Apocalypse and Optimism in Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland
Written by Cat Lester.
I recently had the rather odd experience of viewing a double bill of Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland: A World Beyond. The pairing of these two films was completely coincidental - I wanted to see Max Max again before it left the cinemas, and in the interest of efficiency and making the most out of my train ticket I decided to double bill it with another film I had not yet seen. Of the options, Tomorrowland was screening in the right place at the right time. Mad Max was scheduled first in my double bill. I left as soon as the end credits began, arriving in the screen for Tomorrowland just as the BBFC black card appeared, signalling that the film was about to begin. The extreme proximity with which I viewed these films therefore made their parallels all the more apparent, but also all the more jarring. In this article I attempt to work through the connections between these films, discussing why it is that one of them works so spectacularly well for me, succeeding at doing the very thing that the other tries to do but which, in my view, fails.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the fact I had already seen Mad Max once (and loved it) perhaps gives it an unfair advantage over Tomorrowland, which I was watching for the first time, and have only seen once overall. It could be that I may have liked Tomorrowland a lot more than I did had I not experienced it immediately after watching Mad Max, and as such this article should be read with the knowledge that this has strongly informed my views on both films. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the two films amplified the contrasts and overlaps between the two, specifically regarding their attempts at optimism and how they represent the place of dystopian fiction in our culture.
On a surface level, the two films probably could not seem any more different. Mad Max: Fury Road is a 15/R rated action film set in a hellish, post-apocalyptic desert landscape. Water and gasoline are scarce commodities, with the former in particular being used by the hyper-patriarchal totalitarian ruler, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), to control the masses. Also a scarce commodity are people in full health. Joe himself is covered in cancerous lumps and requires a complex breathing apparatus. He also has an army of ‘War Boys’ - disease-ridden, malnourished warriors who seem to always be mere moments from wasting away, but who are willing to sacrifice their lives in combat so that they may ‘live again’ in Valhalla. Joe, in order to keep his army going, ‘harvests’ two key types of human being: beautiful, fertile women who function as his wives and ‘breeders’ of more War Boys, and ‘full-lives’ - human beings in good health who are forced to donate blood to the War Boys. Within or adjacent to these two categories we have our protagonists: Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted aide of Joe who is set the task of driving a vehicle known as the War Rig to the nearby Gas Town and Bullet Farm for supplies. Unbeknownst to him, she has secretly concealed his wives in the War Rig with the intention of taking them to an idealistic location known only as the ‘Green Place’, where Furiosa was born, and where they believe they will all be free. Once Joe realises what Furiosa has done, he sets off after her with a convoy of War Boys. One of these War Boys is Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is near-dead but insists on joining the mission in order to ‘die historic on the Fury Road’. He thus takes Max (Tom Hardy), a universal blood donor, with him as his ‘blood bag’ to keep him alive until the proper moment. What follows is a thrilling, high-octane chase across the desert landscape (and back again) which occurs as if it were written entirely in caps lock. Along the way, Max joins the side of Furiosa and her crew in order to assist them in getting to the Green Place.
Tomorrowland, by stark contrast, is a live-action Disney film set in contemporary America. It is a film absolutely brimming with optimism. Or at least, one of the issues I am concerned with here, it thinks it is brimming with optimism. It is also relatively less easy to sum up than Mad Max, so I think it necessary to provide a reasonably detailed plot summary before moving on to analyse the film. (I am also assuming that, given the underperformance of Tomorrowland at the box office, fewer readers will be as familiar with it as they are with Mad Max.) The titular Tomorrowland is not, as the name suggests, in the future, but is another dimension entirely in which all the world’s smartest and most creative geniuses can work together, without the interference of those pesky governments and their rules and regulations, in order to ‘fix the world’ and make the future a better place. The film is framed rather oddly by what appears to be a video recording made by our protagonists, Frank Walker (George Clooney), a former boy genius who has become cynical with age, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a bright and optimistic teenage girl. We begin on a timer counting down. Counting down to what, we do not know, but as Casey points out, countdowns are usually not a good thing. Frank speaks the first actual line of dialogue, which is ‘the future is scary’. Casey decides that this is far too negative a way to begin the story, and that she, as an optimist, is a far more qualified person to tell their tale. Regardless, Frank continues, but takes a leaf from Casey’s book and instead takes us back to a moment from his childhood in 1964. At the New York World’s Fair, he presents a jet pack he has invented, and which doesn’t quite work, to an unimpressed David Nix (Hugh Laurie), who is judging the invention competition. Frank is defeated by the rejection, but is told by a mysterious girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), to follow her and Nix (unbeknownst to the latter). Frank follows them into Tomorrowland by way of a portal hidden in the quintessential Disneyland ride, ‘It’s A Small World’. There he finds a futuristic cityscape full of hover crafts and robots, one of whom fixes his jetpack, and thus he manages to show it off in front of Nix and gain his approval.
