Category Archives: post-apocalyptic

Stalker (Сталкер) (1979)


Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic, brooding and grindingly slow sci-fi film from 1979 is a favorite among artsy film connoisseurs and tastemakers, but the praise that has been heaped upon it needs to be taken with several grains of salt. Stalker is indeed a masterfully made film, and as far as I can tell, is a fairly explicit metaphor for the crushing despair of life under socialism. It is also an extended exploration of the nihilistic mindset that gave birth to one of the most repressive regimes in the 20th century. Criterion has just released a newly remastered blu-ray, so the world can now enjoy its bleak splendor as never before. That said, I don’t know that it will appeal to anyone beyond the hardcore cinephile set due to its grim aesthetics, cerebral artiness and glacial tempo.


Since the storyline of Stalker is fairly straightforward on the surface, the allure of the film lies in attempting to peel back the layers of metaphor and symbolism. Tarkovsky’s work invites painstaking analysis because his film lives mostly in the realm of abstraction and semiotics. Considering that Stalker alone has inspired reams of film school exegeses and an entire book which deconstructs every minute detail, it has gained a reputation of being a puzzle of infinite depth.  Despite having an aura which verges on a near mystical reverence, I think the film is quite possibly much more straightforward than prevailing opinion suggests.


First and foremost, the film cannot be disassociated from socialist context in which it was created. This was, after all, a Mosfilm production, and by default, a work of art made by people living under a socialist dictatorship. Art was tightly controlled under the Soviets, so no filmmaker could make anything that was too explicitly critical of the regime. Making a ponderously slow film which buries its editorial under abstractions but still lends itself to a multiplicity of subjective interpretations was perhaps the only way to attempt to say anything that wasn’t boilerplate party propaganda.

Writer: While I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap of, pardon… I’d better not name it.

The degree to which Tarkovsky’s aesthetic was a purely organic phenomenon in contrast to the extent that it was an adaptation to the confines of Party diktats are questions which must be considered. Stalker poses questions about the nature and role of art, and the fact that this film’s emotional spectrum ranges from sadness to suffering certainly tells us something about how art was affected by the psychological strictures imposed by socialist rule. I propose that the sci-fi premise merely provided the necessary metaphorical pretext for the underlying editorial.  Since absolute fealty to socialist orthodoxy and groupthink was a way of life, telling the truth in a direct way was a counter-revolutionary act all by itself. In this film’s case, the ponderous pace and desolate tone was likely Tarkovsky’s way of pulling you deeply into the experience of life through Soviet eyes.


Based loosely on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 book, Roadside Picnic, Stalker tells the story of three men who enter a quarantined area called the Zone. The Zone was declared off limits to the public as a result of some unknown incident that may have been paranormal in nature or simply an industrial accident. The big attraction of entering the Zone is the presumed existence of the Room; a place where all wishes can be granted. Two of the men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, enlist the services of the titular Stalker to navigate the Zone and lead them to the Room. Theoretically, this sounds like it could be a premise for a sci-fi action thriller, but the film has more in common with existential theatre like Waiting for Godot or No Exit than anything in the conventional sci-fi cinematic canon. Needless to say, the film is completely devoid of aliens, space travel, futuristic technology or any of the features we normally associate with cinema that calls itself science fiction.

The broad themes are spelled out very clearly in the first part of the film albeit in a somewhat oblique manner. As the film opens, we’re taken into the bedroom of the Stalker over the course of roughly nine dialogue-free minutes as he awakens next to his wife and disabled child. While dressing and preparing for the day, his distressed wife joins him in the kitchen and warns him that he risks returning to his old ways and being sent back to jail. Right away, Tarkovsky is revealing an important fact of life in the Soviet Union: the USSR was essentially an open air prison camp. Socialism had criminalized freedom itself, and the citizens had become complicit in their own enslavement.


