On the Road Again

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 08 Jan 2010

After the thrills, spills and family values of 2012 it's good, as a new decade begins, to be reminded that global catastrophe has a down side as well. The Road gives us a bleakly realistic image of life after the apocalypse – a dying planet populated by starving survivors scavenging through the ruins and preying on each other. In many ways The Road feels like a logical conclusion to the previous decade's cycle of disaster movies and a desolate distillation of contemporary fears of environmental and social collapse.

Yet, of course, connecting popular culture to contemporary concerns is a tricky business. Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, has claimed that the increasing extravagance of destruction in this “trilogy” reflects a growing pessimism about our future. Now, far be it for me to contradict this most cerebral of directors, but it seems this reflects nothing more than the internal logic of the genre: each film must outdo the one before. Indeed, it is possible that the earthquakes in 2012 were caused from within, not by solar storms but by the infernal workings of the script, clanking and juddering away just below the surface. This is perhaps no bad thing - any film which can dispose of thousands of lives and a host of historical landmarks with a PG rating should be divorced from reality.

Most post-apocalyptic fiction forms part of a popular school of existentialism, exploring, often with ghoulish glee, the freedoms and fears of living in a world shorn of society's rules. In the novel of The Road, Cormac McCarthy creates a hellish reality, a landscape without nature or society, populated by hill-billy cannibals and living, human larders. But, as the book progresses, a curious thing happens. The unremitting bleakness of his vision, driven by his famously austere prose, begins to intrude between us and our everyday world, forcing us to confront just how much we have to lose. When the man finds The Last Can of Coke in the World and gives it to his son, it is not a symbol of corporate greed and environmental degradation, but a taste of an impossible world of plenty long gone. (There is a certain kind of parent – often located in Glasgow's West End - who would wince at this scene: Dear God, not a Coke! Surely there's an organic smoothie somewhere?)

John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road announces its seriousness by avoiding CGI-heavy imagery. There is only one brief image of a wrecked city that would find a home in an Emmerich film. Most of the film was shot in and around Pittsburgh, and the bleak, wintry landscapes are in keeping with McCarthy's vision. But there is still grass in the fields, still branches on the trees, and still, as Gail Tolley notes in her review, a stark beauty to these scenes. This is still a familiar landscape, not the absolute wasteland of the novel. The appearance of a wrecked fairground – that hokey old movie standby - towards the end of the film suggests a final loss of inspiration. Unable to recreate the utter desolation of the novel the film slips into the familiar existentialism of post-apocalyptic fiction. Asked if he wishes he had died the old man played by Robert Duvall replies, in a statement that is as portentous as it is meaningless: “This is no time for luxuries”. If nothing else, it all creates some thorny parenting issues, with the man (Viggo Mortensen) expressing his love for his son by forcing him to practice committing suicide. (This doesn't mean that the magnificent Mortensen isn't in my top three of those I'd like to shepherd me through the apocalypse, beaten only by Robocop and a Challenger tank.) The novel's redemptive ending comes perilously close in the film to feeling like a Hollywood-style happy ending. In the end, the appearance of a snaggle-toothed Guy Pearce reveals America's greatest fear in the face of the apocalypse: bad teeth.