Dystopias tell us a lot about ourselves (thoughts on Mad Max and Never Let Me Go)

One of my favorite things to do is watch movies with my mom and my sister. We are not your typical trio of female movie watchers. You would think that a trio of women who live alone together would take advantage of that and have chick flick marathons nonstop. Wrong! We started off our weekend with Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Max is, for lack of a more suitable word, mad. From the moment the main character devoured a live, squirming lizard, I knew it was going to be absolutely insane. The movie is a massive car chase interrupted by brief pieces of dialogue. I swear, the number of people who came close to being run over by a car or a truck or a bike or a tank is nothing compared to how many people actually were run over by a car or a truck or a bike or a tank.

The people in this dystopia have narrowed down to three major resources: Water, gas, and bullets. The three major “towns” each control one of these resources. That makes shopping pretty simple. If you aren’t a member of one of these groups, you’re in trouble because they hunt you down and enslave you. These slaves are used as breeding stock and blood donors, among other things.

In the movie’s inciting incident, several of the slaves at Water Town escape, leading to an epic pursuit across the desert. These people will do just about anything to be free, even if it means they might die in the attempt. Life is short, and life is dangerous. To sum up the mindset that most people have in the Mad Max world, a War Boy begging to go on a mission declares that, “If I’m going to die, I want to die historic!”


Let’s contrast that with another dystopia that I encountered this weekend. Never Let Me Go is a movie based off a book by Kazuo Ishiguro. On the back cover of the movie, there’s an image of two people running away into the distance. That never happened. There are no chase scenes in this movie. People walk through nice little English villages and drive down nice little English roads. It’s the calmest, most peaceful dystopia ever. I might just be saying that because I’d watched Fury Road immediately beforehand.

Never Let Me Go follows three English boarding school students, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. These three are in fact clones created to donate their vital organs to “real humans” who need them. Because of this, people in this world live to be over 100 years old. On the flip side, Donors don’t even live to middle age. At first, the Donors accept their roles. That’s just the way it is. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but they hear about a way that their donations could be delayed for a couple of years, and they set out on a journey of hope, trying to win a little bit more life for themselves.

After watching Mad Max and Never Let Me Go, Mom and Sister and I compared and contrasted the two. We ended up comparing the Mad Max world to Ancient Rome, where life was so dangerous that you were lucky to live to the age of 40. People were much more careless with their lives, because they didn’t have much time anyway. The quality of life was based on acts of valor. I’m not saying that’s a better way to live, but the sentiment is… nice. The quality of life is important, more important that the quantity. 

The really great thing about dystopian fiction is that it shows us “what the world would be like” if one thing about life right now changed. The setting, the culture, the technology may be different from what it is now, but the story is still about human beings. Humans don’t change. This genre allows us to explore humanity under a different lens, and it doesn’t tell us so much about the setting or the technology, but it tells us a lot about ourselves.

Never Let Me Go addresses the question of whether a life can still have meaning when it’s cut short, like the life of a Donor. I learned from Mad Max that your life can have great impact, even if it’s terribly short. The people in Never Let Me Go were focusing on the length of life, having enough time to do everything you ever wanted to do. The main character, a Donor named Kathy, comments on how regardless of how many years they live, Donors and humans are all the same. “Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we have enough time.”






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