Who Killed the World? Automotive ecstasy and apocalyptic despair in action cinema.

Promotional image for the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros., Inc.)

There is a moment in director Guy Hamilton’s 1974 James Bond picture The Man with the Golden Gun when the nascent environmental anxieties that colored 1970s politics collide—awkwardly but almost invisibly—with the spectacle of pop action cinema. TMWTGG was Hamilton’s fourth and final 007 feature for Eon Productions, and is generally regarded as one of the more embarrassing entries in the franchise, the presence of British genre icon Christopher Lee notwithstanding. Although the film pits Roger Moore’s Bond against Lee’s playboy assassin Francisco Scaramanga in a kind of globe-trotting gentlemen’s duel, the atypically personalized plot is less memorable than the film’s pervasive anti-Asian racism, its excruciatingly cartoonish humor, and its relatively limp martial-arts action sequences.

However, TMWTGG is also notable for unfolding against the backdrop of the first global oil shock in 1973. Although Scaramanga is concerned foremost with his personal rivalry with 007, his appropriately super-villainous scheme concerns the theft of a ground-breaking prototype solar energy component, which will allow him to corner the market on efficient green power. It marked the first instance of a Bond film incorporating an environmental issue—an occurrence that would not be repeated until Quantum of Solace (2008), which referenced the Cochabamba Water Wars that upended Bolivia at the turn of the millennium.

Although the environmental aspects of TMWTGG’s plot are not overbearing, a distinct strain of resource-scarcity anxiety murmurs underneath film. This is epitomized by the grousing of Bond’s handler M upon the discovery that the solar prototype is in nefarious hands: “Coal and oil will soon be depleted. Uranium is too dangerous. Geothermal and tidal control too expensive. I know all that.” Although contemporary sustainability challenges are no less pronounced, it is hard to imagine a character in a 2019 action blockbuster offering such a curt, fatalistic assessment. Not incidentally, M delivers these lines inside the charred, capsized wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor, a grim if fitting metaphor for the fossil-fueled late-colonial might of the West.

What is just as startling, however, is the dissonance created by TMWTGG’s most audacious action sequence: a car chase through the streets of Bangkok pitting Bond in an “appropriated” AMC Hornet against Scaramanga’s AMC Matador coupe and a fleet of Thai police vehicles. … Doubling for Bond, stunt driver Bumps Willard uses a typhoon-damaged bridge to leap a canal in the Hornet, performing a 360-degree mid-air barrel roll that Hamilton captures in one glorious, unbroken wide shot. It is pure silver-screen automotive bliss … yet also an embodiment of the sort of gas-guzzling excess that haunts the film’s oil-shock plot.

When he eventually confronts Scaramanga, Bond even raises the specter of that all-purpose international 1970s bogeyman, “oil sheiks,” who 007 suggests would like to lease the stolen solar technology just to bury it. (Never mind that the 1973 OPEC embargo had a somewhat diminished impact in Britain, which in early 1974 was embroiled in election-shifting uproar over coal miner pay—energy fears were everywhere.) A certain glib cynicism about global affairs had always characterized the Bond films, but there is something startling about an action film with an inflation-adjusted $500 million box office grimly acknowledging that industrial civilization has a finite lifespan, and that human greed would deliberately hasten its demise.

What is just as startling, however, is the dissonance created by TMWTGG’s most audacious action sequence: a car chase through the streets of Bangkok pitting Bond in an “appropriated” AMC Hornet against Scaramanga’s AMC Matador coupe and a fleet of Thai police vehicles. The chase culminates in what would emerge as one of the most iconic and jaw-dropping practical automotive stunts of the late 20th century. Doubling for Bond, stunt driver Bumps Willard uses a typhoon-damaged bridge to leap a canal in the Hornet, performing a 360-degree mid-air barrel roll that Hamilton captures in one glorious, unbroken wide shot. It is pure silver-screen automotive bliss … yet also an embodiment of the sort of gas-guzzling excess that haunts the film’s oil-shock plot. The Bond franchise has never been known for its socio-political reflectiveness, and, as such, it is unsurprising that the bitter irony of the juxtaposition goes entirely unacknowledged.

