Paradise and the apocalypse: Utopian visions in ‘Fury Road,’ ‘Tomorrowland’ and ‘Elysium’

June 8, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 8, 2015

After seeing Mad Max: Fury Road this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of two other films that toy with the idea of utopia: Brad Bird’s recent movie, Tomorrowland, and Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 feature film, Elysium.

(Dear reader, please beware: There be spoilers ahead!)

Fury Road and Elysium have more in common than either of the other two pairings. Both occur at least a few decades in the future; Mad Max’s time frame isn’t specified, at least on the screen in Fury Road, but Elysium is set in 2154. Earth’s resources have been depleted in both of these futures, although in Blomkamp’s conception, society still functions — sort of. Aristocrats live in paradisiacal orbital habitats that are as antiseptic and gleaming as Earthly buildings are dirty and run-down. The aristos are only seen voluntarily interacting with their Earthbound inferiors once, when arms baron Carlyle visits a factory that he owns in Southern California. Otherwise, the orbitals are a far-off haven that desperately poor Earthlings attempt to infiltrate.

The future of Fury Road is, if anything, bleaker. In George Miller’s movie, the extension of a trilogy that was released between 1979 and 1985, people exist in a thoroughly post-apocalyptic setting. Humanity’s mastery of technology has eroded, such that people seem incapable of any industry beyond that required to keep guns and motor vehicles functional. Immortan Joe’s feudal society occupies a hollowed-out desert mountainside. It looks as if a cave, a scrap yard and an automobile repair shop all collided together and only a minimal attempt has been made to restore order.

The concepts of law and order exist on the Earth depicted in Elysium, even if only as a sick joke; in Mad Max: Fury Road, they’re only half-forgotten rumors. As I suggested in the headline of my review, Miller’s desert is a libertarian utopia: Paradise for the wealthy, the strong, the cunning, the well-born and the well-armed, Hades for everyone else. A person’s life is valued only for what it can provide others, which usually isn’t much. Max (Tom Hardy) himself is shackled, lashed to the prow of an armored car and brought into battle as a portable blood transfusion for one of Immortan Joe’s “war boys.” That he survives the experience is due only to his enormous strength, his immense will and a healthy dose of good fortune.

Still, the movie does sketch out not one but two more generally accepted versions of utopia. The story is set in motion when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) attempts to smuggle Immortan Joe’s harem to “the Green Place,” which is also described as “the place of many mothers.” Furiosa was abducted from this verdant land as a child; it’s long been her dream to return, and when she’s given command of an armored tanker truck and a small party of armed men, she uses the opportunity to bring Joe’s coterie of young, fertile and healthy women along.

Two-thirds of the way through the film, Furiosa is disillusioned. She reunites with a handful of surviving mothers (one of them being Melissa Jaffer, whose character is known only as the Keeper of the Seeds), who tell her that they left their Garden of Eden after the water went bad. Furiosa realizes that she’s already driven through what used to be the Green Place and that it is now eerie and foreboding — a place of death, not life.

Furiosa, the harem and the mothers resolve to drive across the desert in hopes of finding another fertile land. But Max persuades them to adopt another strategy: The group pile back into the war rig intent on blowing through Immortan Joe’s soldiers and seizing control of Joe’s mountaintop fortress, which is lush with plants thanks to water that the warlord pumps from deep within the ground.

Mad Max is about battle, not nation-building; the movie ends when the heroes arrive back at their starting point, so we only get the briefest of hints about what their new society might be like. But there are two very promising signs that Furiosa and company will rule with a more enlightened hand, at least in the short run. One is that the women shepherd as many bedraggled commoners as can fit onto the open-sided cargo elevator that serves as the entrance into the mountaintop fortress. The other is that as the platform is being lifted, the women who served as the deposed warlord’s human dairy cows allow water to flow to the thirsty, dirty masses who were previously subject to Immortan Joe’s cruelty and parsimony.

Tomorrowland is unlike Mad Max and Elysium in that most of it takes place in a prelapsarian setting; only briefly, near the movie’s end, does the audience get more than the briefest glimpse of the planet after an unspecified disaster. (It seems to have something to do with climate change.) Even so, we see decay setting in. Society has lost its will to explore and expand its boundaries, as signified by the government’s determination to dismantle NASA’s launch pads.

