent editions of The New Yorker. The most personally resonant is Dana Goodyear’s The Dying Sea: What Will California Sacrifice to Survive the Drought? Sacrifice? What an old-fashioned, Greatest Generation, idea that is. And yet, browner lawns and shorter showers don’t begin to match what will be required to address drought in the West, and not just by the locals.
The dying sea of the title is the Salton Sea, a shallow, increasingly saline, giant inland lake located on the San Andreas Fault (another summer blockbuster to be released) and in the farm-saturated Imperial and Coachella Valleys. When we owned a condo in the Palm Springs area in the 90s, we once took a detour to find a lunch spot at the Salton Sea on the way to Phoenix. It was already well past its heyday as a resort, dotted now with a full array of seedy motels and diners, and biker gangs. But the defunct towns and film noir aspects of the region are the less important story. The health emergency for local residents caught in a modern Dust Bowl is the real wake up call. Here’s the link.
The opening photo of the parched, cracked earth of Lake Mead tells the story before you read a word of Where the River Runs Dry: The Colorado and America’s Water Crisis, by David Owen (currently, The New Yorker’s most popular article). The article gives a dense and fascinating history of water battles of the past and yet to come for a region dependent on one, endangered water source, the Colorado River, “The legal right to use every gallon [of which] is owned or claimed by someone.” If you think it is easy to distinguish the heroes from the villains in this unfolding story of water rights that “originated in the California Gold Rush,” you’re better off turning once again to the Hollywood version, Chinatown, the 1974 Oscar favorite, “set in 1937 and portray[ing] the manipulations of a critical municipal resource [for the city of Los Angeles] – water – by a cadre of shadowy oligarchs.” (Wikipedia) It’s an old story, and we need a new one with a better outcome.
See also my reposting from Zero-Waste Chef for more on what we in other parts of the country can do to mitigate California’s water crisis now. Stop buying bottled water, and for your fruits and vegetables, stay local, my friends.
Peak Everything, Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers
Chinatown, Roger Ebert review
*1979 cult classic film Mad Max, directed by George Miller, presents a world in which oil resources have been nearly exhausted. This has resulted in constant energy shortages and a breakdown of law and order. The police do battle with criminal motorcycle gangs, with the end result being the complete breakdown of modern society as depicted in Mad Max 2 and after nuclear war as depicted in the third sequel film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The opening narration of Mad Max 2 implies that the fuel shortage was caused not just by peak oil, but also by oil reserves being destroyed during a large-scale conflict in the Middle East. The remnants of society survive either through scavenging, or in one notable case, by using methane derived from pig feces. (Wikipedia)