This chase sequence—in an otherwise regrettable third-string 007 feature, no less—arguably marks the first instance in which mainstream action cinema’s automotive fetishism ran headlong into the growing societal awareness of resource depletion and environmental sustainability. Hamilton’s feature is too concerned with the escapist essentials of spy thriller cinema to concern itself with such subtext, of course. Moore himself would later help scorn the U.S. government’s post-embargo frugality efforts—as epitomized by the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Law—in Hal Needham’s 1981 automotive mayhem jamboree The Cannonball Run.

However, it was not long before another genre enthusiastically embraced the conceptual clash between gearhead glee and the anxiety of global collapse: the dystopian science-fiction film. With his seminal 1979 Ozsploitation indie, Mad Max, director George Miller created the first forthright cinematic expression of this tension. Ominously enough, the film is set only “a few years from now,” where a still-recognizable Australian landscape is in the midst of a long, slow collapse into lawlessness and desolation. While the Mad Max franchise would eventually muddle its apocalyptic backstory into a purposely mythic mélange of oil wars, water wars, and nuclear fire, the looming end of petroleum’s prosperity was very much on the mind of screenwriter James McCausland:

 

A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol—and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence. A couple of years later, George Miller conceived the scenario for Mad Max. […] George and I wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.

 

The brilliance of McCausland and Miller’s script is evident in their clear understanding of humanity’s short-sighted perversity. In the context of oil scarcity, automotive fetishism is not only absurd but counter-productive. Yet the filmmakers recognized that humanity would violently resist any effort to curtail its gas-guzzling ways, in part because the automotive industry had been so successful in its post-WWII effort to equate freedom with a ribbon of highway—particularly in wide-open former British colonies like the United States and Australia.

It was not long before another genre enthusiastically embraced the conceptual clash between gearhead glee and the anxiety of global collapse: the dystopian science-fiction film. With his seminal 1979 Ozsploitation indie, Mad Max, director George Miller created the first forthright cinematic expression of this tension.

In truth, the original Mad Max is more “proto-apocalyptic” than post-apocalyptic, wherein the features of civil society are mortally injured, but still functional. Anti-hero Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a highway patrolman at the outset of the film, which chronicles his tragic descent from ostensible peace officer to amoral vigilante. While Max’s arc is precipitated by the murder of his police partner, wife, and infant son at the hands of outlaw bikers, Miller’s film almost seems to frame the protagonist’s downfall as an inevitability, one of countless miserable tales in the world’s grueling slide into a post-peak-oil Dark Age.

Several of the design features that would eventually be associated with the franchise in the popular imagination—the over-the-top BDSM-flavored costumes, for example—were not pushed to the forefront until the sequel, Mad Max 2 a.k.a. The Road Warrior (1981). However, the in-universe automotive fetishism of the series is established in the original film’s very first scene, by means of the gearhead slang bellowed by fugitive criminal Nightrider as he roars down a desert highway in a stolen police “Pursuit Special”:

 

 

You should see the damage, bronze. Huh? Metal damage! Brain damage! Heheheheh! Are you listening, bronze? I am the Nightrider! I’m a fuel-injected suicide machine! I am a rocker, I am a roller, I am an out-of-controller! I’m the Nightrider, baby!

 

 

McCausland and Miller’s screenplay births this punk-tinged vocabulary into existence fully-formed, underlining the supremacy of “guzzaline”-powered thrills even in a world undergoing its death rattles. While the Mad Max series has become increasingly bizarre and bonkers as present-day reality has receded further and further into the rearview mirror, the automotive obsession is a constant—sometimes receding into the background, but fundamentally embedded in the series’ DNA. This is manifest in the franchise’s commitment to ground-breaking practical effects and stunt work, reflecting the gearhead’s lust for the physicality of metal, glass, and chrome and the bone-rattling thunder of a nitro-boosted engine.

