Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Countdown to Armageddon: The Road Warrior

What follows is the first of several evaluations (or in some cases, re-evaluations) of films from the post-apocalyptic genre. These are not movie reviews or scholarly treatises on the art of film-making. They are simply a role-playing referee evaluating movies for ideas to enrich, use, or avoid in a post-apocalyptic campaign of Gamma World. Some of the “factual” information presented here might be completely wrong due to shoddy research or referee misinterpretation, but that’s the price you pay for using unpaid sources on the internet for reference. Caveat emptor and try not to take these things too seriously.

The Road Warrior, as it was released as in the United States, or Mad Max 2 as it was titled everywhere else, is not the first post-apocalyptic film, but it might as well be from the influence it has had on the genre. The costume design alone is responsible for the accepted fact that, after the apocalypse, all fashion sense goes out the window and it becomes perfectly acceptable to wear footballs pads with a ballet tutu. Shot against the wide open spaces of the desolate Australian Outback, The Road Warrior made it a requirement for all post-apocalyptic movies to occur in locales without a speck of greenery present, making them easy to shoot just outside of L.A. Without this requirement, the low-budget post-apocalyptic boom that followed The Road Warrior’s release in 1981 would probably never have happened. Luckily for the film makers’ responsible for such gems as Raiders of the Sun, Hell Comes to Frogtown, Cherry 2000, or Steel Dawn, the apocalypse looks surprisingly like Vasquez Rocks.

I’m assuming that all of my readers know the plot of The Road Warrior, but here’s a brief summary:

Since we last saw “Mad” Max Rockatansky avenging the death of his family and friends at the hands (and wheels) of the Toe Cutter’s gang of motorcycle outlaws, the world has really gone downhill. In the aftermath of a nuclear exchange followed by the breakdown of oil pipelines and refineries, society has collapsed and become a place where “only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive.” Max has become a loner in the world, driving the highways in “the last of the V8 Interceptors” with his unnamed dog on a constant hunt for “gazzahleen” to stay mobile. After he turns the tables on an ambushing Gyro Captain (played by Bruce Spence in a manner that I cannot picture him as anything else to this day), Max discovers that there is one last community still pumping and refining oil. This settlement is under constant siege by that Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rolla, The Humungous (a disfigured giant with a colander on his face) and his cadre of “Smegma crazies and gayboy berserkers”. Although initially just looking to get some fuel from the refiners and disappear back into the wasteland, events conspire against Max to drag him into the conflict. He ultimately redeems himself by becoming the unwitting patsy in the refiners’ escape from the wasteland.

Like many kids in the ‘80s, this film became the baseline for me against which all post-apocalyptic films would be measured. This is largely due to the fact that it is not only an excellent movie in its own right, but because the film loomed large in our imaginations before we even saw it. Being an adolescent in the ‘80s was to live in the shadow of the Bomb. A dim shadow perhaps when compared to those who experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a noticeable one in any regard. Some days it almost seemed as if World War III was inevitable and we were just passing time until the sirens went off.

I remember hearing about The Road Warrior around the lunch table long before I actually saw it. Some of my friends had either seen it on cable or VHS, and those of us who hadn’t due to having parents who actually paid attention to movie ratings listened in amazement to their recitations of the film’s plot and events. By the time I actually saw the movie for myself, I had already built up quite a preconceived notion as to what the film would be. It’s a sign of the movie’s quality that, although it didn’t match what I had envisioned, it still was an impressive film-viewing experience.

The Road Warrior has had a constant albeit subtle influence on me over the years, affecting everything from playing with action figures to fashion choice during my punk rock years to scenarios for role-playing games. I remember my brother and I playing with our Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures in a game we called “Warriors of the Wasteland,” wherein the figures prowled the concrete floor of our basement searching out fuel in the form of Lite-Brite pegs and dealing with a mutated cockroach named “Cookie” who ran the only remaining diner left on the wasted Earth. Later years saw me using the same plot and events from The Road Warrior in a Star Frontiers game when the PC’s ship had to ditch on the charred cinder of a world.

