The future. We spend the first half of our lives wishing it would hurry up and get here. We spend the last half dreading its inevitable arrival. It’s a place of fantasies and nightmares, hopes and fears and none of them ever quite match the reality when tomorrow eventually becomes today. Hollywood has been exploring those fears and fantasies since it began but cinema’s view of the future almost always comes with a particular slant.
Filmmakers love dystopias. For every one movie that imagines a future you’d be happy to see, there’s a hundred about a world to come that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. While Hollywood has spent most of its existence romanticizing the past, presenting us with versions cleaner and kindlier than what it was really like, the motion pictures of our destiny from “Metropolis” (1927) until today have usually been dark, dysfunctional and depressing.
What’s the fascination and what do dystopian films tells us about the times in which they were made? That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will ponder as we pit “Mad Max” (1979) vs. “Gattaca” (1997) to determine if there’s more insight to be found in physical hardship or spiritual annihilation.
Most people are probably familiar with “Mad Max.” The younger among us due to the franchise’s revival in 2015 with the commercially successful and critically acclaimed “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The older of us remember it for launching a post-apocalyptic subgenre of people with goofy hairdos and football shoulder pads. You might have gotten through the 1980s without seeing the original but there’s no way you missed “The Road Warrior” (1981), “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) or all of the umpteen dozen other flicks that ripped off the same premise of societal collapse leaving the highways a murderzone ruled over by gun-toting barbarians in their high octane autos of destruction.
But even if you’ve seen it, you may not have thought much on two very odd things about “Mad Max.”
- It may be the only film franchise where all of the sequels are better than the original. Not everyone agrees “The Empire Strike Back” (1980) is superior to “Star Wars” (1997) and almost any James Bond fan would rank “Dr. No” (1963) above what we got from Timothy Dalton or the end of the Roger Moore era. But there’s not much of an argument about “Mad Max.” It’s a pretty basic and low budget revenge tale given an inspired setting, with the sequels all being better made and both narratively and morally more complex and compelling.
- Though it spawned a defined subgenre of post-apocalyptic cinema, “Mad Max” is not post-apocalyptic…unless you consider The Great Depression an apocalypse. There is economic hardship and societal breakdown but “Mad Max” still has police and lawyers and a legal system and small businesses and people going about living recognizably normal lives. The movie is actually pre-apocalyptic and it’s interesting how all of its direct or indirect progeny miss that point.
As for the film itself, it concerns a highway patrol officer in the rural Australia of the near future named Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) who runs afoul of a motorcycle gang led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). After Max kills one of the gang in a high speed chase, gang member Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) sabotages the motorcycle of Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), one of Max’s fellow officers, leaving him horribly burned. That causes Max and his family to leave their home in the wilderness and go for a vacation at a farm that’s even further in the wilderness. It’s not far enough away, however, to escape the Toecutter and Max’s wife and child are run down on the road. That forces Max to slap on his leathers and seek revenge against the gang, which at some point off screen lost 75% of its members without any explanation. Seriously, at the start of the film there’s like two dozen of them and then at the end Max has to kill only about six. What happened to the rest? Did a dingo eat them all?
Co-written and directed by George Miller, the action sequences in “Mad Max” hold up quite well all these years later and combining that with the depth and color he gives villains like the Toecutter, Johnny the Boy and Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry), it’s no surprise that Miller would go on to create such ever more beautifully berserk sequels. But I’m not sure anyone who watched the original in 1979 was convinced that Mel Gibson would go on to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Max shows a playful side with his family but he’s largely Just Some Dude. If you missed the title and his overly dramatic introduction at the start of the film, you wouldn’t even realize Max is the main character until the movie is more than halfway over. Max’s commanding officer, Fifi (Roger Ward), is better defined and Jim Goose is far more charismatic and engaging, but he was probably doomed to be a supporting character when they realized no one would ever go see a flick titled “Jittery Jim” or “Goofy Goose.”
What does the dystopian landscape of “Mad Max” tell us about the 1970s as they were turning into the 1980s? Well, you have to remember that it’s pre-apocalyptic and doesn’t deal with the resource-depletion theme that runs through its three sequels. This movie is about the decay of institutions and the inability of the established order to deal with violent crime. “Mad Max” is closer kin to “Dirty Harry” (1971) than it is to other sci-fi flicks, with a story about how heroes are just maniacs killing the right people and how the burden of such “heroism” leaves them shattered wrecks of human beings. The funny thing is that when Fifi talks to Max about needing to give people back their heroes, it appears as if George Miller missed that George Lucas had already done that a couple years before and heralded the return of unconflicted action heroes in the 1980s.
