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What Started Mad Max’s Apocalypse?

What started Mad Max’s apocalypse? And do we even need to know?

Because the one thing we do know – and know for certain – is that an apocalypse IS coming. We won’t be dying quietly in our sleep, surrounded by friends and loved ones, at peace with a life well lived. Oh, no. We’ll be devoured by zombies, crushed under the toe of a giant monster rising out of the sea, choked by the radiation of a nuclear fire, caught in blast from an alien’s laser beam, or swept up in the torrent of an natural disaster.

The apocalypse is coming. History tells us so.

Mad Max: Fury Road is dead center in the tradition of apocalyptic literature, a genre of storytelling that traces back into ancient mythology and religion. Before the arid and desolate scenes from Mad Max, the earth was laid to ruin with wetness. A LOT of wetness.

In the Beginning: Stories of the Apocalypse

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

From the very beginning we’ve skipped straight to telling stories about the end. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a series of ancient Mesopotamian stories (written in c 2000 BC, in Sumerian cuneiform) that is considered by historians to be humanity’s first true work of literature. Not surprisingly, our first literature is an apocalypse story.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, angry gods send a deluge to cleanse the Earth of wicked deeds, but the immortal man Utanapishtim builds a boat to save his family, along with animals and grain.

The Epic of Gilgamesh planted the seeds of “the flood,” a trope in religion and mythology that can be found in ancient Hindu, Greek, and Mesoamerican stories, with the most recognized being the story of Noah, found in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic literature. Interestingly, Mad Max: Fury Road called back to these details in subplots about water and seeds.

An Apocalypse by the Numbers

Fortunately for Mad Max there wasn’t a lick of math, as that would have slowed down the deranged, non-stop, in-your-face action. But history reminds us that others liked their apocalypse by the numbers.

The ancient Mayans were mathletes, who in their Long Count calendar predicted the end of the world in December of 2012. Their calendar was an amazingly sophisticated expression of the Mayan cosmology, which like all good apocalyptic prognosticators, hypothesized a cyclical universe of death and rebirth. (Jean Grey might die, but the Phoenix shall be reborn again.)

Because the calendar was designed to stop counting in 2012, some most interpreters read into it a clear end-of-the-world prediction. Luckily, the world did not end in the year 2012, but I think we all agree that it still feels a little touch and go at times.

Ragnarøk, the end of the world as we know it.

At every point in history you’ll find people who believe they’re living the end times. The Norse had Ragnarök, a great end time battle that would bring the demise of Norse mythology’s foremost figures, the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Heimdall, and Loki.

And because we like our apocalypses to be both individually epic and historically familiar, Ragnarök included natural disasters, which led to the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world will bloom anew, the world being repopulated by two human survivors.

Give Rise to the Technological Monstrosities

Apocalypse stories as we know them today – environmental catastrophe, zombies, or death by technology á la Avengers: Age of Ultron, all have their roots in apocalyptic literature dating back to the early 19th century. Mary Shelley is often credited with authoring the first true science fiction novel in 1818, a little something called Frankenstein.

Shelley is also often cited as penning the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction. The Last Man was published in 1826 and was a three-volume future story in which a plague sweeps across Europe and the Americas triggering, you guessed it, chaos and war. As it was in Frankenstein, Shelley incorporated 19th-century ideas of technology and medicine into The Last Man, but alas, Shelley didn’t believe our science could save us and the last man on Earth perishes in the year 2100.

Apocalyptic fiction flourished in the following years, reflecting our societal concerns about disease, technology and the ever-increasing efficiency of war. Perhaps none are better known than H.G. Wells’ classics, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.

A Push-button Apocalypse

Click to embiggen monster.
Click to embiggen monster.

But the apocalypse story really took hold after the second World War, when the introduction of the atomic bomb exploded on the scene, proving that we had even more to worry about than plagues, aliens, and angry gods.

Suddenly, we were entirely capable of triggering the end of the world ourselves. The apocalyptic fire consumed us and we were the ones who struck the match. Whether it was our negligence, our greed, or our inability to hold the common good above ourselves, an apocalypse is society being punished for its transgressions.

The kaiju, the bombastically stompy monsters from Rodan to Mothra, were pure unstoppable forces, a potent and terrifying symbol of nuclear warfare. Unable to talk about the still fresh and painful Hiroshima, the Japanese created their symbol of apocalypse – Godzilla – a big lizard that was a lumbering personification of the American war machine, burning victims with nuclear fire.

In America, the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After brought Cold War anxiety into the living room, depicting the after effects of a nuclear war in small town America. With more than 100 million people tuning into the original broadcast, it’s still the single highest-rated TV film in history. Of course, just a few years earlier in 1979, the original Mad Max gave Australian audiences their first view of an apocalypse.

The Apocalypse of Today

By now the apocalypse has emphatically made the jump from religion to literature to pop culture, so the problem isn’t in thinking of a scenario that will lead to the end time apocalypse, it’s in finding a leading man who is action hero hunky enough to survive it (see: Furiosa, An Important Apocalyptic Hero). The apocalypse is getting bigger each time it hits the screen.

Apocalypse stories express our fear that society’s problems will prove too much for us, that our way of life is so deeply flawed it cannot survive. They struggle so fiercely to survive in The Walking Dead, but their humanity is so broken you wonder if anyone is left that is worth saving. So perhaps we should just let the zombies have it.

Click to embiggen Max.
Click to embiggen Max.

Likewise, Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t show a world worth saving. We don’t know what started Mad Max’s Apocalypse, but we could see that the only things left in its wake were grotesque, fierce, and uncompromising.

There’s no kindness there, no humanity. Max fought desperately to survive, but viewers had little idea why. Ah, but then he met Furiosa and began to understand her mission, and within him grow a seed of…hope.

The movie was a sci-fi adventure, an action extravaganza meant to provide a good time in the theatre. But director George Miller worked dead center in the tradition of history’s apocalypse story.

Mad Max: Fury Road captures the imagination. A post-apocylyptic world, creatively done, which just begs your thoughts to linger on it. It’s outlandish and weird and entirely lacks subtlety. But on the core storytelling level, the movie was about what apocalypse stories have always been about – the things that scare us in the here and now, blockbuster after blockbuster that pander to our deep fears of our horrifying demise.

Do we know what started Mad Max’s apocalypse? No, but it doesn’t matter, deep down we’re just afraid we wouldn’t be able to survive that fury road. Besides, history tells us that the apocalypse was bound to happen anyway.


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