Monday, 19 July 2010

The Road

Lowdown: A father and his son’s journey through an extremely hostile post apocalyptic world.
With the World Cup behind it was time to get back to watching films in earnest, and the film we chose to kick things off with is The Road. We wanted to watch it for a while: we love Viggo Mortensen and we like science fiction films. In retrospect, The Road showed me just how good the Blu-ray experience is compared to everything else around, but perhaps we should have started with a more cheerful film.
The Road takes place in a post apocalyptic world. We don’t get to know how the world got there; we only see a few colorful glimpses of our world that was in a few flashback scenes. However, The Road’s current world is pretty hellish: all flora and non human fauna have died, taking most humans with them; the sun is always hidden by clouds/dust; the world is dry; earthquakes and fires abound. Whatever few humans that managed to stay alive survive either through scavenging or through cannibalism.
The Road’s heroes are a father (Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who was born post the apocalypse to a mother (Charlize Theron) that decided she cannot live in this world anymore and left the two behind. The only hope our duo seems to have is to travel south to warmer areas (the film never explicitly says so, but I am assuming things take place in the USA); we follow them on their journey as they encounter gangs of cannibals, human remains and other atrocities.
The Road is obviously working at the symbolic level, in a manner similar to Blindness. Like Blindness, none of the heroes have a name; it’s all “father”, “son”, “thief” and the like. I suspect there is ample room for interpretations here, but I read The Road as a film about civilization. As in, the importance of what we leave behind for the generations to come, a heritage without which we are just like any other animal: a machine rigged for survival. In this message lies a warning for us real life people with regards to the world we’re about to leave our children behind.
Generally speaking, films dealing with an apocalypse always had an appeal with me. There’s Planet of the Apes as a familiar member of the genre, but my favorites are Quest for Fire (not a post apocalyptic film but rather a film about early humans setting the cornerstones of civilization in a world lacking one), Children of Man, and of course – The Terminator and Terminator 2. There is a significant difference between all of the above and The Road, though: Most of the "normal" films dealing with an apocalypse deal mostly with the situation prior to the apocalypse, perhaps even in ways to avoid it, whereas The Road takes it for granted and deals purely with the aftermath. Worse, The Road’s world is probably the most hostile; not only that, it’s a film where the core of things is directly dealing with the world’s hostilities. In short, what I am trying to say here is that watching The Road proved a very uneasy experience: I knew I was watching quality cinema but I was not enjoying myself at all. It felt more like watching a horror film, and I even kept cringing in wait for the seemingly inevitable “make you jump” moment – but that moment never came because, after all, The Road is quality cinema. My unease is perhaps the best testament for its quality in managing to take me away into another world.
Indeed, The Road is very well done. The cinematography is excellent (in its portrayal of a bleak world), and so is the acting. Sure, by now we don’t expect less than perfection from Mortensen, but the kid’s performance hits you just as his screen father. Aussie director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) has done well to create contemplative piece of quality cinema.
Yet the over extremeness of The Road’s situation cannot be ignored. There is no reason why humans can stay alive and animals can’t (not even insects), not to mention vegetation. After all, life on planet earth has survived billions of years of hostile conditions, collisions and volcanoes; what gives The Road the credentials to take that away? Nothing. There are other issues with the way The Road’s world goes along (e.g., the heroes lighting bedtime fires while hiding away from cannibals is not exactly good camouflage).
I’ll conclude this review with a personal angle. Assuming the world does come down to this, what would I do? My answer is simple. I consider civilization to be humanity’s most important invention; I would not want to live in an uncivilized world, where living is an experience limited to the struggle for survival. Put in this situation, the way the film’s heroes are, I would choose Charlize Theron’s way – probably sooner than her and with much less hesitation.
Best scene: Our heroes stumble upon a cannibal gang’s live food storage. Truly horrific!
Worst scene: Our heroes spend the night in a broken down church under a cross. I fail to see any worthwhile analogy coming out of that.
Technical assessment: A truly good Blu-ray. The picture is excellent, although most of the time the excellence is used to portray an ash colored world. Sound tends to be more subtle than aggressive, but it fits the occasion (as does the rare bit of music from Nick Cave).
Overall: High on quality but too bleak for its own good, I settle with giving The Road 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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