And while I love and admire “Gattaca,” I must admit that “action” is a word that few will ever associate with it. A cool and seemingly serene but deeply emotional parable about the power, glory and danger of human ambition, it’s one of those minor masterpieces that never quite break through into the mainstream. Its hero is Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a man born naturally in a near-future where virtually everyone else has been genetically engineered to be as smart and strong and wonderful as possible. Vincent’s supposedly weak genes and predicted death by heart disease before he turns 40 means that opportunities are closed to him no matter how hard he studies or works. So to fulfil his dreams of getting into space, Vincent becomes a “borrowed ladder.” He agrees to pay an exorbitant price to take over the identity of a genetic superman named Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a man physically crippled in an accident and emotionally crippled long before that by his inability to live up to the promise of his expensively crafted DNA.
Becoming Jerome allows Vincent to get a job at the Gattaca corporation and work his way up until he is assigned to be on the next rocket ship to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. But then one of his supervisors is found murdered and the police discover genetic material from Vincent Freeman near the crime scene. Since an inferior “de-gene-erate” like Vincent would have no business being at Gattaca, he becomes the prime suspect and Vincent/Jerome must desperately fight to hide his true identity.
“Gattaca” is a marvelous motion picture but there are two reasons it’s had trouble connecting with a broad audience.
- It is not an art house flick. “Gattaca” is a work of conventional entertainment but it is cold and subdued while most mainstream movies are warm and exaggerated. Writer/director Andrew Niccol wants viewers to think first and then feel. Most filmmakers only want audience to feel and pull out every manipulative trick they can to achieve that. “Gattaca” does tug on the heart strings and earns that emotional attachment through its story, but tug away it does. If it was harsher and focused more on making an argument than entertainment, it might have garnered more critical acclaim from people trying to show off how smart they are. Or maybe it could have been more popular if Jerome/Vincent solved his dilemma by shooting someone with a laser. “Gattaca” is perhaps a bit too intellectual for a box office smash but not ostentatiously arty enough to become a darling of the film festival crowd.
- Its neo-luddite message on genetic engineering isn’t something people wanted to hear back in the 90s and they still don’t want to hear it today. Niccol is plainly telling us to stop playing God with the fundamental building blocks of human life but, from transgenderism through transhumanism, fixing God’s mistakes is something of which we can’t get enough.
What has gained “Gattaca” a small but devoted circle of fans is that beyond its brilliantly crafted near-future of electric cars from the 1950s and carefully conceived dystopia of genetic supremacy, it is a moving story of human behavior. From Vincent’s defiant refusal to accept the limitations everyone tells him he has to Jerome’s anguish at not living up to the expectations of himself and everyone else to Irene (Uma Thurman), another Gattaca employee who falls in love with Vincent, who is crushed by trying to be exactly what her genes say she should be for good and bad, this movie is like some amazing mash up of science fiction and Jane Austen.
What does this dystopia tell us about the world of 1997? I think both then and now “Gattaca” serves to crystalize the development of an almost feudalistic mindset in modern times. This isn’t a tale of smashing a system of genetic prejudice. Vincent doesn’t defeat or overcome his oppressors and he doesn’t change the discrimination faced by people with unaltered DNA. The vicious, dehumanizing world of “Gattaca” keeps turning when the movie ends and all Vincent had actually done is survived it and found a way to keep surviving in it. There are no solutions to the awfulness of this world. No better tomorrow to be found. Vincent and everyone else is trapped in it until they die.
It’s a sense of futile acceptance that has only grown stronger. Look at the 2016 Presidential campaign. Did any of the allegedly responsible and respectable candidates truly offer any resolution to chronic issues of income inequality, economic stagnation or feckless foreign policy warmongering? All they had were various prescriptions on how to manage our civic ills. The only two candidates who talked about actually curing them and appeared to believe it were a septuagenarian socialist and an intemperate vulgarian, and our political elite never, ever, ever, ever, ever dreamed that either of them could possibly win.
Who triumphs in this Throwdown? It’s a close call. “Mad Max” is more viscerally energetic and conventionally successful. “Gattaca” is more exquisitely executed and strives for profound meaning. I have to give it to “Gattaca” because I’m not sure there’s a better version out there of what this movie is and tries to be. If I had to be stranded on a desert island, I’d take “Road Warrior,” “Thunderdome” and “Fury Road” with me before bringing “Mad Max.” Of course, if you’re going to be stranded on a desert island, watching intrinsically depressing dystopias is probably not the wisest course of action. That calls more for “The Sound of Music” (1965).
Mad Max (1979)
Written by George Miller and James McCausland.
Directed by George Miller.
Starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, David Bracks, Bertrand Cadart, Robina Chaffey, Geoff Parry, Vincent Gill, Shelia Florance, Max Fairchild, Howard Eynon, Andrew Gimore, Paul Johnstone and Lulu Pinkus.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Gore Vidal, Xander Berkeley, Jayne Brook, Elias Koteas, Blair Underwood, Chad Christ, William Lee Scott, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Shalhoub, Jude Law, Alan Arkin, Loren Dean and Cynthia Martells.