Creatures and Machines

urban sustainability, resiliency + humans

On the ‘Sovereignty of Planet Earth:’ Bookending the Industrial Revolution with Tales of Life and Living.
Left, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures. Right, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Two of last year’s most popular films, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, both serve as allegories for humans’ perceived place in Earth’s ecosystem today. Each tells their respective cautionary tales of survival, bookending the peak of the industrial revolution and the logical end of its aftermath. Here we examine the films together in the context of each other, and how our ideas of the past and future reveal where we are now.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant pulls us into a tall tale of history, brimming with frosty mist and crackling firelight, depicting the harsh and sublime realities of nature through a plot driven by the human condition exposed to the elements. Protagonist Hugh Glass is repeatedly thrust into tests of will throughout the entire two and a half hour film. The action is relentless: competing fur trappers, warring native tribes, bears, white water rapids, an avalanche, and a blizzard, against a continuous backdrop of freezing temperatures and minimal food. Through everything, nature itself is the most volatile and persistent threat, repeatedly underscoring our own frailty and isolation in this world.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller flings us into a dystopian future where constrained resources have eroded society into a post-oil, post-television alt-future running on resource scarcity, in an environment with surprising parallels to the pre-oil, pre-television milieu of The Revenant. It’s implied that intervening centuries of mismanagement and aggression led to the dire state we find in the film, creating space for only more oppression, resource-hoarding, and violence. It’s easy to wonder which came first, and whether the loop is as inevitable as the water cycle itself.

Set in the early nineteenth century, The Revenant brings us back to the fur-trapping route across the midwestern US and Canada. Iñárritu draws on motifs of family, loyalty, and friendship in a world that may otherwise appear completely desolate; the mesmerizing cinematography and sound editing are the driving force behind the film’s central theme of survival. Landscape plays a critical role in the film, perhaps even more important than Glass himself. Each location was chosen for its pristine and virgin condition, flawless in the sense that human interaction and development inherently alters (for the worse?) the ‘natural’ trajectory of the planet.

In immediate contrast with Glass’s experience, today we have come to enjoy our ability to mitigate (and to an extent control) the more extreme aspects of nature. First with heating systems, followed by portable air conditioning units, central air and now Nest—‘the learning thermostat’—we live in temperature settings prescribed by our everyday behavior, marking the natural world as a more romantic and exotic experience that exists beyond our daily lives. Glass’s nemesis John Fitzgerald hints at the dawn of this transition in one of The Revenant’s final scenes, mocking Captain Andrew Henry, “Didn’t figure an important man like yourself to be away from your stove on a night as cold as this, Captain. You lost?”

Fast forward through our comfortable and climate-controlled present to a future in Fury Road. A series of wars that may or may not have been nuclear but definitely involved oil and water transpired sometime during living memory, devastating civilization and bringing with them a vernacular of radiation sickness (tumor-riddled War Boy Nux is nearing the end of his “half life” and needs a nourishing transfusion from his captive “blood bag,” Max); a scrappy, scavenger mentality (those beautiful cars!), and a messianic fervor (“I live, I die, I live again”) as only the post-apocalypse can. Obviously the idea of coming back from the dead also pervades The Revenant; in his pursuit of Fitzgerald, Glass proclaims that he is unafraid to die, because he has died already, presumably along with the totems of his chosen life, his Pawnee wife and son. He tells his son (and is again told by his wife’s apparition), “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.” He is living to live, for the sake of being alive, like the elk, the buffalo, the bear. It is survival. He is aware that his nemesis, Fitzgerald, has everything to lose, even though Fitzgerald lamented at the loss of his pelts, “Life? What life are you talkin’ about? I ain’t got no life! I just got a living and the only way I get to do that is through these pelts!” Fitzgerald’s is a different kind of survival, one dictated by commerce, and work, and supply and demand. It is a living, and yet he feels he has no life. Glass and his foil are stand-ins for how the Industrial Revolution churned humanity away from animal-like survival, inventing a “living” as replacement for “life;” livelihoods moved away from the family unit, workers moved into the great (climate-controlled) indoors, and greenhouse gases began their rapid release into the sky. Yet the social, political, and climatic consequences of the IR, intended or not, seem by Max’s time to have boomeranged us back to yearning for a more basic existence, one rooted in family (blood or chosen), and the investment of human capital (mother’s milk and “hi-octane” blood, both byproducts of human existence, are active sources of sustenance). In Fury Road, Nux’s persistent quest for a meaningful death (“I live, I die, I live again”) transforms his first half-life living as a grunt War Boy into a second life-half for the survival of his chosen family: Furiosa, Max, the Brides, and by extension, everyone at The Citadel. The narrative has revolved full-circle, but what got lost in the process?

Beyond the narratives, both films were technical feats, becoming two of only five films ever to be nominated for all seven of the Academy Award technical categories (Fury Road walked away with five of the seven, losing out to The Revenant only in Cinematography and the non-technical category of Directing.). In order to create The Revenant’s spectacular visuals, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski only shot with natural light. But, it does seem dissonant to continuously tout the importance and difficulty of shooting with natural light, and avoid any CGI for its repugnant artificiality (aside from the bear, of course), while paying hydro-companies to raise the water levels of the rivers to achieve a certain effect. Even if we could, would we really desire a world where nature can be easily preserved, visited and manipulated, existing as a separate ‘Jurassic Park’ from our own comfortable daily routines?

