Welcome to 2018. “Hope is a mistake.”
So grumble-mumbles Mad Max in 2015’s Fury Road. It’s a bit of shocking and seemingly nihilistic thing to have your protagonist (or at least your titular character) say and while he clarifies his stance a few times throughout in the movie, he never retracts the sentiment entirely.
Fury Road is essentially one long chase sequence (don’t know if you’ve heard), and for a chase to work you have to be running from something and (hopefully) towards something. Mad Max fulfills both those requirements: the heroes are running from Immorten Joe, and towards the fabled “green place of many mothers”. But, because this is how stories work, there’s more than just the surface level running. The movie starts with Max telling us “I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead.” The living part is obvious, and the dead part is from the people Max has failed to save in the past – implied to be the deaths in previous Mad Max movies but truly it doesn’t matter who exactly they are. Max has failed them and is haunted by them, and because they are dead and he is the one carrying them it doesn’t matter how fast or how well he runs.
Fury Road takes place in a whole society who is trying to outrun the past while simultaneously carrying it with them. “We’re not to blame,” howls Nux as he is hung out of a truck. “Then who killed the world?” demands Angharad. Who did? Angharad didn’t use up all the water, she didn’t use up all the gasoline, and she isn’t perpetuating a cyclical violence now that the rest of society has fallen. At the same time her lack of responsibility doesn’t prevent the death of the world from chasing her. Max’s demons are sketched onto the screen, but everyone clearly carries some. The wives, or their predecessors, are responsible for the War Boy army chasing them. Angharad is pregnant with a War Boy in the moment. Furiosa, when asked what she’s looking for, answers curtly “some kind of redemption”. Redemption from what? We know she has a mother who “died on the third day”, assumedly by Immortan Joe’s hand. She is not responsible for that death, but she still carries it with her, and has served Joe. Like the wives and Max and everyone, she carries some responsibility. They didn’t kill the world but they live with the consequences just the same.
The last time I talked about Buddhism here I talked about craving causing suffering (and, I will again note that I am even less qualified to talk about Buddhism than movies, though I’ve done a fair amount of reading on both). This can be craving negative, toxic things, but it also can be craving positive things, and hope would be one of those things. In more recent Buddhist books I’ve been reading I’ve been struck by another central concept: urgency. The books frame it as a possibility that you could be dead tomorrow (hit by a bus). But also if you put all your stock in a better tomorrow, you’re bound to be disappointed. As little Orphan Annie would tell you, tomorrow is only a day away, but it is also always a day away.
“If you can’t fix what’s already broken, you’ll go insane.” That’s the second part of the hope quote, and it’s an equally important part. Max doesn’t suggest there isn’t an option for a brighter future. He eventually buys into Furiosa’s ideals: not her hope, but her redemption. But unlike hope, redemption isn’t something ethereal you keep running towards. It’s something you can concretely get, and it’s only through turning around and fixing what’s already broken that redemption ever comes. When Max rides out after the Furiosa he suggests turning back the way they’ve come. “It’ll be a hard day, but I guarantee you that 160 days riding that way, there’s nothing but salt.” Fixing what’s already broken is much harder than running towards something that you’ll never be able to catch. At the end, however, you’ll hopefully be able to let go.
I’m not saying it’s subtle (it most definitely isn’t). Nor is it an in depth reading on my part – it’s exactly, as far as I can tell, what the movie is about. But it is a more nuanced look at what hope means than what we’re usually offered. Too often hope is portrayed as blind faith in something we cannot see but that, if we keep clawing forward, we’ll eventually reach – but since we don’t know what the hell we’re clawing forward towards, we can never actually reach it. Going into 2018 there are a lot of things in myself, in society, and in the world that I want to see change and which I’m hopeful will change. Hope, alone, is not enough. We’re going to have to turn around and face some things that are broken, and the days we do that are going to be hard days. Is that too schmaltzy of a way to end an article about a movie with a butt load of explosions? Probably.
My recent Buddhist reading, both of which truly stressed urgency in a way that resonated with me more so than some previous readings were The Three Principal Aspects of the Path and Buddhism without Beliefs, for those interested.