We discover in the subsequent scene that the Stalker is being enlisted to guide two other men into the Zone to find the Room. Since the Room was a place where one’s deepest wishes could be fulfilled, the Room could be viewed as a metaphor for hope, redemption, and the attainment of human dreams. In a word, freedom. No one can reach the Room without first passing through the heavily guarded perimeter of the Zone. The Zone is both an explicit metaphor for the Soviet state as well as the psychological confinement it engendered. The State had outlawed freedom, so the Stalker’s willingness to defy the State and lead others through the Zone is what makes him an outlaw. Naturally, his wife is fearful of caring for their disabled daughter without him, so she implores him not to go.

Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

Tarkovsky seems to have a view of humanity that alternates between nihilism and idealism, but tilts heavily towards the former. In one of Stalker’s monologues, he describes the Zone as an entity whose malevolence is both triggered by the appearance of people and a reflection of man’s nature.

Stalker: The Zone is a very complicated system of traps, and they’re all deadly. I don’t know what’s going on here in the absence of people, but the moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion. Old traps disappear and new ones emerge. Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back. Some of them even died on the very threshold of the room. But everything that’s going on here depends not on the Zone, but on us!

The Stalker eventually meets the Writer and his glamorous girlfriend at the waterfront. Stalker rudely dismisses the woman as he and the Writer climb into a car to meet the Professor. Both the Writer and the Professor are quite possibly archetypes for the artistic and academic intelligentsia who have largely been conscribed to the role of being apologists for the State. The rudeness and disdain the Stalker exhibits towards his girlfriend is easily understood when examined in this light. After a contentious rendezvous with the Professor which symbolized internecine Party squabbling, the two men reveal their motivations for undertaking this treacherous journey. The Writer wishes to recover his lost inspiration while the Professor claims pure scientific curiosity. Since the arts had been completely subordinated to service of state propaganda, it makes perfect sense that the Writer would take such a dangerous risk in order to have a taste of genuine inspiration that has been so badly thwarted by demands for ideological conformity.  The Professor’s scientific curiosity is perhaps a jab at the misplaced faith that socialist society had placed in scientism.  A Room which grants your deepest wish is already an idea that lives beyond science.  Bringing a scientific mentality to such a phenomenon is misguided at best. Their desire to reach the Room was by itself an act of faith, and by extension, Tarkovsky’s affirmation of the necessity for such leaps of faith.

Upon arriving in the Zone, the color palette switches from lifeless, desaturated browns and greys to actual color. Once they had traversed past the boundaries of allowable thought, the color and vibrancy of life was accessible to them. Despite the landscape of ruin and desolation that lay before the trio, they managed to marvel at beauty. Once again, Tarkovsky reveals his cynicism towards humanity by having the Stalker note that the beauty was the product of the absence of other people.


The Writer’s ideological convictions are challenged as they travel deeper into the Zone. As an archetype for the artistic class, Tarkovsky lays bare the psychological schism that Marxism created amongst the creatives in one of the film’s few moments of dry levity.

Writer: My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?

Marxism had supplanted any notion of higher morality and placed the locus of virtue squarely within the hands of the State. Subsequently, the Writer’s desire to see vegetarianism win over was merely a metaphor for the political orthodoxy he’d been trained to uphold. He views his desire for meat as bourgeois false consciousness. Ultimately, he’s conflicted because his sense of Self had been disrupted by venturing beyond the ideological boundaries that were protected and enforced by the Zone.

When the three men reach the Room, they become suspicious of one another’s motivations. The Professor produces a nuclear bomb and threatens to detonate it because he doesn’t want the power of the Room to fall into the wrong hands. Conflict ensues and recriminations are exchanged. After some tortured confessions, the Professor disassembles the bomb and the scene grinds to a halt in a cloud of defeat and resignation. I suggest that Tarkovsky is saying something about how deeply uncomfortable and distrustful Russians were with the idea of freedom. So much so that they constructed their own ideological panopticon.


