This summer marks the 30th anniversary of what is considered the greatest blockbuster season of all-time: summer, 1982. That year, the cinemas were loaded with genre-defining classics that are still shaping the worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and action to this day. In this retrospective series, 1982: The Greatest Year, Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America will take a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental time in nerd culture history.
There have been stories about the ending of the world and of society since shortly after the first societies were created. For thousands of years mankind has ruminated on how everything they’ve created might end. Would it be fire? Flood? The wrath of an angry god? Plague? Or would we turn on ourselves and bring about our own destruction? Every generation has its own fears, every society an evil to dread. And storytellers, understanding this great truth, have offered up their own particular visions of the ending of everything down through the ages, as both a warning and — strangely enough — as a way of entertaining us, because sometimes the easiest way to appreciate what we have is to think about how easily or quickly it all could be taken away. We might have problems, but they’re nothing compared to that poor bastard who’s about to drown in hundred foot waves or be buried in lava. Now that would be really bad.
As our understanding of science and technology grew, so did the stories of our culture’s end. No longer did we fear plagues of locust, but diseases created by mad men who couldn’t contain their own creations, and instead of the Gods sending fire down on us, we brought our own fire through bombs. And with these changes came survivors, those who would carry on after the destruction, who would try to survive, perhaps even thrive in the post-apocalyptic world. Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe all wrote stories about how the world might end, and what would become of us when it did.
In the 1970s, however, a new idea about how society might end began to emerge, and while it was much less explosive than nuclear bombs, it was no less devastating — no more oil. Our entire civilization is built on oil, from the electricity we use to power our homes and factories, to the fuel that drives our cars. It’s in our plastics, our beauty products, it packages our food. We use it every day in ways we don’t even think about, but it’s finite, and eventually it’ll run dry. Or, even worse, it could be kept from us, held hostage. That idea became an all too real concept in the 70s when oil producing countries embargoed exports or lost control of their own governments, and suddenly the world was thrown into energy crisis after energy crisis. In 1979 cars would line up for miles outside of fuel stations, and the news media jumped on those images. Everyone was in a panic.
In times that like, when everything seemed dark, what the world needed was a hero, and that’s exactly what they got in Mad Max. Set in an undetermined future time, law and order broke down inAustralia, and only Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky could bring order to it. The film was a success around most of the world, but in the US it wasn’t until The Road Warrior, the sequel to Mad Max, appeared in 1982 that Max truly landed. In The Road Warrior we not only had an apocalypse we could understand — global oil reserves running dry — but we also had a hero who wasn’t out to save society or a country, or even his family. He was just trying to survive, and that was something everyone could understand. We couldn’t stop bombs from landing on us, and we couldn’t stop an army of tanks, but if we had a fast car, a gun with some ammo, and a faithful dog at our side, then maybe we stood a chance. Now all we needed was some gas.
And that’s just the struggle that Mel Gibson portrayed so incredibly. Back long before he became the butt of endless jokes and internet memes, Mel Gibson was an action icon, his dark good looks and feral intensity burning up the screen as he roamed the sandy wastes of Australia, looking for another gallon of gas so he could keep driving, keep surviving, and put as many miles as he could between himself and the pain of losing his family. He had his vengeance in Mad Max, but vengeance doesn’t keep you warm at night in the high desert when the winds blow cold, nor does it drive the pistons of your sexy black supercharged V-8 Pursuit Special. Only oil can do that, and petrol was hard to find in Max’s post-apocalyptic world. And in The Road Warrior, if Max was going to survive, then he would have to reach beyond himself, depend on others, and be the hero he no longer wanted to be.
To a ten-year-old boy like me, Mad Max was everything I wanted to be. He was tough, stoic, no-nonsense, and had a bad ass car. Never mind the fact that he lived in a lawless, barren wasteland. He could be his own law! He didn’t have teachers giving him quizzes, didn’t have parents telling him to take out the garbage. He was one man with a dog and a gun. How great was that? Even now, as a look at my bank statements and bills and letters from politicians begging for money lest their opponent win and the world end, the idea of being my own road warrior doesn’t sound that bad. And as gas prices go up and the heat rises, the idea of a global catastrophe turning society on its ear doesn’t seem that farfetched. Do I really want to be a loner roaming the badlands in search of gas and inner peace? No, not really. Does the idea of society crumbling still intrigue me? Absolutely.
As a storyteller I’m just as fascinated by the notion of the apocalypse as all the storytellers that came before me. Movies like The Road Warrior only help fuel that attraction. It featured places I’d never seen, people whose faces were unfamiliar, and accents I’d not heard before. The violence was brutal, as were the people, but it felt real, felt gritty. It was horrifying because it seemed so true, and in the early 80s it also didn’t seem all that unbelievable either. For me, it was more than a movie — it was a prophesy. I saw the movie as a lesson on how to live in a post-apocalyptic world. We all knew everything was going to end any second, but Max Rockatansky in The Road Warrior proved that not only could you survive it, but you could also be a hero.
And you could do it driving a bad ass car.
In my first novel, Haywire, I wrote about how humanity’s own technology might be turned against it to the possible devastation of everyone and everything. It was a look at our intelligence, and how we might be too smart for our own good. But, it’s in my upcoming novel A Minor Magic that I really delve into the idea of what surviving in a world that’s been burnt and destroyed means. The apocalypse is all well and good, but what do we do after that? That’s the real story. It’s the story we loved in The Road Warrior, and a story we’ll tell until eventually it’s no longer just a story. When that happens, I’m getting a shotgun, a dog, and a black supercharged V-8 Pursuit Special. If you see me coming, get off the road.