This last week I watched a couple of films that I think have gotten some critical attention, and success, but are still underrated. And, for me, kind of mind-blowing. But, maybe I’m thinking too much.
Okay, first of all, both of these films were nominated for Oscars. Fury Road won 6 of the 10 for which it was nominated! Arrival only won a single gold statue but garnered 8 nominations. So, it’s a bit stretched to say these were underrated films. I’m not suggested people didn’t realize these were good films. Obviously they did. Arrival has made nearly $200 million dollars worldwide on a $50 million budget and Fury Road made nearly twice that! No, these films have critical acclaim and lots of tickets sold. To me, what’s underrated is what each film managed to do and discuss in the course of their narratives. Namely, Fury Road honestly should make no sense whatsoever but, it’s completely coherent and even appears to be a relentless action film high on style but low on meaning. And, Arrival wants you to think of it as science fiction film but is much more of a meditation on the nature of our existence, our place in the cosmos, and how we think about the world and perceive it. Both of these films should leave you asking yourself about your place in the world, the universe, and society. What is civilization? How did we get here? Where are we going? And… why?
It’s the question that starts it all. We have been asking “Why?” since we learned to ask questions at all. Why is the sky blue? Why are there so many stars? Why does it rain? Sit down with a three year old and get ready. Every declaration you make will inevitably be met by the interrogatory “Why?” from the toddler.
“You need to eat your vegetables.” “Why?”
“We don’t hit our friends.” “Why?”
“Let’s put on clean clothes.” “Why?”
And so on. You just can’t answer enough times. There is always another why. But, it seems like as we get older, we stop asking why. At some point we just accept it. It is, that’s why.
So, Arrival has one answer to “why.” Because that’s the way we think and the way we think is predicated upon the language we speak. I’m going to try not to spoil the movie but if you haven’t watched either film yet, it would be a good idea to do that before reading the rest of this essay. Arrival uses the science fiction film to make us think about how we think and speak. It gets taken for granted. Most of us never think about the words we use and why we use them. And, it probably never occurs to most people at all to consider how our language, the diction, the syntax, is actually a framework for how we look at the world. We have all heard the (false) story of how the native Inuit people have 20 words for snow. It sort of makes sense that if your entire world is snow then you might have a more intimate relationship with snow and need more descriptive words for it than the one.
On the other hand, we have one word, “love” to describe a range of feelings. I love ice cream. I love my wife. I love heavy metal music. I love the smell of sage on summer mornings. I love my kids. All of these feelings but only one word.
Arrival uses the idea that a language you use changes the way you think. As a result of learning the alien language, the main character, Louise (played by Amy Adams) sees the world in a very different way and is able to save the day. But, the part of this film that blew my mind is it is also asking us to consider if we really understand fate versus free will. The predominant philosophy today is that we have free will. Even if you believe that God has a plan for you, you probably think that you have a choice to follow that plan or not. Few would say that our lives are predestined and we are going to fulfill our destiny no matter what. We, especially, Americans, like to see ourselves of agents of our own destiny. We can do what we want, be what we want.
But, Arrival asks us to consider: what if we don’t really fundamentally understand time and as a result, we don’t understand our place in the cosmos? I have an amateur understanding of physics, basic and incomplete. I once read a book written by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace in which he tried to explain higher dimensions. Paraphrasing, because it has been many years since I read it, he gave the example of 2 dimensional beings who live on a sheet of paper. They might conceptually understand a third dimension. But, they wouldn’t be able to perceive it. Or, fish, living in water, might not really be able to understand the world on the other side of the surface of water, even though they can see some of it,
Is this what time is like? What if you could fold time like a piece of paper? We see time as linear experience, moving from the past to now into the future. But, what if that’s only because we are limited in our perception of time? And what if it’s because of the words we use? Our language is actually very much predicated on this understanding of time. We have verb tenses based on time, the past, present, and future. Our very words indicate time and it is impossible to speak about almost anything without also defining time. The ball is red. The sun was hot. The boy will be here. Every complete sentence has a verb and every verb specifies a time. So, our very language structures our thinking about time as a linear, one way experience.
What if our language is actually limiting our experience of the world?
