Since it is beginningless and endless, samsara is about the time we’re always in. So you could say that every film describes samsara, whether the film is aware of it or not. But post-apocalyptic films are self-consciously about a world in which civilization has fallen apart, so they provide a peculiar analog to a film like Samsara (which presents a world that is falling apart moment by moment).

In a scene from The Road Warrior, the Feral Kid has just returned to the compound after an encounter with the marauding gang of the hugely muscled and hockey-mask-wearing Humungus. The audacious Kid has just used his boomerang to kill the blonde slave of the deranged biker warrior Wez. The Kid proudly shows his bloodied weapon to Mad Max (Mel Gibson) and makes chopping motions, expecting to enjoy Max’s approval. Instead Max looks at him impassively, and then reaches into his vest and takes out the tiny mechanism of a music box and begins to slowly turn the crank.

A music machine (from Film Ladd)

“Happy Birthday” begins to play, and the Feral Kid forgets his weapon. He is so enchanted he begins grunting like a little monkey. Max looks down at him with weary yet lucid eyes, and continues to play. The film lingers over this scene, Max calmly watching the Kid, the Kid beside himself with delight. Finally Max stops, reaches forward, and gives the music mechanism to the little boy, who runs off like a dog with a very precious bone.

The Feral Kid being a kid (from Film Ladd)

In some sense, this is the heart of this post-apocalyptic film. The apocalypse has already happened – Max’s family was killed in the first film, even before this one began. The world has long lost almost all of its oil, its “precious juice.” Max is a loner roaming the desert caring little for himself and less for others. But here is a revelatory moment, where we experience very directly what’s left inside Max, and it’s striking. I can’t say what director George Miller’s intentions were, but more interesting is whether a scene carries some element of truth – and this one does.

The post-apocalyptic film has a question to answer, which is: What is the world like if there is no purpose? In pre-apocalyptic films – romantic comedies, thrillers, mysteries – life has meaning, and people are filled with passionate aims. By comparison, apocalyptic films (like 2012 and Contagion, to name two recent examples) tend to be about managing the apocalypse, and that’s also an important business to get through. But in post-apocalyptic films meaning is in the past. So what are humans like if they don’t have meaning anymore?

Wez and his slave (from Drafthouse Cinema)

The cultural vision is unsure on this point, and films reflect it with schizophrenic images. On the one hand, we imagine the landscape filled with literal (28 Days Later, etc.) or figurative flesh-eating zombies, characters like Humungus and Wez, wildly psychopathic human animals. The films seem to say: people are going to be like that, because people are like that. We can all relate to this idea, because we see versions of it around us all the time. But that might just be the surface – what are people really like on the inside? We gain most insight into that through the protagonist, because that’s who we identify with and feel into.

The post-apocalyptic protagonist is typically an Unlikely Hero or Reluctant Warrior (think The Road Warrior, The Postman, 12 Monkeys, Children of Men, etc.). The Unlikely Hero is a cliché in the movies, but usually the situation is that a normal man finds himself in unusual circumstances, and these circumstances call forth a quality or passion for life that he didn’t realize he had. But in The Road Warrior – and this is often the case in post-apocalyptic films – the hero (Max) doesn’t become a hero because of his passion about anything.

Revenge was the driver in the first Mad Max film, but not here. His witnessing of the apocalypse has brought something unexpected out of Max. He literally does not want to help, he tries not to help, but he can’t help himself from doing so. This is not rage or passion but compassion. Curiously, we’re left with an edifying understanding about what is left at the end of the world, right alongside lust for power and zombie rage.

Not so mad Max (from Blue-ray.com)

The Road Warrior has an interesting counterpoint in a film that owes its cinematic vision to it, The Book of Eli. Here the protagonist of the film, Eli (Denzel Washington), hasn’t been fully apocalypsed. The great catastrophe hasn’t done its work in emptying him out; instead Meaning has been injected into him in the form of a voice in his head, and he’s on a mission. With great faith and determination, he’s carrying the Good Book to the West Coast. But the problem is that, in clinging to the text, he’s become a crackpot, too close in spirit to the deranged killers he keeps chopping up with his machete. Clearly he’s the good guy, but the pitilessness with which he goes about his business makes him a poor representative of the human heart. At the end of the film we learn that he’s blind, and I can’t help but feel that at least one symbolic meaning of this point wasn’t intended by the film’s writer but came through anyway: Max sees, but Eli doesn’t.

Blind Eli (from Book of Eli Music)

At the end of The Road Warrior, the good group escapes while Max drives a tanker truck as bait for Humungus and his throng. He doesn’t know that his truck is actually filled with sand and that he is merely a decoy. Although he almost dies in the effort, when he finds out, he laughs. Of course he does – that feels right too. In a voiceover, the Feral Kid, now an old man who had eventually become the leader of the group, recounts, “And so began the journey north to safety, to our place in the sun…We travelled far beyond the reach of men and machines….The juice, the precious juice was hidden in the vehicles.”

What’s left when everything is taken away?

Running on empty (from I hate peacocks)

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