Indeed, the original Mad Max presents the law officers of the Main Force Patrol (MFP) as being just as obsessed with power and speed as their criminal counterparts. When an MFP mechanic presents Max with a customized, supercharged Pursuit Special—in reality a modified 1973 Ford XB Falcon hardtop—he is left as speechless as a kid on Christmas morning. “She’s meanness set to music and the bitch is born to run!” enthuses the mechanic, echoing the language of the very speed-freaks the MFP hunts.

While the Mad Max series has become increasingly bizarre and bonkers as present-day reality has receded further and further into the rearview mirror, the automotive obsession is a constant—sometimes receding into the background, but fundamentally embedded in the series’ DNA.

At the outset of Miller’s series, there is little to no recognition among the remaining wardens of law and order that society’s collapse can be reversed or even decelerated. This has resulted in an automotive addiction that is partly attributable to a perpetual arms race with criminal gangs, and partly to a hedonistic Rome-is-burning fatalism that would just as soon reap some high-octane pleasure before the fires go out. Whatever window for mitigation that might have existed at some point—a massive worldwide investment in renewable energy, for example—has long since passed, and there is now nowhere to go but down. Director David Michôd crafted a similar, but much grittier vision of the near-future in his underrated dystopian Aussie crime thriller The Rover (2014), which inevitably invited comparisons to the original Mad Max. While the car at the center of Michôd’s film is more of a film noir MacGuffin than a means for action sequences, its enigmatic, burned-out owner (Guy Pearce) memorably hits upon the hopelessness of the post-collapse world when he observes with dead-eyed exhaustion, “A threat means there’s something still left to happen.”

The three Mad Max sequels produced to date—all directed or co-directed by Miller—are more speculative objects, imagining how an automotive culture might endure even after the last remnants of civilization have been swept away. Mad Max 2 presents gasoline as a prized commodity mostly collected via scavenging, with a trickle of new supply produced by handful of humble drilling operations that dot the parched and blasted landscape. Nomadic bands roam the wastelands, where sustaining forward momentum has become a frenzied goal all its own. Fittingly, while Mad Max 2 has fewer car chases that its comparatively low-fi predecessor, it climaxes in a stellar action sequence for the ages that doubles as a world-in-miniature metaphor: Max and his allies attempting to protect a barreling fuel tanker from vengeful bandits on souped-up cars and motorcycles.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) rather injudiciously places the series’ automotive fetishism on the back burner—the film’s first and only car chase is also its climax—but partly compensates for this flaw with vivid world-building, imagining how a de-populated, resource-starved world might further evolve. The memorable centerpiece of the film’s vision is Bartertown, a trading settlement power by methane from pig waste and held together by a gameshow-indebted justice system. As in previous entries, Max’s involvement in the story’s conflict is motivated primarily by his desire to survive. Fuel, water, and weapons are the only currencies he is interested in, despite the fact that he is not headed anywhere in particular. Much like the films and cars that surround him, Max is constantly in motion, a post-apocalyptic iteration of the itinerant, ambiguous do-gooders—the war-weary ronin and squinting gunslingers—that inhabit other genres.

At the outset of Miller’s series, there is little to no recognition among the remaining wardens of law and order that society’s collapse can be reversed or even decelerated. This has resulted in an automotive addiction that is partly attributable to a perpetual arms race with criminal gangs, and partly to a hedonistic Rome-is-burning fatalism that would just as soon reap some high-octane pleasure before the fires go out.

It is in the 30-years-later sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), however, that Miller’s series finally achieves its apotheosis, blending apocalyptic angst with an automotive zeal in a manner that puts its predecessors (and pretty much every other action film) to shame. Despite the film’s recasting of the titular protagonist (Tom Hardy), Fury Road preserves the essential form of the other two sequels, placing Max into the role of the drifter who enters the story, provides reluctant assistance to the characters, and then vanishes into the wastes. Here, however, Miller provides only the slimmest threads of connection to a recognizable world. Auto-worship has become literal in the form of Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) War Boys, a cult of kamikaze gearheads who believe they will be spirited to Valhalla if they die gloriously in motorized battle. The last remnants of knowledge about the old world, meanwhile, are sustained by a clan of elderly woman bikers, the Vuvalini, a few of whom still remember a time when there were green places.

