There’s something about the North American deserts that makes them one of the most intriguing backdrops in films and pop culture. Unadorned, yet otherworldly beautiful; desolate, empty, and barren, but rich in mysteries, space, meaning, and anything else the imagination fills their boundless fields with; a place where life is scarce, but saturated and gritty, persevering against all odds, standing proud and exotic like a bright, desert rose amidst the sepiaish nothingness. The inherently equivocal nature of those deserts makes the gruesome idea of a desert dystopia almost alluring.
A desert dystopia holds a special appeal in its distorted truths. A world where ugliness is grotesque, beauty is unadulterated, humanity is tenacious, and hope is life.
The desert dystopia can sometimes be summed up with a simple moto – water is life. It looks so empty, hostile, and detached from anything human that it might as well take place on another planet. This is precisely what the wasteland in Mad Max looks like - a world that’s more reminiscent of Mars than of Earth, with all its sepia-colored, dusty fields of nothingness and naked mountains that loom over like death itself; a desert dystopia where having control over the water supply means having control over all life. There’s no trace of green, nor humanity, and the prospect of any real life is mentioned more like some ancient myth rather than an actual possibility. Nevertheless, that’s what makes the rare glimmers of hope and humanity all-the-more poetic.
The Book of Eli
The desert dystopia can also take darker and shadowy forms, reminiscent of the captivatingly despondent world in a noir graphic novel or Sin City. This imaginative visual approach lends itself extremely well to the portrayal of the desert dystopia, drenched in complete gloom - gloom in the form of harshness, of brutality, but most of all, of striking scarcity which alludes to the idea of past splurges, overindulgence, and taking it all for granted.
The sole act of falling asleep to a song, playing on repeat on a Walkman, is poignantly illustrated like a piece of shelter that is perhaps the highest form of luxury. Things like batteries, sunglasses, food, and especially drinkable water, are treated like precious gems which people are willing to kill for. The whole world is on the brink of extinction, and the desert dystopia here is rightfully devoid of any traces of romanticism, with the only glimmer of hope coming from a special book.
It’s precisely the book that is the vehicle of the film’s central message of hope in a desert dystopia being a double-edged sword, its effects depending entirely on the hands wielding it.
The Bad Batch
Sometimes, a desert dystopia can span the spectrum of dystopia to utopia, not without a decent stretch of the imagination, of course.
The desert in The Bad Batch is not just a character of its own, but the most nuanced one by far, one that undergoes great development along the storyline. In a way, the desert in the movie is a deadlier, distorted version of life as a whole, it can be a hostile prison or an almost cozy home.
In the beginning, the desert is nothing but a wasteland, a dystopian prison where convicts are left to the mercy of each other. Its overwhelming, endless emptiness is crushing, like a sea that’s ready to engulf the lonely castaway that is the protagonist. A dry, hot limbo, the desert is a manifestation of mother nature’s silent, deadly powers. And its first signs of life only make it worse.
But later on, we see that just like an unwelcoming host, the desert can also be inviting, homely even, a place where even the coarsest piece of comfort can feel more special than all the luxury in the regular world. It’s no wonder that the desert’s “oasis” goes by the name of “Comfort,” a place where hope doesn’t just take the form of mere survival, but can actually look like a full-on rave party amidst neon lights in the night skies—the type of thing many people in real life consider an experience of a lifetime.
In the end, we see that even in a desert as ruthless as this, some human connection can be the difference between desolation and romantic solitude.
Burning Man, now that’s something else. Perhaps the best way to define this otherworldly experience is through Nietzsche’s famous quote, “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
For “those who could not hear the music,” Burning Man is probably a place where a bunch of hippies, high on God knows what, can roll around in the dirt and give in to all-out, unbridled, animalistic debauchery.
But for those “dancing,” whether that means moving their body to music, riding bikes naked amidst a whirlpool of lights and surreal art, unshackling their invisible restrains by writing them down on the walls of a mystical temple, partaking in a loose exchange “economy” that is more about giving than getting, or anything else that they stumble upon during this mind-altering journey across this vastly different, counter-society, Burning Man is certainly a desert utopia, far more blissful, beautiful, and wild than perhaps any movie and fictitious work of art could ever envision.
It’s hard to imagine that there will be people who stand somewhere in the middle, but the thing is probably neither will there be any at the Burning Man. Those who’d spend over $400 for the chance to dive into a world as far away as possible from luxury in the traditional sense would probably be people who know their scene. Those who wouldn’t, well, simply wouldn’t be there, and that makes the Burning Man the definition of utopia – a place of spontaneous, absolute unity, where the limits of self-knowledge, humanity, and the universe burn away and dissolve.
And to make it all even more enigmatic, it takes place in the Black Rock City which exists for only a week each year, and then, just like its citizens’ mental constraints, magically disappears.