Johnny Depp has a knack for picking unusual and interesting films that don’t fit with the Pirates of the Caribbean box office smash, so when my kids wanted to watch Rango, I sat down with them, surprised that an animated Western even existed.
The Western, both as a film and novel genre, fell on hard times during the 1970s and 80s. The movie-going and reading public had begun to realize the Indians weren’t nameless and faceless “savages,” but rather that they were actually human beings who had, and still have, a legitimate grievance. The public lost interest in seeing John Wayne indiscriminately kill people who dared to oppose the US Cavalry or tried to stop the flood of settlers into the west. The audience began to feel guilty.
Westerns didn’t die, of course, but they centered more on outlaws, sort of the Mad Max movies set in the 1860s. Rango is definitely in the latter category. Thugs dominate a town while controlling its most limited resource–water. People are leaving, and everyone who stays behind owns a gun and knows how to use it. During a gun battle, creatures on both sides kill indiscriminately–yup, just like John Wayne in a 1940s Western.
That’s when it hit me. We’ve come full circle back to the Western. Now the stick-figure enemies are zombies/vampires, but this time our heroes can kill without remorse. The zombies are already dead and there are no land claims. The humans who need killing are vicious Mad Max-type bikers with no morals. They would be locked up if only there were any jails.
But it goes beyond just guiltless killing. It’s also the freedom that comes with being in a post-apocalyptic world, one where your credit card and mortgage are unimportant, but your next meal is always on your mind. I read a great blog by author Steven Montano on the appeal of the post-apocalyptic world. People actually enjoy the fantasy of waking up one morning to find out that they don’t have to go into work, that the boss is a zombie and their car payments can be skipped. Indeed, if you can drive, you can grab any car you want, preferably a big SUV. You don’t even have to worry about sustainable development anymore. Better yet, in every post-apocalyptic scenario, you are the one who survives and gets to wield the shotgun.
There was a time when I wondered if this genre would peak at the end of 2012 and dip after the Mayan Calendar reset and the world didn’t end. But now I believe that as long as the population density in major cities is on the rise, as long as consumer debt is high, as long as unemployment rates force people to stay in low-paying dead end jobs, there will be demand for post-apocalyptic fiction. That’s what Rango is: post-apocalyptic fiction set in the lawless West.