At this point, we are then brought back to the present in order for Casey to tell her story. Casey is intent on bringing a halt to the closure of the NASA launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where her father works as an engineer. This activity eventually leads to her arrest for trespassing and destruction of property. When released, she finds a mysterious pin emblazoned with a ‘T’ among her belongings, which, when touched, gives her a brief vision of Tomorrowland. Obsessed with finding it, she eventually is tracked down by Athena, who is revealed to be a robot (or ‘audio-animatronic’) who was ‘recruited’ by Nix in order to find individuals such as Casey and Frank who meet the requirements of intelligence, creativity and optimism to be welcomed into Tomorrowland and ‘fix the world’. Athena drops Casey off with Frank, now a middle-aged, curmudgeonly and jaded man who has all but given up on trying to make the world a better place. Frank was deported from Tomorrowland for inventing a machine which predicted the future with pinpoint accuracy - a future which spells doom for humanity. As a result, he lost all hope in saving the world. However, Casey’s unbridled optimism causes the machine’s projection of 100% accuracy to flicker down to 99.99%, thus renewing Frank’s hope that the future can be changed, and the world saved. They reunite with Athena, teleport to the Eiffel Tower, within which a retro rocket ship is concealed, which they use to travel to Tomorrowland. Once there, they find that it is now desolate. Nix (who, mysteriously, has not aged) greets them and takes them to a bigger, more advanced version of the machine that Frank invented which shows that the world will be struck by apocalypse in just fifty-eight days. Nix explains that this dystopian vision of the future was projected to humanity as a warning. Instead, they ate it up and now guzzle down apocalyptic destruction in films, books, video games, and variety of other forms of dystopian fiction. The vision thus acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby, instead of taking action to prevent destruction, the human race have become complacent and given up hope on fixing the world. Nix is now content to let the world die, as it seems too late to save it. Casey, however, realises that the way to save the world is to destroy the machine that is transmitting the bleak vision of the future, and instead transmit the idealistic and hopeful version of Tomorrowland that she saw when she touched the pin. Voila, the machine is destroyed and the world (presumably) saved. We end with the framing device that opened the film, which is revealed to be not a video recording but Frank and Casey speaking to a new set of child robots who, like Athena, are recruited to track down the best and brightest and invite them to Tomorrowland.
From these plot summaries it might seem that there is not much in common between the two films. Further, that Tomorrowland is the far more optimistic and ‘beneficial’ of the two due to its message that we should fix the world before it is too late to do so - before it becomes a nightmarish dystopia of the kind in Mad Max. Despite their surface differences, however, there are many parallels between Tomorrowland and Mad Max. Both are populated with jaded men who have lost hope: Tomorrowland’s Frank and Mad Max himself. Their only goal is to survive until survival is no longer possible. They feel that they have failed people, and thus have given up on helping others altogether. These men are positioned alongside women (in some cases much younger) who still retain hope, however seemingly futile, that there is a way out of, or a way of fixing, the current situation and the future: Tomorrowland’s Casey and Athena, and Mad Max’s Furiosa, the wives of Joe (who are spectacularly named Splendid, Toast the Knowing, Capable, The Dag, and Cheedo the Fragile), and the Many Mothers. Through the (almost) unwavering hope and optimism of these female characters, our jaded male characters regain hope of their own. (We may also slot Nux into the category of men who regain hope. Nux keeps trying and failing to die with ‘honour’ in the name of Joe, until he has a meaningful exchange with Capable and switches sides, eventually dying for the cause of hope and survival.) Chiefly, each film is also concerned with the state of the world. In Mad Max the question is not how to ‘fix the world’, as it is in Tomorrowland, but ‘Who killed the world?’ It is, seemingly, already too late: the world has already gone to shit, but Furiosa, the wives, the Many Mothers (and later Max and Nux) believe that, if it cannot be saved, it can at least be escaped or, as is implied by the end of the film, ever so slightly improved.