Such wisdom is not available to Immortan Joe’s scrabbling subjects, his fanatical War Boys, or his five beloved concubines, the latter of whom are emancipated by Joe’s traitorous lieutenant Furiosa (Charlize Theron). “Who killed the world?” one of the slave-wives demands rhetorically, even though evidence of the murder is everywhere. It never seems to occur to the characters that the guzzaline they revere as a divine elixir was itself the grease that lubricated the planet’s demise, or that the steering wheels treated as ritual totems War Boys are emblems of that world-despoiling weapon of choice, the internal combustion engine. Still, the righteously wrathful Fury Road at least offers some hope that humanity might learn from its ravenous mistakes. How exactly the world was killed might be a mystery, but the who seems all-too-obvious: men. Men and their consuming hunger for more power and more speed.

What is truly remarkable about Fury Road is that Miller places this caustic, tough-minded, and unabashedly feminist critique at the center of one of the most jaw-dropping action films ever made. The entirety of the feature is essentially one long chase sequence, which occasionally idles but never truly stops for 120 glorious minutes of twisted metallic mayhem. The discomfort engendered by the film’s anarchic, high-octane glee rubbing shoulders with its critique of humankind’s plundering, contaminating ways is a feature rather than a bug. Miller masters this tug-of-war between the visceral thrills of action cinema and the bitter reproach of apocalyptic fiction as no other filmmaker can, transforming it into Fury Road’s defining feature and signature mark of brilliance.

What is truly remarkable about Fury Road is that Miller places this caustic, tough-minded, and unabashedly feminist critique at the center of one of the most jaw-dropping action films ever made. The entirety of the feature is essentially one long chase sequence, which occasionally idles but never truly stops for 120 glorious minutes of twisted metallic mayhem

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While no other dystopian action film has managed to square this particular circle with such fantastic success, many have found ways to indulge their autophilia in the context of other apocalyptic scenarios. Alex Cox’s very funny and defiantly punk-spirited Repo Man (1984) unfolds in a crapsack “weird tales” Los Angeles that feels about ten minutes into our own future and a year or two out from Mad Max’s dystopia. Although more of a scruffy satire than an action film—it boasts just one decent car chase—Cox’s feature presents a coveted 1964 Chevy Malibu as its science-fiction MacGuffin, and eventually as a means for teenager Otto Maddox to liberate himself from his dismal future, brainwashed parents, and the casual violence of dog-eat-dog L.A. street life. It is a novel approach: Here the car represents liberation from society’s downward slide, a sacred, beautiful, and enchanted object that represents the best of humanity’s achievements. Not incidentally, Otto’s parents are Evangelical ex-hippies. To a disillusioned child of Boomers raised on the punk rock of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, a classic Detroit roadster from the 1960s might look like American civilization’s peak—especially from the dismal vantage point of the Reagan era.

In James Cameron’s seminal action epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), meanwhile, technology is the enemy, personified by the sophisticated T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a nigh-invulnerable “liquid metal” robot who can duplicate anyone’s appearance. In the Terminator mythos, an artificial intelligence designed to guide defense decisions turns on its creators, kicking off a protracted but lopsided war between humankind and its machines. Sent back through time to pre-emptively kill the still-adolescent future leader of the human resistance, John Conner (Edward Furlong), the T-1000 clashes with a reprogrammed, outdated T-800 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) dispatched to defend John.

Like most of Cameron’s science-fiction features, T2 never resolves or even confronts the nagging conflict between its story’s inherent technophobia and the filmmaker’s taste for breathless, steroidal cinematic devastation. However, the bifurcation of its cyborg character into the protective T-800 and murderous T-1000 prompts Cameron to craft action sequences that visually distinguish the former as the underdog and the latter as the overwhelming threat. (Given the disparity between Schwarzenegger’s and Patrick’s physical statures, this cunning design to the film’s set-pieces becomes all the more vital.) This approach is particularly observable into two thrilling chase sequences, both of which allow the T-1000 to literally loom over his quarry.