The other thing that occurred to me watching the film is how utterly alone we must be in the universe. Or, maybe we should hope we are. It’s comical to me, but scary, that the film explores the idea of what it would be like if aliens suddenly arrived. This has been done over and over. War of the Worlds, Independence Day, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and more. The story usually varies between the good aliens that have come in peace and want to help us, or the evil aliens here to destroy us and we have to fight them. If there are other advanced civilizations and if one does show up here, we better hope that they are the peaceful, helpful aliens. The truth is, if aliens were to visit us now, or in the next 1,000 years, I have to think that their technology will be so far advanced from ours that they will be essentially gods to us and we could only cower, grovel, and depend upon an advanced sense of ethics to go along with their advanced tech allowing them to travel the vast distances of space.
I regularly will reflect upon the distances in the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. Interstellar travel is impossible. Or, it is if our understanding of physics doesn’t change in the future. People used to think a human being would die if they ever traveled on a train going over 30 mph. People wondered if humans would be able to survive the forces of air travel or going into space. Go back 20 years and tell someone that they will carry around the internet in their hand, using a computer the size of a candy bar, with a touchscreen, wirelessly connected to every other networked computer in the world, and they will think you are talking about science fiction. They might even say, “what’s an internet?” My first home computer in 1987 has 20 megabytes of hard disk space. That’s insane. I carry around a USB flash drive with twice that much and it cost me under $10!
To say something like “interstellar space travel is impossible” feels a bit foolish if only because it displays a hubris that we know all there is to know about the universe. In fifty years, much can change. In 100 years we may be seen as barbarians in much the same way a Civil War doctor seems like a butcher for hacking off limbs off left and right that today a doctor would save. But, what would it take to change the situation? What would make interstellar travel possible? We would need some way of dealing with vast time, and space, or both, in order to travel anywhere beyond our solar system. Time, itself, is a kind of distance. It is a measurement of the distance from one moment to the next. But, unlike other distances, we see only one direction to travel in time.
I have no clue how, or if, we will be able to do this. Will we learn to manipulate spacetime such that distances become inconsequential? Instead of traveling through space, we travel around it. I don’t know. Right now, it’s impossible. So, if any aliens were to show up in giant ships and they want our planet, then we will just have give it to them because fighting them would be like Seal Team Six fighting a tribe that has lived isolated in the Amazon for centuries. It won’t even be close.
Mad Max: Fury Road is utter madness. It is also utter genius. What other film is like it? Is it a Western? A Fantasy? A Science Fiction film? Mindless action thriller? It’s all of that. I’ve watched this film several times and, on one hand, it’s completely bizarre to think about the world of this film. The setting is our future, it appears. Or, a future. But, it looks like our world but also not our world. Those look like our cars and trucks and motor bikes. The technology looks familiar. They have crossbows, leather, spears, hand grenades, and machine guns. One of the characters tells his machine gun, “Sing brother Koch!,” a reference to the brand Heckler and Koch. The war boys chant “V-8! V-8! V-8!” We have heard of the V-8 engine. We know what that is.
Yet, you have to ask, what the hell happened to get them to that point? And who lives that life and is okay with it? Those characters all appear to live in a world of constant stress, constant flight or fight, constant trauma. And maybe the worst thing is that no one seems to think anything is abnormal. Oh, water is rationed? But, you’re going to pour it out on the ground in a giant wasteful cascade? Okay. You wear a respirator with a skull face all of the time? Sure. Someone affixes a skull logo to your codpiece for you after someone else blows powder onto your festering, scared back? Yes, that’s reasonable. Or, what kind of outlook on life do you have if you take a prisoner and make him into a literal bag of blood for you? What kind of value do you put on humanity if you think it’s okay to make people live their lives with metal cages on their face? Or their genitals (the wives of Immortan Joe wore chastity belts that looked like gaping mouths filled with steel teeth). All of the world says life is cheap and that existence is brutal and short.
But, that’s not even the most mind blowing thing, to me. That George MIller had this vision and put it on screen represents a remarkable achievement. But, the fact that it makes sense is the craziest thing of all. Why do we watch it and buy into any of the madness? Why don’t we reject it for the fever dream it is? Shiny and chrome? Witness me!? We look at the skulls, the wives, the strange masks all of the bad guys are wearing, and we accept it! What in this film is coherent and familiar enough to make it palatable to us?