On top of these parallels, the key link between the two films - a link which was made all the more apparent by my back-to-back viewing - is that Tomorrowland seems to be directly responding to Mad Max, or at least the type of film that Mad Max is. Early in Tomorrowland Casey tells an allegorical tale about two wolves who are fighting. One represents darkness and despair, while the other represents light and hope. ‘Which one wins?’ she asks. ‘The one you feed.’ Later, Nix’s rant against apocalyptic narratives makes clear that these are the things we are feeding and becoming engrossed by, thus becoming complacent and accepting of eventual apocalypse. Tomorrowland is, of course, absolutely right to oppose a future of the kind seen in Mad Max, to encourage us to fix the world before such death and destruction can occur. It also may have a point about dystopian fiction being potentially damaging and acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recent comparisons between a British reality show and The Hunger Games series is just one example of real life becoming a little too much like science fiction to be comfortable, while the sheer popularity of The Hunger Games and similar ilk is in itself evident of public thirst for dystopian narratives. Somewhat ironically, the difference in box office grosses between Tomorrowland and Mad Max also somewhat prove the point that Tomorrowland is trying to make: Tomorrowland’s worldwide gross currently stands at $178m and it is reported to lose up to $140m for Disney, while Mad Max’s current gross is $335m, far exceeding its budget of $150m. There may, of course, be other reasons for the underperformance of Tomorrowland than public thirst for dystopian destruction over utopian optimism, but the difference is worth noting. However, while I think that Tomorrowland makes some valid points and has good intentions, I find that its damning critique of dystopian fiction in the vein of Mad Max is actually rather reductive, making it a very cynical film rather than the beacon of optimism that it thinks it is.
Even before we get to Nix’s didactic speech in the final act of Tomorrowland, the film makes clear its position on dystopian fictional narratives. A poster for a fictional video game with an apocalyptic theme is shown many times throughout the film with a not-so-subtle tone of disdain, and a montage at Casey’s school shows teacher after teacher waxing lyrical about how everything is terrible: the icecaps are melting; there’s a war on every continent; governments are corrupt. The literature teacher namedrops Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pointing out that it prophesised all of this, but it also feels as if the film is blaming the text for all the ‘doom and gloom’ of today. Throughout the montage Casey waves her hand in the air, desperate to ask a question. When she is finally called upon she asks ‘Can we fix it?’ The teacher looks at her dumbstruck as if such a possibility had never even occurred to them. It’s all very well-meaning stuff, but that the film is so intent on using dystopian narratives as a scapegoat makes it come across as being very pessimistic and self-righteous. The messages are so heavy-handed and on the nose that the experience of watching the film is almost like being in a sermon; a sermon telling the audience that in daring to consume apocalyptic fiction we are enjoying culture in the wrong way and taking away the wrong messages. Having just thoroughly enjoyed Mad Max, this obviously left a bad taste in my mouth. Tomorrowland attempts to balance its preachiness with Casey’s bright outlook, and I would like to commend the actress Britt Robinson for managing to convey this without it seeming forced or disingenuous - despite my critical tone here, there are several pleasures to be had in Tomorrowland, and she is one of them. But Casey’s optimism is, sadly, not enough to offset the staggering amount of negativity in the film. As a result, I left Tomorrowland feeling really quite despondent, which is clearly not what director/writer Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof intended.