Upon returning from the Zone, the Stalker is reunited with his wife and child. In one of the monologues delivered by Stalker’s wife, Tarkovsky is attempting to access something truly primeval within the Russian soul. Some kind of deep sadness which insists that happiness can only emerge unless there is sorrow. Yet it is a sorrow leavened ever so slightly with a tiny granule of hope. Who knows exactly from where this emanates, but it does perhaps offer an additional cultural insight into the psychological legacy of the Russian people on which Marxism so hungrily feasted.

Stalker’s Wife: You know, Mama was very opposed to it. You’ve probably already guessed, that he’s one of God’s fools. Everyone around here used to laugh at him. He was such a wretched muddler. Mama used to say: “he’s a stalker, a marked man, an eternal jailbird. Remember the kind of children stalkers have.” I didn’t even argue. I knew all about it, that he was a marked man, a jailbird. I knew about the kids. Only what could I do? I was sure I’d be happy with him. I knew there’d be a lot of sorrow, but I’d rather know bitter-sweet happiness, than a grey, uneventful life. Perhaps I invented all this later. But when he come up to me and said: “Come with me”, I went. And I’ve never regretted it. Never. There was a lot of grief, and fear, and pain, but I’ve never regretted it, nor envied anyone. It’s just fate. It’s life, it’s us. And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better, it would be worse. Because then there’d be no happiness, either. And there’d be no hope.

The resolution of the film reveals the Stalker’s daughter moving three glasses using what is apparently telekinetic power as a snatch of “Ode to Joy” surfaces. It’s enigmatic, but I believe this is the glimmer of hope that Tarkovsky is offering. Monkey represents a new generation which possesses abilities that were unimaginable to their forebears: the ability to cultivate and express joy. An ability so powerful it can only be represented as a paranormal psychic power.

Aesthetically, the film leverages the decrepit and dilapidated architecture of the USSR to create a post-apocalyptic vibe that’s easily among the bleakest natural settings committed to film.  The Zone was inspired by the 1957 Chelyabinsk incident which was both the first major nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl and third largest in history. Ever dedicated to the purity of his vision, Tarkovsky filmed the Zone at an abandoned Estonian power plant which quite possibly hastened his own demise along with two other members of the film crew resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals.


I suspect that a large part of the allure of Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular is that it represents a manifestation of the great Holy Grail sought by artists across the world throughout the ages: a pure artistic expression unsullied by the taint of capitalistic profit seeking. Stalker is very much a film made with painstaking attention to the most minute details. Almost nothing that makes it into the frame seems left to chance. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a film that people will actually want to watch.

Stalker is a film which elicits admiration more than enjoyment. As much as I am tempted to get lost in the labyrinth of symbolic possibility that so enraptures the cinephiles, I see this as a pretty explicit manifestation of the Russian pysche’s very fragile grasp at humanity desperately laboring under the weight of emotional and physical devastation wrought by 60 years of iron fisted subjugation and state enforced social engineering. Since this is a work of art which leans very heavily on symbolism, people will extract a meaning from it which confirms their own bias and disposition. Predictably, the progressive media in America has heaped praise on it because they see it as antidote to Trumpism and a rallying cry for socialism itself. The fact that a film that’s this unremittingly dreary and downcast is perceived as some kind of rallying cry for socialism just goes to show how deeply this ideology warps the psyche and possesses the will of the individual.  If anything, Stalker should be taken as a dire warning of the inhospitable future that awaits should we allow this ideology to hollow out what remains of our souls.

