Peak Oil Flicks

The Road Warrior

Hell on Wheels

There was no competition when it came to choosing my first Peak Oil Flicks pick. It had to be “The Road Warrior,” filmdom’s most prescient allegory of life without oil. Certainly, other films have trod this same terrain of post-apocalyptic dystopias—“Terminator,” “Damnation Alley,” “Panic in the Year Zero” and many more. But “Road Warrior” is the entry that cuts right to the chase, so to speak, and in its first five minutes identifies its central protagonist: it’s all about the Oil.

Well, the gasoline, actually. In the “Road Warrior” world, the bleak and depopulated Australian outback, a vicious, marauding motorcycle gang has besieged a tiny compound of survivors. Oil, the viewer quickly learns, is the scarce commodity and focal point of this society. And the survivors are targets because of the oil refinery they operate and guard, apparently the only one for miles around. The detritus of car culture surrounds them: stacked tires form the barricades and ramparts; the “gate” guarding the desert compound is a dilapidated orange school bus. In this heavily armed, lawless nightmare existence, the battle cry is “Defend the Fuel!”

The film does not detail the specific factors that led to this societal collapse. (But remember, this is Australia, where –in real life -- the region has endured crippling droughts for five years, and last month was hit by floods of Biblical proportions -- climate events signaling environmental destruction, resource emergencies, and displaced populations.)

In the prologue, a narrator, under grainy black-and-white scenes of oil derricks and billowing smoke, hints at the cause:

                  “It was another time…when the world was powered by the black fuel.
                  Deserts sprouted great cities of pipes and steel, gone now, swept away.
                  Without fuel, they were nothing. The thundering machines sputtered 
                  and stopped.  The gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for                 
                  a tank of juice. Only those mobile enough to scrounge would survive…”
Enter the character of the Road Warrior, none other than Aussie-bred Mel Gibson in his breakthrough American film role. (This was long before Mel made headlines for his anti-Semitic rants, assaults on his female companions, and stints in the slammer for Drunk and Disorderly.) Here, he is the hard-bitten loner cruising a landscape littered with skeletal remains of vehicles, seeking gas for his battered V8 Interceptor.

Road Warrior rescues one of the compound survivors being tortured by the motorcycle thugs on the premise that he can get some of their fuel. The compound inhabitants eventually welcome the Warrior as a hero. One of them confides to him that the community plans to escape soon, headed for “Paradise,” located somewhere on the distant coast. He produces a postcard depicting a sunny, palm-lined scene –although it’s unclear whether this is an actual place, or an old advertisement for the Australian version of Club Med.

No wonder the inhabitants want to move on. They lack culture and communication with the outside world. There’s a shortage of women, too, unless you count the comely babe with the salon-quality blonde highlights and fetching, immaculate togs. There’s also no visible means of survival beyond their precious oil, including that of food production, except for a few chickens and pigs (but no gardens.) And what about water in the desert?

The people entreat the Warrior to guide them to safety, but having refueled at their refinery, he laconically demurs, “I’ve got everything I need.” One of the leaders responds, “You don’t have a future.”

The film climaxes in a fiery, spectacular chase to rival NASCAR in sheer velocity and decibel level.  The compound inhabitants make their getaway with the Warrior’s help. They don’t have any draft animals and it’s too far for them to walk, so they drive to Paradise in their orange bus.

Is Paradise real? Do the survivors ever reach it? “The Road Warrior” offers no firm resolution, but there is this: the survivors may not have a compass to point to their destination, but they pull together as a community and head toward what they believe is a future worthy of the effort. In the final scene, the Warrior – having almost single-handedly wiped out the motorcycle gang – stands alone on an endless road with no destination in sight. Because, really, what does the future hold for a loner who has no plan beyond the next filling station?