Part of this gloomy tone I was left with is due to the fact that, for a film that is so critical of apocalyptic narratives, it contains a surprisingly large amount of apocalyptic imagery. What seems to be real-life footage of riots, bombings and environmental destruction can be seen on the screens in Frank’s home. When Casey and Frank get to Tomorrowland and Nix shows them what the future holds using the device that Frank invented, we are presented with yet more disaster in the same vein. Casey uses the machine to locate her own home, which is shown within fifty-eight days to be destroyed by a flood - an image that is (I assume purposefully) eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet amongst these images, which the film seems to intend to show us as a warning of what will happen if we don’t take action, are other instances of destructive imagery which the film seems to intend to be spectacular and wondrous. When Frank, Casey and Athena take off in the rocket that is hidden inside the Eiffel Tower the launch causes a power outage and total blackout of Paris. This is a moment which could easily be taken out of any disaster film, right down to the crowds of people mindlessly recording it using on their smartphones, until those, too, are rendered ineffective by the effect of the launch. This might be considered a further commentary in the film upon the sharing of destructive imagery leading to cultural negativity - by making the recording devices inactive, the spectators cannot record nor share the sight. Yet for this to be the case, the film would have to be aware of the sight as a moment of destruction. Rather, the film treats it as a spectacle, as something to admire, supported by the fact that the blackout is caused by the vehicle that is taking our protagonists to the utopian Tomorrowland. The sight differs aesthetically from the images of ‘real’ disaster in the film: it is clean and neat, shown in a stationary long shot with the Eiffel Tower centrally placed so that the spread of darkness from the centre of the frame outwards is highly pleasing to view. This is opposed to the grey grittiness of the shakey-cam footage of floods and riots, but the moment is nonetheless highly evocative of apocalyptic imagery. That the film doesn’t seem to realise this, I found slightly disturbing.
Main Street USA and Castle, The Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, Disney Logo, Tomorrowland
In relation to this, the visual representation of Tomorrowland itself can be read as unintentionally unappealing. In appearance it is ‘so shiny, so chrome’, as Mad Max’s Nux would say. It is clearly intended to look like an idealistic, utopian place of awe and inspiration. On the film’s poster, and when Casey first glimpses it, it is shown in the far off distance surrounded by cornfields. In this way it strongly evokes The Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City, or perhaps the castle that can be found at the centre of every Disneyland Park and in the Disney logo. However, there is something about the slick, clean, concrete aesthetic of Tomorrowland that does not evoke the same wonder as the Emerald City or the Disneyland castle; rather, it might be considered as seeming sterile - a bit ‘too’ pristine. It is also interesting that the portal Frank uses to enter Tomorrowland is in ‘It’s A Small World’, which, like Tomorrowland the film, is an attraction with a well-meaning message (celebrating the multi-culturalism of the human race) but which can also come across as a bit sinister, due to its repetitive song, it’s over-the-top cheerfulness and slightly disconcerting animatronic children. Having recently been on the ride at Disneyland Paris, I can testify that the song lives up to its reputation and becomes very, very annoying very, very quickly.
A Small World
This unsavoury nature of ‘It’s A Small World’ has been highlighted in parodies of the ride in The Simpsons and Family Guy (apologies for the poor quality of these clips, and that one is in Spanish; they’re the best YouTube could offer): in the former, Lisa goes on a similar ride at Duff Gardens and has a nightmarish hallucinogenic trip; in the latter, Stewie gets kidnapped at Disneyland and is forced to perform at the attraction, where the animatronic figures are in fact enslaved children. Even as an ardent Disney fan - or perhaps because I am an ardent Disney fan - I appreciate such gentle mocking of Disney which highlight the ways in which it can be read as not quite as wholesome as the company portrays itself, and I can’t quite help but also mull over the potentially sinister nature of Tomorrowland. (While I won’t go into it here, many others have pointed out the quite elitist nature of the alternate dimension - only those special enough are allowed access - and the film’s overlaps with the politics of Ayn Rand.) Furthermore, the visual nod to the Emerald City can also be read as being laced with unintentional irony. While Dorothy is amazed by the Emerald City, this is not a place she wishes to remain; all she wants is to go home to Kansas, where the drab, grey-brown cinematography is in stark opposition to the Emerald City’s Technicolor splendour, at once signifying Kansas’ dullness as well as the comfort and safety it represents to Dorothy. The Emerald City cannot even fully satisfy Dorothy’s wishes: the Wizard is a fraud, making the city itself an emblem of false hope. How strange, then, that Tomorrowland, intended to encompass hope for humanity, is reminiscent of the spectacular but ultimately unattainable and unsatisfactory dream (literally) of the Emerald City.