Stalker is indeed a work of Serious Art® and I completely understand the cult of devotion it has inspired. Like all good works of high modernism, it contains the possibility of extracting multitudes of meaning. However, I genuinely don’t think Tarkovsky intended this film to be another occasion for endless academic navel gazing or a self-centered circle jerk for the intelligentsia. Tarkovsky was making an earnest attempt to tell the truth of the Russian experience by using a SF premise as a metaphysical allegory. John Semley’s dumb Salon piece praises the film for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the plodding pace feels radical in contrast to the engineered dopamine rushes we get from contemporary cinema, but it’s because the film conveys a deep sense of despair. Being boring is not an aesthetic virtue that is inherently good. Good art encompasses the entirety of the human experience, but most importantly, it has intention and should actually connect with its audience. Would Stalker have been funded on the free market? Probably not. Grim meditations on the human experience don’t make for big ticket sales. Especially if they’re the product of life under socialist rule. I’m deeply sympathetic to artistic expression which challenges norms and defies expectations. Most people do not share this belief, and as a result, won’t bother watching Stalker. And that’s fine. No one is required to consume art which evokes boredom and despair. In the end, that is perhaps that is the true legacy of the film. Just as millions died chasing the abstraction that Marxism represented, few will heed the subtle warning buried under Tarkovsky’s abstractions.

Stalker: Are you awake? You were talking recently about the meaning… of our… life… unselfishness of art… Let’s take music… It’s really least of all connected; to say the truth, if it is connected at all, then in an idealess way, mechanically, with an empty sound… Without… without associations… Nonetheless the music miraculously penetrates into the very soul! What is resonating in us in answer to the harmonized noise? And turns it for us into the source of great delight… And unites us, and shakes us? What is its purpose? And, above all, for whom? You will say: for nothing, and… and for nobody, just so. Unselfish. Though it’s not so… perhaps… For everything, in the end, has its own meaning… Both the meaning and the cause…



Damnation Alley (1977)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jack Smight’s adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel, Damnation Alley, is an unsung classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Following the precedent set by the similarly themed television show, Ark II, Damnation Alley is the story of a group of WWIII nuclear holocaust survivors traversing the radioactive wastelands of a blasted out America in search of the remnants of humanity. Yes, its cheeseball B-movie reputation is not without some validity, but I maintain that its virtues outweigh its demerits. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi is roughly analogous to the Western. In other words, a post-flood Biblical allegory. How do you rebuild civilization after all has been destroyed? 

Laying out the prototype for his role as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, George Peppard is pitch perfect as grizzled hard ass, Major Eugene Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays his subordinate, Tanner, who’s just a little too uppity for Denton. Rounding out the cast of heroes are Paul Winfield as Keegan, a young Jackie Earle Haley as Billy and token female, Dominique Sanda as Jackie. The film opens at a nuclear missile facility at which our two main heroes are stationed as missile combat officers. What begins as a training exercise ends up as a Defcon 1 scramble to fire defensive strikes at an incoming volley of warheads from the other side of the globe. The spectre of nuclear war was a theme found throughout lots of film and television made throughout the Cold War era, but there’s something genuinely harrowing about the nuclear cataclysm in Damnation Alley.  In a scene that surely provided the inspiration for the arcade game, Missile Command, the commanding officers listen in stunned silence as the technical officer reads off the names of American cities while we watch blips of the electronic map signal each warhead strike. A montage of actual mushroom cloud atomic explosions follows as most life on earth is extinguished. 

After the conflict, the globe is an irradiated hellscape and natural weather patterns have been disrupted as a consequence of the bombing.  Using techniques that made sci-fi films from the 70’s so great, color filters and effects transform the skies into a roiling cauldron of psychedelic radiation and are accompanied by ominous analog synth howls. A short text frame sets up the appropriate vibe.

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

After surviving yet another catastrophe resulting from a porno mag that caught fire next to some explosive materials, our heroes set out to find what remains of civilization in the other star of the film, the Landmaster. Designed as a fully functional all-terrain military vehicle, the Landmaster is a glorious 12-wheel feat of vehicular badassery.  Most people probably consider the Mad Max films ground zero for futuristic car porn, but Damnation Alley clearly set the precedent. The various location shots of the Landmaster barreling through the canyons and desert plains of American southwest are indeed pretty righteous. 

