Road Warrior is among the rare breed of films that, in seizing total beauty by the neck, transcends its medium to reach into the misty dimension of art. This is no movie. This is life, vivisected into 24 pieces per second, splayed over your bedroom screen. This is film.
The film opens with the past – film-reel history of a world of dashed hopes and abandoned dreams. Humanity’s oil reserves destroyed in war, society quickly devolves to its roots, an anarchic Outback of twisting highways and merciless gangs. As much as Road Warrior is a treatise on the future, it is a treatise on the past. Max is our tortured protagonist, driven to desolate thievery and disconsolate solitude by the death of his wife on the road. With nowhere else to go he rides the highway in search of the precious oil that fuels his car and his life. When he stumbles upon an oil rig under siege, the last dying vestige of the old world order, he must make a choice to protect it from the savage Humongo gang or to tap its resources and continue his life unfettered by attachment.
The central struggle, the dichotomy that permeates the film, lies in the question of demarcation between the hero and villain implied by Max’s choice. Max and Humongo, by the assumption of the audience, inhabit polar roles of morality – but who are we to make that call? We see the question in Max’s catchphrase “I’m just here for the oil,” in the rig society leaders’ face when Max threatens to leave, in Humongo’s open arms during his offer for peace. Here are two leaders by their own right, ejected from and ruled by their parallel pasts, more complicated than the Outback war allows. During his speech to offer a truce between the rig and the gang the camera catches a glimpse of the dashboard of Humongo’s car: there’s a photo of a man with his wife and child. Is it Humongo himself? It could just as well be Max.
The main conflict, then, is not the war itself but Max’s struggle for self-identification. Faced with the true nihilism of the post-apocalyptic Outback personified in the masked Humongo – a nihilism so profound that, when it finds voice in his speech to the oil rig, it is indistinguishable from love – Max must find a way to define himself without resorting to his haunting past. As an audience, we know that this struggle must come to a head. When Max, wounded and nearly destroyed, must choose to watch his car and his only friend burn by his own hand, the total loss is almost palpable. Yet as Max knows well, that loss is among the most powerful emotions in the canon of human experience. As after the death of wife, it drives him to his choice.
Road Warrior, at its heart, is a love story – not one of cheap romance or tired cliché, but of the profound and inseparable connection between family and humanity, of man’s undying need to connect his definition of himself to someone else. The final shot displays Max, bloody, battered Max, seemingly alone on the burning road as he looks out upon the camera and the outback – and yet, as the audience knows, the camera itself shoots from the perspective of the bus. Max is not staring into the void; he is looking back at his family, the family that he will never see again. This is his family – this is his present – this is him.
I cried, Mel Gibson. I cried at your horrible, god-awful movie, and I don’t forgive you.