To return now to the film’s use of ‘real’ disaster footage in the film - or at least, footage that the film is intending to be taken as disastrous - it seems to serve the purpose of scaring the audience into action. This is the very thing that Nix, the film’s villain, explains was his intention by showing the human race the destruction that is in their future; the very tactic the film is highly critical of dystopian fiction for seemingly doing. As a result, rather than being either scared into action or, as is the film’s intended effect, feeling uplifted or inspired, I came away feeling a bit hopeless: the ice caps are melting, the bees are vanishing, and the Tories are in power! Shit. Frank’s words at the opening of the film were ringing true - the future is scary, and fixing it is, I would wager, not as easy as Tomorrowland makes it look. (Destroying the doomsday-predicting machine and transmitting happy thoughts apparently averts an apocalypse - which seems to be caused by natural disasters - that is less than two months away.) I don’t want to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with Tomorrowland’s message, which is good-hearted at its core: if we work together and think positively, we can affect real change and make the world a better place. (It occurs to me know that this is essentially the same message as the one conveyed by the song ‘Everything Is Awesome’ from The Lego Movie, except that song is intended as a satire.) Unfortunately, in its execution Tomorrowland did not succeed in inspiring me. Instead, in just over two hours it had managed to completely destroy the high I had felt as a result of watching Mad Max.
Mad Max, while seeming on a surface level exactly the type of doom-and-gloom ‘everything is awful’* narrative that Tomorrowland is so disparaging of, is, for me, far more successful at conveying a sense of optimism and hope without being didactic about it. This may be partially because while Tomorrowland contains a great deal of exposition, Mad Max is a film (and a man) of very few words; it shows (and grunts) rather than tells. Visually, it seems to be doing the opposite of Tomorrowland: while that film seems to attempt to be optimistic, but scatters destructive imagery throughout, Mad Max is predominantly full of destructive imagery, but is littered with extremely powerful moments of optimism. The film’s colour palette is rich and striking, even though it is predominantly characterised by only two colours: orange and blue. The ‘orange and blue’ cinematography trope has been much maligned in recent years, but Mad Max takes it and uses it in a way that looks great and contributes to the film’s construction of meaning. I am thinking of two shots in particular from the night-time portion of the film. The first, in which Max and Furiosa sit in the two front seats of the War Rig, and the wives sit in the back. The wives are holding a lantern which casts them in a warm glow, from which Max and Furiosa are excluded, bathed only in the cold black-blue light of the night. There is, I am sure, a lot that could be said about the way in which the blocking and lighting reflect these characters and their relationships with each other - for example, the fact that Max and Furiosa are paired together and clearly visually separated from the wives - but I am particularly interested in the fact that it is the wives who are lit by the warm light of the lantern. As ‘prize breeders’ they possess the power to reproduce, to ensure the continuation of the human race. But as autonomous human beings they also contain the will to survive, the desire for basic human rights, and the freedom to choose whether or not to reproduce at all: ‘We are not things.’ Later, Nux is also shown cast in this golden light. While near the end of his life, Nux has been recently converted to the cause of the wives and is thus brimming with new found hope, ambition, and the desire to make his own choices rather than blindly follow Joe. As I will discuss in more detail below, he will later make the choice to give his own life to ensure the survival of others.
The other notable moment in which this lighting strategy is used is when Joe awaits on tenterhooks the health of Splendid’s unborn child (Splendid having died after falling from the War Rig). The vehicle in which the ‘doctor’ is examining Splendid is lit from within, casting the cabin in the same gold light as the wives in the aforementioned shot, while Joe and the other onlookers are excluded and cast in darkness. The baby does not survive, evoking cries of rage and devastation from Joe. Whether or not this is a good thing is debateable - the death of an infant is always tragic, but we would not have wanted the child to become just another of Joe’s warriors. Perhaps the ambiguity of this moment is reflected in the fact that the light source is not a flame, a ‘natural’ source, like the one that lights up the wives and Nux in the aforementioned scenes. Instead, the source is a bulb giving off artificial light imitating natural light, emblematic of the kind of life (or half-life, when it comes to the War Boys) that Joe gives. This collection of moments characterised by the bright light piercing the darkness can be read as visually reflecting the message driving the film, and which I believe separates it from, and makes it more hopeful than Tomorrowland: even in the darkest and bleakest of times, if we possess the smallest shred of hope and willingness, we can survive, and we can affect positive change.