In contrast to just about anything made today, this vision of post-apocalyptic earth retains a remarkable amount of civility, respect for military order, and concern for the welfare of the one woman and teenage boy. There is some heartwarming paternalism exhibited by both Peppard and Vincent towards the young Haley. Even the run-in with hillbilly mutants is remarkably civil. For all the pedants bemoaning the lack of realism, it’s important to bear in mind that this was made during a time when traditional heroic archetypes and acts of patriarchal chivalry were still considered worthy of canonization in cinema. It’s not the story that Zelazny told, but it’s worthwhile on its own terms.

There are, of course, some rather delightful post-apocalyptic thrills, too. Overgrown scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and radioactive dust storms are among the travails that our band of heroes must overcome.  And no sci-fi action movie would be complete without a few lines of pure hardboiled tough guy grit. Naturally, that honor belongs to Peppard’s Denton.

Maj. Eugene Denton: There are areas of radiation we couldn’t get through. It’s not a matter of wrong turns though – “Damnation Alley” is a hundred miles wide a lot of the way. 

Tanner: “Damnation Alley?” Who named it that? 

Maj. Eugene Denton: I did.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, but the signal that indicates that they’ve reached civilization is the sweet sound of jazz-rock pumping through the radio transmitter. Hallelujah!

Damnation Alley is a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi that you just don’t see anymore; an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to reclaim civilization. As the genre progressed over the years since the release of the film, one sees an increasingly despairing and cynical view of humanity. One could say these were more realistic visions of human nature, but people sometimes forget that an occasional uplifting ending gives people a sense of hope and an ideal to which to aspire. Cynicism is the norm.  Affirming positive values is a lot harder than it is to sit back and sneer at pollyanna idealism.

Despite being paired with another personal favorite from that year, Wizards, Damnation Alley tanked. Not only was the film a commercial flop, but Zelazny apparently hated it. Not even the tidal wave of Star Wars’ popularity was sufficient to boost its prospects.  It won’t do anything for you if you have no taste for this kind of film in the first place, but if post-apocalyptic sci-fi is in your wheelhouse at all, the trip down Damnation Alley is worth taking. 

Snowpiercer (2013)


Man, is this film overrated.

It’s an interesting premise and certainly offers a unique take on post-apocalyptic dystopia, but despite its visual invention and black humor, the ideas at its core feel trite.

The premise is pretty straightforward. Environmental devastation has driven mankind to seek a technological solution for climate change which backfires and instead turns the planet into a presumably uninhabitable tundra. Prior to the wintry techno Armageddon, a forward thinking industrialist constructs a global railway system and the titular train which carries the remnants of humanity in its various cars and endlessly circumnavigates the frozen waste.

Echoing the themes and visual metaphors of Metropolis and Animal Farm and numerous other dystopian fables, the downtrodden, impoverished proles are banished to the dim, grimy, squalid rear cars while the wealthy enjoy the comforts of the front cars. Order is of course enforced at gunpoint by a legion of goons who are lead by a caricature of a despot played by Tilda Swinton.  Coming across like a visual mashup of Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher in quasi military regalia, she makes pompous pronouncements about maintaining the social order of the train and how everyone must maintain “Their Proper Place”.

After one of the children is taken away by the authorities for some unknown and nefarious purpose, the proles decide to initiate a revolution. Lead by the twin stereotypes of the Indomitable Rebel Leader (Chris Evans) and Wizened Sage (John Hurt), the band of revolutionaries begin a violent takeover of the train leading to the inevitable showdown between the Indomitable Rebel and the Evil Puppet Master at the front of the train, Wilford.

This stuff is generally good grist for the drama mill when telling a dystopian SF story, but this is where the film goes off the rails (pun intended).