In the first, the T-800 and John races through the flood control channels of the San Fernando Valley on a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle, relentlessly pursued by the T-1000 in a menacing heavy-duty Freightliner FLA tow truck. In the second, the heroes are fleeing in a battered Chevrolet S-10 pickup on the Los-Angeles-to-Long-Beach stretch of the Terminal Island Freeway, while the T-1000 bears down on them in a Freightliner FLC semi with a tank trailer. (A tanker full of liquid nitrogen, no less, a fact which becomes relevant in the film’s climax, in a rare example of “Chekov’s cryogenic liquid”.) The asymmetrical nature of both chase sequences—heroes in a small, vulnerable vehicles and villain in a massive, intimidating vehicle—allows Cameron to emphasize terror over pure adrenaline rush, underlining the film’s dystopian conceit of machines as lethal threats not entirely under our control. Ultimately, however, Cameron neglects theme in favor of the more primeval concerns of blockbuster spectacle.

Although more of a scruffy satire than an action film—it boasts just one decent car chase—Alex Cox’s Repo Man presents a coveted 1964 Chevy Malibu as its science-fiction MacGuffin, and eventually as a means for teenager Otto Maddox to liberate himself from his dismal future, brainwashed parents, and the casual violence of dog-eat-dog L.A. street life. It is a novel approach: Here the car represents liberation from society’s downward slide, a sacred, beautiful, and enchanted object that represents the best of humanity’s achievements.

This is not the case with Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s post-apocalyptic, cyber-punk Matrix series, which serves up philosophical rumination, imaginative sci-fi world-building, and potent action filmmaking in equal measure. (Though it at times fails to syncretize these elements coherently.) The second film in the franchise, The Matrix Reloaded (2003), features the series’ keystone automotive set piece, a mind-boggling extended chase sequence on an elevated urban expressway involving—among other vehicles—a Cadillac Escalade EXT, Freightliner FLB semi, Ducati 996 sport-bike, and a fleet of Chevrolet Impala police cruisers. The twist to this set-piece, of course, is that it is not “real,” unfolding within the confines of the virtual reality simulation-cum-prison known as the Matrix. The gauntlet of automotive mayhem that heroes Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) navigate is nothing but a torrent of ones and zeroes beamed into their slumbering brains.

This conceit allows the Wachowskis to—if not entirely evade the thematic discord that afflicts the similarly technophobic Terminator films—at least add another layer of complexity to their series’ moral equations. Throughout the Matrix films, the tyrannical A.I. that would turn humankind into glorified bio-batteries seeks to crush a small resistance of liberated humans in both the physical world and the virtual work of the Matrix. Central to the resistance’s revolutionary ideology is the notion that they use the machines’ own technology against them, most conspicuously by bending (and occasionally breaking) the operating parameters of the Matrix in action-heavy virtual encounters. Despite the fact that the Matrix—and, indeed, all of the machines’ technology—is ultimately power by billions of enslaved humans, the resistance appears to have no qualms about using it to secure the downfall of their would-be A.I. despots.

Watch closely during Reloaded’s chase sequence and one can glimpse the omens peeking above the highway noise barriers: pollution-belching smokestacks, ominous nuclear cooling towers, and the endless concrete snarl of other elevated expressways. The Matrix thereby becomes a kind of virtual haunted space, a junkheap memory of humankind’s consumptive excess and over-cranked industrialization near its historical peak.