Integral to the success of this message is the achievement of a high that I mentioned above. Tomorrowland opens on an ominous countdown, which gives the whole film an underlying feeling of doom. Mad Max, by being set after doomsday has already happened, is able to glorify and revel in its post-apocalyptic setting. The adrenaline-fuelled chase scenes and moments of bizarre comedy such as the sight of the Doof Warrior, who plays a flame-throwing electric guitar atop a truck moving at breakneck speed, are arguably more exhilarating and more purely fun than anything that has or will be seen on a cinema screen for years. This builds throughout the film, resulting in a crescendo, a huge climax of relief. The film’s ultimately hopeful message is able to ride upon the crest of this wave, and it would be impossible not to be deeply moved during the closing shots in which Furiosa is welcomed with deafening cheers by the liberated citizens of the citadel. This energy is aided by the film’s deceptively simple, but incredibly effective and satisfying narrative. Quite literally, the film has a linear narrative which sees the War Rig driving steadfastly in one direction, Joe and his War Boys in pursuit, until Max et al realise that they have to go back in the other direction to where they started. The resolution is not in running (or driving) away from a place that seems to be beyond hope toward another place that their hopes are set on: the mysterious Green Place. Here, comparisons can be drawn again with The Wizard of Oz. It could just be a coincidence that the Green Place and the Emerald City are both, well, green. Taking this perhaps tenuous link further, the Fury Road might be made of sand rather than brick but it is a shade of orangey-yellow. Like the Emerald City, the Green Place turns out to be a place of false hope. The solution lies not there or on the road ahead, but at ‘home’ - if Mad Max’s citadel can be called a home. ‘Hope is a mistake’, says Max. ‘If you can't fix what's broken, you'll go insane.’ But Max comes to realise that fixing what’s broken is, in this case, the best chance they’ve got at survival.
It is this sense of hope and optimism that the film projects that causes me to see Tomorrowland’s disparaging attitude towards dystopian narratives and insistence that they are bad for humanity to be so unhelpful and misguided. Tomorrowland might have a point that many dystopian and (post-)apocalyptic narratives might encourage us to view the destruction of the Earth as a spectacle, and not much more - a number of recent disaster films come to mind. But Mad Max is just one of many examples of the dystopian genre that uses its setting for narrative and ideological purpose, offers progressive resolutions, is relevant to contemporary audiences, and even echoes Tomorrowland’s message: we should not just accept a situation as beyond fixing, or abandon it, but actually work on it in order to ensure a better future. Tomorrowland claims that humanity does not heed the warnings that dystopian fiction gives us and instead accept these narratives as our future, but I would like to be more hopeful about the attitudes of my fellow humans and about the purpose of dystopian narratives. By imagining the very worst that humanity has the potential to become, they serve the very useful purpose of giving us a variety of specific futures to actively avoid. They act as measuring devices with which we can make sure that we are not fucking everything up - and is this not exactly what the above referenced article comparing a new reality show to The Hunger Games is pointing out? Rather than act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is also possible that these narratives meet audience’s desires to view death and destruction in fictional scenarios precisely because, while we might find this acceptable and enjoyable when viewed safely through the mediator of the screen, we do not want to see this happen in our reality.
Before concluding, I would like to give some last thoughts on another link between the two films: their treatment of death and violence. Mad Max is obviously a film full of violent ends: whether the many deaths of the War Boys, Splendid and her unborn child, some of the Many Mothers, or Joe himself. Some of these are tragic (Splendid’s) and some are highly satisfactory (Joe’s). Despite the huge death count in the film many of these deaths are very keenly felt, and serve the larger project of the film. The deaths of the War Boys, for example, are tragic in a particular way. They have been led to believe by Joe that committing suicide in combat is an honourable death that will allow them to be resurrected in Valhalla. We may not sympathise with them, but can recognise the uselessness of their deaths which are representative of Joe’s fascist regime. This detail is also integral to the journey of Nux the War Boy, whose death is perhaps the most tragic and affective in the whole film, yet serves a narrative and thematic purpose. Of all characters in the film, Nux is the most changed by the end. He begins as an obedient servant of Joe, and over the course of the film tries and fails several times to die in honour. He sees his failure to die as a failure to fulfil his life’s purpose, and possibly even a failure of his masculinity: ‘Mediocre!’, growls the patriarchal, hyper-virile Joe at Nux’s final failed attempt. When Nux does actually die at the end of the film it is after he has become abandoned by and disillusioned about Joe, and decides to join the cause of the passengers of the War Rig, i.e. the cause for hope, for the continued survival and betterment of the human race. Nux’s death is thus a part of the film’s larger progressive message, and shows that in the world of Mad Max death is not taken lightly or in vein.