Here, the film commits three crimes of peddling hackneyed tropes.  The first is the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy, the second is the cult of deference to a Great Leader, and the third, while ultimately derived from the first two, is the idiotic notion of a fated social order which is either enforced by totalitarian rule or disrupted by a Liberating Leader.
The most egregious crime is of course the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy. The notion that an industrialist who achieves success in the free market left to his own devices has totalitarian designs and will subject an unwitting public to his technocratic Darwinian power games and will not hesitate to use violence to both keep the plebes in line and maximize efficiency.  At the end of the film, Wilford offers Curtis the opportunity to be the new Great Leader because after all, the rubes need to be kept in line. One particularly cartoonish scene involves a school teacher indoctrinating the youth with cultish songs of praise toward Wilford which are undoubtedly meant to resemble those sung at gunpoint in North Korea.

The film essentially presents the acquisition of power, wealth and resources as a zero sum game and insists on perpetuating the dumb, reductive and counterproductive dichotomy of 99 percenters versus one percenters. There are haves and have nots and the haves will resort to violence and repression in order to preserve the social order and the only recourse for have nots is violent revolution.

And of course, all collective action is driven by the dictates of the Leaders from both sides.  The rebellious proles only act when commanded to do so as do the armed goons who work for Wilford.  There is no individual thought, action or initiative whatsoever. Everything hinges on The Leaders.

Despite its generally hamfisted approach to the themes, there are some surprising nuances.  The film seems to be suggesting that privatized marine ecosystems will result in a sustainable food supply.  And for those who believe in gun control, this film may disabuse the notion that gun ownership should be the sole province of agents of the state.  There is a pretty blatant suggestion of entomophagy as a viable food alternative as well. Not exactly something you’re likely to see in your average Hollywood film for sure.

The visuals are cool and the combat scenes are insanely brutal.

Proceed at your own risk.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)


“My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood.”

Oh, you better believe it.

Your world will be fire and blood after you see this film. Believe the hype. Believe every word. This film earned every bit of praise that has been written or spoken.

This film is every bit the fuel injected, turbo charged, flame throwing battering ram that you’ve heard. It is a jaw dropping feat of cinematic bravura. It is also a cornucopia of visual riches; cinematography, art direction, design and a level of choreographed mayhem that will be the standard against which all future films will be measured. Most importantly, it is a well written story with vividly rendered characters and a highly detailed world.

Though I enjoyed it, I also don’t think that it’s without flaws. There are mixed messages regarding the nature of freedom, some dumb clichés about commerce, property rights and capitalism, and a frustrating veneration of the myth of the Leader Who Brings Equality and Emancipation. In this case, the variation on the same theme, The Female Leader Who Brings Equality and Emancipation Because She’s a Woman, you FUGHYNG PYG. Clichés to which I probably should be accustomed, but feel compelled to draw attention to nonetheless.

There has also been a lot of hullabaloo over the film’s alleged feminism. While I can accept that there are aspects of the story that could be construed as feminist in the manner that was asserted in the original conception of the movement, these claims are, by and large, wildly overblown. Aside from a little blatant pandering to redfem sensibilities, the film mostly emphasizes the contribution that each gender is able to make to one another; a position which stands in stark contrast to the position of antipathy, bigotry and antagonism towards men which is actively fostered in feminist circles and media.

Don’t get me wrong. What’s good about the film far outweighs the dubious. While these flaws do not derail the film, they warrant mention.

So let’s take a look at them.

Just as the three predecessor films, Fury Road presents a world in a state of collapse. Or perhaps a cynical extrapolation of the current state of affairs. Presumably, all governments have fallen and the gun is the only law. It provides a perfect backdrop for an exploration of morality.

The best part of this film and the series is that it asks you to consider what morality is when the structures of society which allegedly provide the foundations of moral behavior have disappeared.

Enter Max Rockatansky; a former cop who lost his family and is haunted by his past failures. He’s searching for a “righteous cause” and some redemption. Once again, we’re presented with a protagonist who was once an agent of the state and by extension, a symbol of the state. In Max, we are expected to see one of the last guardians of law, virtue, and morality in a world in which the law has failed.  It’s ironic that we are expected to view a former cop as the embodiment of morality in light of so many current instances of police brutality, but it’s a believable leap of imagination because he’s no longer beholden to the state. Instead of a trigger happy killer like the psychopaths we see later in the film (and in the real world), Max is a model of restraint. He does not arbitrarily initiate violence against others.