Bird’s movie — the director co-wrote it with Damon Lindeloff, with story input from Jeff Jensen — is the talkiest of this trio of pictures. Oddly, however, some of the most important speeches come from the villains. Early on, the curio dealer Hugo (in actuality a rather malign robot, played by Keegan-Michael Key), describes the titular realm to the movie’s heroine, young Casey Newton (Britt Robinson):

Have you ever wondered what would happen if all the geniuses, the artists, the scientists — the smartest, most creative people in the world — decided to actually change it? Where, where could they even do such a thing ? They’d need a place free from politics and bureaucracy, distractions, greed — a secret place where they could build whatever they were crazy enough to imagine…

But it turns out that Tomorrowland has been put on hold decades previously, despite its having been in the works since at least sometime in the late 19th century. The realm’s having been closed down is one of the main reasons why the man Newton meets thanks to the conniving Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Frank Marshall (George Clooney), has become a bitter recluse.

The trio ultimately work together to rescue Tomorrowland from the forces of negativity — it’s no accident that the main villain, played by Hugh Laurie, is named Nix — and reopen it for creation.

But I think the movie’s whole premise is riddled with plausibility problems, not the least of which is that the Eiffel Tower contains a secret rocket ship capable of jumping to the alternative-dimension Earth where Tomorrowland appears to exist. (How could the rocket ship and the technology it embodies remain completely secret for more than a century?!)

But on to the central issue with Tomorrowland’s premise: Bureaucracy and budgets can be immense hindrances, yes — but sometimes, as the cliché asserts, necessity is the mother of invention. And while there can definitely be value in detaching oneself from quotidian concerns, it seems to me that by removing Earth’s crème de la crème to an entirely different planet, the creators of Tomorrowland would do more harm than good. That’s in part because Tomorrowland separates visionaries and inventors from the complex challenges that need to be understood properly before they can be solved.

By film’s end, as I said, Tomorrowland is reopen for business. The final shot, if I recall correctly, shows a dozen different recruits poking their heads up from a field outside the titular shining city on a hill. (Which raises another quibble on my part: Newton’s recruiting visit actually took place via a virtual reality device; it’s a miracle she didn’t break her neck or drown exploring a place that wasn’t there while wandering through the real, our real world, which she was essentially unable to perceive. How does, say, Tomorrowland’s street musician not step into the path of a barreling bus, or its judge not fall out the nearest open window?) Assuming that all these people run out on their responsibilities — abandoning spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends; children and parents; employers, employees and colleagues; landlords, tenants and loan cosigners — if this happens, wouldn’t society suffer from having its smartest, most inventive and most principled people cede control, however temporarily, to… well, to everyone else?

If Tomorrowland is flawed in its conception of how and why a paradise apart from our humble planet might be a good thing, Elysium is at least as naïve on how paradise might be brought from the heavens down to Earth. The movie’s climax involves a sacrifice by the protagonist, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), who gives his life to change the operating system that governs Elysium, the luxurious orbital habitat over Los Angeles. The change is simple but has immense implications: When everyone on Earth is reclassified as a citizen of the habitat, the computer automatically begins deploying medical aid ships to succor the ailing and deformed planetary masses below.

The parable isn’t exactly subtle: Da Costa is the son of God; his death provides redemption for the sins and the suffering of humanity. Da Costa’s offering enables the whole world’s thorny problems to be solved in one stroke — a deus ex machina delivered by a cyborg, a computer system, its robot servants and its miraculous medical machines.

The movie’s resolution is heart-warming, in its way: Frey, the love interest played by Alice Braga, has a grievously ill young daughter whose body the audience hopes to see repaired. But it also defies logic.

As Earth’s ailing rushed to be healed by the machines, I anticipated pandemonium and chaos. Could Elysium possibly have enough resources to cure all the planet’s woes? I was, shall we say, extremely skeptical.

And so, for all that the future of Mad Max: Fury Road is repugnant in its violence, the movie’s resolution seems most reasonable. Happiness is implied, at least for a few formerly oppressed people living in what used to be Immortan Joe’s realm, at least temporarily. George Miller’s movie recognizes what Bird’s and Blomkamp’s seem unable to acknowledge: That the planet is a big, complicated messy place, and that the scope of any utopia must be limited.

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