Now that I’m creating a radioactive sandbox, it’s time to see what I can use from the film for that purpose. The most obvious choice would be the idea of fuel as wealth, but there’s a slight problem with that in Gamma World. As you might know, the usual power sources on Gamma Terra are various energy cells left over from the Shadow Years. These aren’t the type of thing a wasteland community is going to be able to produce on their own, although it might be possible for them to be in possession of a stockpile of energy cells somehow. However, the idea of the Red Death encamped outside the walls and demanding the villagers “give up the cells” just doesn’t do it for me. It must be gazzahleen or nothing. (Sorry, but do to the pronunciation of “gasoline” with an Aussie twang in The Road Warrior, the fuel of Gamma World has officially become gazzahleen.)

Further reading of the Gamma World rulebook indicates this isn’t as unthinkable as it would appear. Under the descriptions for the Civilian Ground Car and Military Ground Car, both are alcohol-powered rather than cell-powered. I’ll assume that’s a matter of convenience rather than design, having those vehicles converted over to alcohol power after gazzahleen became extremely rare. I suspect that with a little tinkering I might be able to bolt the rules for gas and alcohol powered vehicles from Twilight 2000 into a Gamma World-friendly format, opening up the possibility of trading gaz for all sorts of supplies and using it as intended to outrace mutants in the badlands.

Less obvious but still cool to steal concepts would include the razor-edged boomerang employed by the Feral Kid, the wrist crossbow used by Wez, and explosive booby traps and knives hidden under particularly choice vehicles. And what would the apocalypse be without an evil leader known by an adjective. Perhaps the PCs will cross vibroblades with The Ferocious?

Of the Mad Max trilogy, The Road Warrior remains my favorite. I readily admit that it lacks the depth of Mad Max, but it does a good job of recasting Max in the role of the Western drifter hero and giving the viewer a films powered by a potent mix of gasoline, nitrous oxide, and testosterone. A much better job than the sequel, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome does, a film that proves the film law which states if you want to screw up a successful film franchise, just add children to the cast (I’m looking at you guys, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Mummy Returns, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) at any length.

In revisiting the film for inspiration, I admit that the movie has lost some of its impact, but if this is due to familiarity with the film or simply a maturation of taste, I’m not 100% sure. The plot did seem more straightforward than I remembered it to be, for instance, and I’m certain that if it was done nowadays, we’d see an even more emotionally detached Max to begin with so as to make his ultimate re-humanization that more poignant. The film does deliver in one regard by reminding us how much fun it was to have Mel Gibson star in a movie before he began engaging in his recent objectionable antics.


The Iron Goat said...

we ran our "Road Warrian" games back in the day using the Boot Hill rules and just winging the rest. probably a bit rules lite, even for the OSR, but it worked for twelve year olds.

If I were to run a Gamma World campaign, I've always felt the best fiction example still remain "Hiero's Journey" by Sterling Lanier.

Anthony N. Emmel said...

Well, one thing to consider. What if a community has a way to recharge power cells? Maybe not a full reactor, but maybe a solar panel array. Or maybe there is a broadcast power power that's still functions (at low power) that they are tied into.

Also, look at the reverse possibility for the villains. Radioactivists or Followers of the Voice that are controlled/led by a deranged think tank or cybernetic installation. The PCs take the place of the "raiders" in Mad Max 2.

Just my two domars...

Scott said...

Damnation Alley! Damnation Alley!

Haven't seen it in decades, but those flesh-eating cockroaches really made an impression on me.

Still haven't seen The Road, not sure if I want to since I loved the book so much. They filmed it in Pittsburgh and had an open casting call for people who could look like emaciated cannibals. I figured I had that on lock, but was somehow dissuaded from moving to a new city for several months to starve myself, grow a beard, and pretend to be a post-apoc hillbilly. Life's a weird thing.