“My world is reduced to a single instinct: Survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me… Or everyone else,” he says in the opening narration. Tom Hardy was cast over Mel Gibson this time out and brings a new level of gravitas, physicality and appeal to the role of Max.

On the flipside, we have Immortan Joe; a psychopathic despot who wields power through fear, violence and manipulation through religious belief. Immortan Joe is the dictator of The Citadel; a dystopian hellhole in which Joe and his minions live in relative splendor and plenitude, and the population live in a state of debased poverty and abject misery. He controls the water supply and, in the tradition of all totalitarian assholes, preaches an inversion of reality to keep the plebes in line.

“Do not become addicted to water, it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence,” he bellows in one of his speeches to the masses. Self-abasement and sacrifice, you worms! You’re taking up space and resources and you’d be dead if not for my benevolence!

Just as the previous films addressed the possibility of a global shortage of gasoline, this film wants to draw attention the availability (or lack thereof) of clean, potable water as the issue of mounting concern.

Additionally, Joe has an army of War Boys who answer to his every command. They are a whole legion of mutated men who’ve been bred for combat, are hopped up on some aerosol amphetamine and swear a religious fealty to Joe out of a belief in an afterlife of glory.  This is also a possible bit of feminist pandering. Though it’s true that heads of state who’ve been responsible for so much misery and death throughout history have been male, contrary to contemporary feminist propaganda, there’s nothing inherent in manhood that automatically makes you a rapist/murderer/sex trafficker/child molester/genocidal maniac.

Here, George Miller reveals both a cynical view of commerce (there isn’t any) and a despairing view of humanity. It seems that he’s portraying life as a choice between being a mindless minion, a servile and helpless serf or a cruel despot. He seems to be saying that life is confined to solitary acts of virtue, morality and violent resistance (which are the province of “Heroes”) in a world that is poisoned and beyond hope of reclamation. All other options lead to enslavement or rule over others by force.

In reference to Joe’s iron fisted dominion, a character says, “He owns the water, and he owns us too.”

What a dumb, narrow, cynical, and fallacious view of property rights and the world.  Instead of viewing markets as an emancipating force, Miller has chosen to take the view that those who have commodities that people need will use them to enslave others.

This same view carries over to the characters which set the events of the film in motion, The Five Wives. The Five Wives were Joe’s “breeders”; women held in captivity to give birth to Joe’s children.  Imperator Furiosa, brilliantly portrayed by Charlize Theron, steals the Five Wives when sent on a mission to obtain gas for Immortan Joe.

Upon discovering their absence, Joe finds the words “WE ARE NOT OBJECTS” painted on the walls. Naturally, Joe is enraged and mobilizes his entire fleet of battle cars to hunt down Furiosa. Not only is Joe’s ownership of these women a cartoonish view of the life of freedom enjoyed by women who live in Western market-oriented societies, it is predictably one of the themes around which feminists have rallied.  It reveals the sad contempt for private property held by filmmakers and feminists alike. It also reveals a frustrating refusal to recognize the fact that the earliest American feminists of the 19th century agitated to overturn common law statutes which made women actual slaves to their husbands.  The Married Women’s Property Acts (laws which preceded suffrage by 56 years) allowed women to enter into contracts, own property and earn a salary!  Yet for some reason, feminists seem intent on denigrating and dismissing these early gains and regarding the opportunity that the free market presents as a monolithic force of oppression. While I can accept that this plot element could also be construed as a metaphor for sex trafficking and countries with epidemic levels of rape like the Congo and Sudan, these are countries with an absence of markets or a lack of appreciation for property rights, an excess of religious belief, rule by force or all three. Either you respect property rights and voluntary exchange or you submit to rule by force.  You can’t have both, feminists.
Furthermore, isn’t this Five Wives plot element just a variation on the “damsel in distress” trope famously decried by Anita Sarkeesian as a disempowering cliché?  Is it true that all you need to do to appease feminists is make the savior a female?