Elsewhere in the Matrix series, the action tends to favor hand-to-hand combat and gunplay, but the centerpiece car chase in Reloaded underlines just how cheeky, peculiar, and multi-faceted the conflicts in Wachowskis’ dystopian world can be. Digital representations of archaic real-world technology (i.e., cars, trucks, and motorcycles) become the weapons in a virtual clash between malevolent sentient programs and humans plugged into computers at the neurological level. Much as they do elsewhere in their film series, the Wachowskis seed the simulated late-20th-century world of the Matrix with signposts of the industrial- and atomic-era advances whose net benefits might be regarded as ambiguous at best. Watch closely during Reloaded’s chase sequence and one can glimpse the omens peeking above the highway noise barriers: pollution-belching smokestacks, ominous nuclear cooling towers, and the endless concrete snarl of other elevated expressways. The Matrix thereby becomes a kind of virtual haunted space, a junkheap memory of humankind’s consumptive excess and over-cranked industrialization near its historical peak.

Which brings us to Pixar Animation’s Cars series, a family-friendly, autophilia-suffused film franchise that, at first blush, seems hundreds of miles from the forbidding dystopian and post-apocalyptic fictions mentioned above. However, the series’ central conceit—an Earth populated by sentient vehicles—is the sort of superficially charming Hollywood high concept that becomes perplexing and disturbing when one begins to pick it apart. The cars themselves appear to be techno-organic entities, as they possess enormous eyes and mouths, including lips and teeth. Indeed, motorized machines evidently fill numerous ecological niches in the Cars universe. Tractors are the series’ “cows” for example. (Which begs the question: Are tractors milked for motor oil and slaughtered for scrap?) As if these aspects were not confounding enough, the original Cars (2006) memorably reveals that minuscule flying Volkswagen Bugs populate the series’ insect world, a revelation that leads inevitably into a baffling logical cul de sac where engineering collides with evolutionary biology.

It might have been possible to dismiss these as the fanciful details of a frivolous, speculative cartoon fiction, if the Cars films did not make such an emphatic point of depicting a world modeled on contemporary, post-industrial human society. The Cars landscape is dotted with gas stations, restaurants, hotels and other infrastructure that makes little sense in a world without people. (There are also door handles on the sentient cars themselves, despite the fact that their doors never open and they do not carry passengers.) As Jay Ward the franchise’s Creative Director and the author of its “bible”—conceded during the Cars 3 press junket in 2017, one could reasonable conclude that the films depict a post-human world where cars discarded their owners at some indeterminate point in the past. What initially appears to be a harmless kids’ cartoon about funny talking cars can therefore be viewed as a kind of unintentional riff on Maximum Overdrive, the notorious 1986 Stephen King-directed camp horror picture about murderous, self-aware semi-truck trailers.

Pixar Animation’s Cars series, a family-friendly, autophilia-suffused film franchise that, at first blush, seems hundreds of miles from the forbidding dystopian and post-apocalyptic fictions mentioned above. However, the series’ central conceit—an Earth populated by sentient vehicles—is the sort of superficially charming Hollywood high concept that becomes perplexing and disturbing when one begins to pick it apart.

As one might expect in the present age of runaway Internet fandom, Disney/Pixar devotees have taken the convoluted but canonical world-building presented in Cars (and its Disney Animation offshoot Planes) and extrapolated it into some truly mind-bending places. Some have speculated on the necessary existence of, for example, a Car-Hitler and Car-Jesus, based on the on-screen evidence presented to date. However, beyond such trippy dorm-room discussions about the series’ bizarre in-universe implications, the Cars films serve as a disquieting reminder of the extent to which humankind’s love affair with the automobile is tinged with a nagging sense of our species’ fragility and disposability.

The original Cars feature is, in fact, richly steeped in nostalgia for the Route 66 roadside culture of mid-century America, and this wistfulness—the longing for a vanished, more romantic world—can be read as a proxy for the sentient cars’ longing for their missing owners. Whether this scans as affecting melancholy or twisted irony depends on how one supposes that humankind was erased from the Cars universe. If humans were extinguished by their own failings—or, as a Pixar conceptual artist once theorized, by a force majeure event like a meteor strike—the cars are akin to the pets left behind to puzzle over their owners’ graveyard world. If, however, the cars are the agents of humanity’s destruction, they are experiencing remorse over their metallic race’s genocidal ways, and are now mired in an existential hell of their own making. For without a driver, what is the point of a car?

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