In contrast, much of Fury Road was generously manipulated in post-production with CGI, including the more apocalyptic elements of the environment, but the cars and the majestic War Rig were authentic. The “western on wheels” is powered by a collection of handmade, foraged-from-scrap, gloriously souped-up muscle cars that all would have come off the assembly line sometime in the pre-1979 original Mad Max world, ironically for these post-apocalyptic scavengers, a time of gas-guzzling and low MPG (though surely their tinkering could solve that problem out of necessity; the sturdy hulking shells are what matter here). Notably, neither film won for visual effects, perhaps because of their vocal adherence to authenticity, however manufactured.

Furiosa drives the Brides in the War Rig off-road to forge her own path through the red wilderness, a “Fury Road” that leads away from Gas Town toward the Green Place of Many Mothers. That lush green place is now a miasmic blue bog, a literal quagmire populated by other scavengers: crows and the stilt-walking Crow Fishers, “Vuvalini who stayed behind” to eke out a living in their degraded homeland.

Deserts and bogs are archetypal no-man’s-lands, aptly set in juxtaposition as the barren wastescapes through which our fertile heroines are pursued. The Vuvalini who return in Furiosa’s caravan carry with them heirloom seeds saved from the Green Place, lushness frozen in time and space. The Citadel has turned inward, using the technology of indoor vertical farms and ersatz terraced green roofs to generate at least enough surplus produce to trade with Gas Town for guzzoline (presumably to close the loop by keeping the vertical farms running and the water pumping ever upward). These seeds—themselves heirs to a forgotten, landbound life of changing seasons and cyclical weather patterns—are tiny capsules of potential carried through treacherous terrain in hope of finding a new place to root. They are transported and protected to the death by the elder Vuvalini, along with a Bride and the War Boy Nux (from the Latin, “nut,” aka, the seed of a tree). This satchel of seeds is the bridge between the lost past and the future they are fighting for, the mechanism for both a way of life and life itself to survive passage through the inhospitable landscapes onscreen.

But in real life, deserts and bogs are, of course, just as teeming ecosystems as any lush green place on Earth. The film was shot in Namibia in part because the original setting in Australia was too lush after years of unusual rainfall—a phenomenon not unlike the El Niño-inspired superbloom that happened in Death Valley this spring or the Atacama Desert last year. When a place so accustomed to drought gets just a little bit of rain at the right time of year, all those markers of life that were there all along, just beneath the cracked and finely-tuned layer of lichen, bacteria and other microorganisms found in a cryptobiotic crust, come out of their (totally natural) hibernation in a way humans recognize as “alive,” even though the landscape was alive all along.

Perhaps it is again ironic that these films warning of the imagined effects of human-caused war, desperation, and resource depletion should have been hindered by the inadvertent effects of an IRL changing climate like this. Whether it is the unvarnished terroir of abundance in which our resourceful protagonist Glass nevertheless finds himself starving, or the scorched earth across which our merry band of antiheroes rebound toward their foregone origin in Fury Road, the desolation inherent in both landscapes is integral to the stories that unfold against them.

This twist in the narrative begs the question of what a post-nuclear landscape might actually look like. Is it so unlike a pre-nuclear landscape? In one expert’s opinion, a nuclear winter would mean a blackened sky, plunging temperatures, global ice age, and mass die-off. But, with the death of civilization would come a grinding halt to both human-influenced global warming and desertification. The water cycle would chug on. Dams would break without infrastructure maintenance, aquifers would recharge without crop irrigation or fracking runoff contamination. Any species that survived the ice age would grow anew, and start to evolve into new species.

By manipulating the actual scenery in The Revenant, Iñárritu nods to the delicate harmony of horror and beauty that exists in nature, and its subsequent interruption by American colonialism. As Glass lies dying, infection spreading deeply in his wounds, we are transported to a vision of the afterlife. Here, Iñárritu literally places Glass at a dilapidated altar in a snowy field with branches just beginning to sprout through the crumbling masonry. Glass clutches his murdered son only to realize he is clinging to a tree. Fury Road draws the inverse image of this same visual with the tree sinking into a dead oasis. Rather than civilization subordinating to nature, our future selves have marginalized nature to a mere bag of seeds and mechanized its processes with indoor vertical farms, Gas Town, the Bullet Farm, and the dead Green Place. This central theme of balance is repeated formulaically in Iñárritu’s overt symbolism: at the brink of starvation, fish and bison appear, Glass’s infection is cured by foraged Pawnee herbs, and, when the blizzard sets in, shelter manifests. In Glass’s survival, he paid penance, and nature came to the rescue. Max’s survival odyssey through a seemingly-dead landscape (“Who killed the world?”) also depended on a sort of foraging—sustenance through scavenging depends on available, unowned resources, points to the idea that even the post-apocalyptic world will continue to turn. We just have to make sure we have place in it.

“One of the problems when you have a regressed world is that people become territorial in the sense that they believe in a kind of sovereignty, either of a little patch of earth or an ideology. And it’s that kind of ignorance and rather limited view of the universe that is, I’ll be presumptuous enough to say, at the heart of all evil, of all the warmongering that goes on—in the film and in actuality. We’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief only when the sovereignty of the planet Earth overrides all other sovereignties, be they ideological, national, or geographical.” – George Miller

Maybe Mad Max’s future is the best scenario we can hope for after all.