Feminists have also lavished praise over the toughness, bravery, resourcefulness and ferocity of Furiosa.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the character and Theron’s performance and I get the appeal she holds as a representation of female badassery, I still find it strange that feminists are swooning over this character. Furiosa knows how to drive and repair the War Rig, how to use firearms, and can hold her own in hand to hand combat.  It’s as though feminists equate fictional representations of toughness with real world “equality”.  Feminists are generally deeply opposed to gun rights and never agitate for equal representation in automotive repair or auto sports. I cannot recall even so much as a single kind feminist word spoken about someone like Danica Patrick nor can I recall a single line of coverage given to women who work in pro auto sports in feminist media.
What’s even stranger to me about the praise of the Furiosa character is that, in contrast to women who live in the Western world, she had no real choice in her life.  She was kidnapped as a child and her only real option was to climb the ranks of Immortan Joe’s military. It’s possible that she developed her skills purely out of necessity. And why aren’t feminists praising Joe for his female-friendly hiring policy? There weren’t any other women amongst the ranks of the War Boys as far as I could tell.

One of the other themes which has been downplayed and sneered at by feminists is the subplot involving Nux, one of Joe’s War Boys who ends up siding with Furiosa, Max and the Wives. A mutual affection develops between Nux and Capable.  Since Joe kept the men separated from the female population, they developed stunted views of their relationship towards women.  Having lived most of his life deprived of any real affection from a woman, Nux reclaims his humanity through the power of the love of a woman freely given.  Feminists often seem way more invested in denouncing “toxic masculinity” and “misogyny” rather than seeing men as humans who need and crave love.  Sometimes, the only validation a man seeks in this life is the love of a woman.

Furiosa’s intention was to return to the Green Place; a fabled land of unspoiled beauty that was the homeland from which she was kidnapped as a child. Instead, they meet the Vuvalini, a gang of motorcycle riding, gun toting matriarchs who are the last remaining survivors of the Green Place. Here, Miller does a little blatant pandering to feminist tendencies towards misandry. They’re initially distrustful of Max and Nux and are only assuaged by Furiosa vouching for them as “reliable”.  The Vuvalini are a manifestation of a feminist power fantasy and give a voice to contemporary notions of “white, male capitalist patriarchy” promulgated in feminist circles today. They speak lovingly of women as caretakers, mothers, and givers of life and tell stories filled with atavistic yearning of the bygone days when fruit, flowers, and trees grew in abundance before everything was destroyed by all the nasty, evil men. When the climactic chase goes into overdrive, he even pays tribute to the Valerie Solanas-loving/SCUM Manifesto-reading crowd when one of the matriarchs declares, “One man. One bullet.”
After a breathtaking final chase sequence, Furiosa ultimately vanquishes Joe while she venomously spits “Remember me!”

The heroes ride victoriously into The Citadel with Joe’s corpse on the hood of the War Rig. Furiosa and the Wives are admitted to the upper levels once reserved for Joe and his minions to assume control of The Citadel. The final scene shows one of the former Wives allowing the water to gush forth from the giant water pipes on the mountainside and waste it even more profusely than Joe ever did. From this act, the presumption with which you’re left is that Furiosa is going to be a Better Leader.  Because….FEMALE!  And Joe’s fundamental flaw was that he was a MAN!  Never mind that they had scarce resources to manage in the first place and had no apparent system of prices, wages or exchange. We’re left to believe that Furiosa would be a more benevolent leader simply because she had a uterus.  Hillary 2016!
Again, these are not fatal flaws.

The film never fails to entertain. It succeeds at being a nail biter not only as a result of the physicality and virtuosity of the stunt work, but because the human drama is the backbone of the film. The look of the film is absolutely first rate and you are completely immersed in the world.

Highly recommended.