Oh, and Stonehell is one of the finalists as the possible venue for our IRC pickup dungeoneering game. :)

Crusty One said...

I realise you're set on using Gamma World but if you get the chance I recommend you check out Atomic Highway. It's an excellent game and just sounds like it would be a better fit for what you want to do.

Michael Curtis said...

I've always felt the best fiction example still remain "Hiero's Journey" by Sterling Lanier.

I far. I'm on an eternal quest to cover post-apocalyptic fiction for inspiration so there may yet be a better example lurking out there somewhere.

For what its worth, my thinking is that this Gamma World campaign will have more in come with the Hiero tales than Thundarr. I aim to play it straight.

Michael Curtis said...

Damnation Alley! Damnation Alley!

I'll probably get to Damnation Alley before this is all over. It's been awhile since I watched that one.

Still haven't seen The Road, not sure if I want to since I loved the book so much.

I read the book before Oprah started shilling it and found it to be a very intense and depressing I enjoyed it. When I heard they were making a movie, my response was "If it's anything like the book, that's one movie that's not going to be the feel-good hit of the year." Having now seen the film, I can attest that, as I remember things, it hews pretty close to the novel.

Stonehell is one of the finalists as the possible venue for our IRC pickup dungeoneering game.

I hope you guys end up messing around down there. I always love hearing how things turn out in actual play.

Michael Curtis said...

It's an excellent game and just sounds like it would be a better fit for what you want to do.

Nope. It's Gamma World or nothing. Besides, how do you know what I want to do? ;-)

Crusty One said...

"Besides, how do you know what I want to do? ;-)"

Well that's true. No, I was simply going on the playing it straight and vehicle combat things. I don't have any experience with Gamma World but didn't really like Mutant Future. It's beautifully put together, but it's just too idiosyncratic for my tastes. I know you can leave stuff out, but it just struck that once you started paring it back you'd end up compromising the experience. That's not to say I wouldn't enjoy playing it... I'd just see a game of MF or Gamma World as a very distinctive flavour of post-apocalyptic game. If you asked me to recommend a versatile cheese I'd suggest cheddar rather than Stinking Bishop (although the latter is a fine cheese).

However, it's just occurred to me that you've asked for my advice on neither cheese nor post-apocalyptic games.


Telecanter said...

That movie was a favorite of mine, had a big influence. And, my grandparents owning a wrecking yard, I got pretty handy using sparkplug wires as bolas.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved this movie and was proud that it was an Aussie production (back in the days when we thought Gibson was an we know he was born in the US and boy, you can have him). The whole gasoline thing was one of the most jarring elements for us though, since it's a US term and over here we call the stuff "petrol" (gas for us is Liquid Natural Gas), but then we're used to our entertainment industry (esp. music) using Americanisms to try and increase their market.

The idea of a Gamma World game with Twilight 2000 bits bolted on sounds fun, hope you write more about it as it happens.

Scott said...

I lived in Australia when this came out as Mad Max 2 over there, and I didn't see the original Mad Max until much later. It was odd to see it as The Road Warrior when I got back to the States, and none of my stateside friends had ever seen the original, either.

The Iron Goat said...

I never noticed as a kid, but that photo really emphasizes just how short Mel Gibson really is.

Pallando said...

I am glad that in the U.S. the original Mad Max is now shown without the Americanized dubbed voice overs. Though now I really have no idea what Jim goose is saying. Also they deleted the scene where one of Toe-Cutter's men gets smached in the back of the head by his own motorcycle. (Did that guy get paralyzed or what?) Gamma World seemes so open ended that anything can fit in. we actually had Humongous and Wes as NPCs leading a group of mutants through an old city.
PS Don't forget Stryker (Filipino) and a host of Italian made cheapies. Weel, there's my two domars worth.

Anonymous said...

I thought the kid in The Mummy Returns was one of the only decent kid characters in an adventure film ever.