Tomorrowland does not contain quite as much death as Mad Max, nor is it as violent. This might sound entirely logical, given that Tomorrowland is a Disney film with a large child audience. However, I would remind readers that Disney is the same studio that gave us the deaths of Bambi’s mother, Old Yeller, and Mufasa - these deaths are not graphic, but shocking nonetheless, and with narrative, thematic, and perhaps even pedagogical purposes. In Tomorrowland death serves no such purpose, but there is a surprising amount of it for the type of film it is. It is also strikingly and disturbingly clean. Throughout the film Frank, Casey and Athena are chased by killer robots armed with what seem to be vaporising guns. With these weapons they kill just about anyone who gets in their way, from police officers to a security guard on the Eiffel Tower. These deaths take place on screen and each is over in a second, yet there is no blood or gore of any kind and they are never acknowledged by the other characters. ‘But it’s a Disney film! For kids!’ I hear you cry again. That’s as may be, but then I would question why death is included at all if it isn’t going to be treated with any gravity or meaning. That death is treated with such little regard is, I think, actually far more disturbing than if it had been depicted more realistically. It also does a disservice to the film’s emotional climax: Athena, knowing that Frank is about to be shot by one of these vapouring guns, leaps in front of him to take the hit. As death has up until now been treated with such little care (by the robots and the filmmakers), the threat of Frank’s potential death, or Athena’s actual death, do not create the suspense or emotional weight that they should. The death of the T-800 at the end of Terminator 2 is narratively necessary, logical, and irreversible, and thus all the more devastating. Athena’s death is also irreversible, but not in a way that feels necessary to the plot. The film provides the rather convenient excuse that, as a safety measure, she will self-destruct shortly after being hit (thus avoiding the possibly of her being repaired). As this does not seem narratively necessary or logical it comes across as being clumsily shoehorned in for the sake of having an emotional climax. Athena’s ‘death’ is still sad and touching to an extent, but this has more to do with the superb acting skills of both Raffey Cassidy and George Clooney. It also helps that Athena is easily the best character in the film: with her clipped British accent and expert fighting skills she’s like a Mary Poppins/Terminator hybrid, but in the body of a pre-teen girl.
I am intensely aware that throughout this piece I have been extremely negative about Tomorrowland. While I admit to having enjoyed this somewhat, I can’t help but feel a bit bad about being so critical of a film that has such good intentions and many pleasures. Two of these, as I have said, are both Raffey Cassidy as Athena and Britt Robertson as Casey, while George Clooney is as charmingly grumpy as always. How wonderful, also, to have a tent pole summer film in which two of the three protagonists are female, even if the poster only shows not one, but two versions of Clooney’s character. Even though I find Tomorrowland to be not entirely successful, I feel glad a that film that at least attempts such optimism exists and is about as original as Hollywood films have been of late: named after a section of Disneyland, though with a wholly original narrative. While I find Mad Max to be the more enjoyable, better made, and more optimistic of the two films, I recognise that it is not necessarily a suitable film for children. That is not to say that children should not be exposed to dystopian or post-apocalyptic narratives - Pixar’s WALL-E and the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time show that this can be done brilliantly. (The creator of Adventure Time even cites the original Mad Max as an influence .) Extreme violence aside, what these examples and Mad Max: Fury Road have in common (and what sets them apart from Tomorrowland) is that they do not patronise or attempt to scare their audiences, they contain genuine hope and emotional resonance, are expertly crafted, and are just really fucking enjoyable. Kids deserve that just as much as grown-ups - if not even more.
* I recommend you read this phrase to the tune of ‘Everything is Awesome’.