Fury Road at once seems futuristic and anachronistic and medieval. It takes the fascism of Nazism and combines it with the brutal warfare of the Middle Ages. It is a perfect amalgam of genres that is the specific domain of post-modernism. Hand to hand combat with blades, crossbows, saws, knives, and spears gives us that medieval anesthetic as do the armors, the “cavalry” of the car chases. But, the guns and explosives make us think of the modern action film, the war film, and even the Western. The desert setting must be a deliberate allusion to Monument Valley and the classic Westerns. Max Rockatansky makes sense to us because his anti-hero character resonates with Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” and Dirty Harry.
Is it a heist film? Furiosa is stealing Immortan Joe’s prize possessions, his breeding wives. Is it a quest film? A love story? Will Max and Furiosa learn to trust and to love and redeem the world of it’s hate? No, he’s leaving. He’s not going to help fix the world, he’s going to disappear into the wilderness again, just like the High Plains Drifter. Maybe it’s like a pirate film. The war boys and Joe seem to have a pirate culture and instead of ships, it’s cars and trucks. Instead of an ocean, it’s a giant expanse of sand and sun. Look at the “pole cat” warboys who swing on giant poles to attack other trucks and cars. It clearly echoes the way pirates would swing from rigging ropes to board enemy ships.
The reason that the gibbering instantly of Fury Road makes any sense at all to us is because it combines, cutting and pasting familiar elements of multiple genres. But, the true genius of the film is that it does it so well and still remains introspective and thoughtful.
Wait, the film with a guy strapped to bungee cords and playing random heavy metal power chords atop a super custom rig that has the sole purpose of driving him around with amps all while flames shoot out of the end of the guitar is thoughtful?
I think so, because the film seems to question culture itself. Why do we do what we do? How do we build culture? What do you have to go through to get to a place where reality is as depicted in Fury Road? Another reason that Fury Road makes sense is because Miller has clearly thought about this world and has created a mythology, a history, and there is depth there. A common criticism of post-modernism is the lack of heart and emotion. Fury Road threatens to go there. The nihilistic cult of Immortan Joe, woven of threads of death and destruction, and itself a pastiche, equal parts Viking myths (Valhalla), Christianity (water symbolism, the savior of the people, etc.), and NASCAR.
The film asks us to consider where our culture is taking us. Do we blindly follow our leader? Or, are we fighting for freedom? Are we victimizing others in order to enrich ourselves? Maybe it isn’t important exactly what “killed the world” in Fury Road as it is important to ask ourselves how far we are to making it possible. Are we killing the world? Are we worshipping death? Are we treating human life as worth only what we can take from it?
Both films ask the audience to consider the fundamental things that make us who we are, our language and our culture. What makes us do what we do? Here were are, rotating on a small rocky planet inside of an outer arm of relatively average sized galaxy, one of millions? Billions? Trillions? Do we even know how many galaxies there are? And, there we are, tiny little people, mere specks of dust when scaled against the cosmos, and we think what we do is sensible and obvious. But is it? Why do we do the things we do? We build houses, walls, fences, and lock the door at night. We used to live much closer together for safety but not now. Is that better? By what metric would we judge? Here we are, on this tiny planet, floating through a hostile vacuum of space, making up the rules as if we know what we are doing.
Why does anything we do make sense? Why are we not howling insanities at the skies above us all night long as we stare into the existential crisis that is interstellar space? How can we look into the blackness above us and not be utterly disturbed by how insignificant we really are in the face of it all. Part of the reason is because we don’t think about it. And, the other reason is that it doesn’t matter. Does it? All we have is ourselves and our lives here. What can we do in the face of such insignificance and powerlessness? Nothing. Or, rather, we can’t change that, so we create significance. Try to find “the green place” for each of us. Live with respect for the humanity in each of us. Try to see life from someone else’s point of view. Try to speak their language so you can truly understand them. Find love in the desert. Love someone even though you know they will one day leave you.
Live in the incoherence. Dwell amid the insanity. And, try not to be mediocre.