illustration by Brianna Ashby
Spend some time with David Attenborough and one of his myriad documentaries about the natural world, and you’ll soon have a healthy appreciation for the ocean. Powerful and resilient, unpredictable and untameable; give the ocean enough time and its waters will carve out the Grand Canyon. Source of all life on the planet, and home to thousands of mysterious and undiscovered creatures, the ocean doesn’t need us. Untallied gallons of water would invade New York City and drown the Big Apple’s infrastructure if there weren’t pumps constantly working to keep it out. Influenced only by the moon, the sea has no regard for human affairs. It’s quixotic and mercurial, relentless in its habits, slowly but surely washing away the white cliffs of Dover, rotting the Santa Monica Pier, and drowning what streets there are in Venice. The sea is so vastly powerful that it’s paradoxically simple to completely discount it, seeing it only as the blue part of the map.
What you think of the sea, however, has very little bearing on the sea itself, and that kind of indifference can drive some to madness. There is the story of King Canute and his attempt to command the sea: the 12th-century king of England and Scandinavia, overly flattered by his courtiers, placed his throne on the shore and commanded the tides not to wet his robes. Three guesses how that went. Calming yet violent, peaceful yet destructive, life-giving and life-taking: whatever image you have of the sea, you are completely correct. You can always trust the ocean to fulfill its various personae, and in that way—despite its protean existence—the sea is a singular entity. It reminds me of a particular girl…
Set to Devo’s “Girl U Want,” the opening of 1995’s Tank Girl declares our heroine to be “just a girl/she’s just a girl/the girl you want,” a declaration which offers up perhaps the only possible description of the film’s lead character. Yet the eponymous Tank Girl (Lori Petty) defies dismissive description; she’s deadly and funny, sexy and intimidating, weird and magnetic, compassionate and cool, idealistic and completely irreverent. Is she the kind of girl you’d take home to meet your mother? I don’t know, how awesome is your mother? Tank Girl is troubling to some for the exact same reasons she’s amazing to others. Deliciously open-ended, she can’t be pinned down, and it simply wouldn’t occur to her to help you do so. She’s self-contained, yet influences every aspect of her post-apocalyptic environment.
It’s 2033, and eleven years since the last rainfall. An arid, desert landscape sets the scene in which an evil corporation called “Water & Power” controls most of the earth’s remaining water supply (and therefore all the power – political, economic, military, what have you). Tank Girl and her colourful band of compatriots operate outside the grid, illegally siphoning water from W&P’s pipeline; that is, until the heavies get wise to the bandits and raid them, killing most of Tank Girl’s friends and imprisoning our heroine. However, attempts to break her spirit are as fruitless as King Canute’s attempts to domesticate the waves; the ocean wasn’t meant to be contained in a bottle. Tank Girl’s gleeful disinterest in authority and her subsequent (inevitable) escape from prison sets the stage for the utter insanity that is the second half of this movie, the plot of which couldn’t possibly matter less.
Tank Girl, the movie, isn’t exactly a prestige piece. Naomi Watts, who plays Jet Girl, is reportedly ashamed of this movie. Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (co-creators of the source material) call working on the film “a horrible experience,” claiming that the script was “lousy.” It also bears mentioning that rapper Ice-T is perplexingly cast as a genetically mutated kangaroo. The ambitious amount of bonkers-level content meant that Tank Girl was destined to be a cult film. The movie’s problems lie like boulders on the film’s landscape; irrefutable and immoveable. Yet trickling through this rocky terrain is Lori Petty’s Tank Girl, winding over, under and around the film’s formidable challenges as undeniably as a river carving a path to the sea. The title character is wrought with such irreverent unflappability that while she may not drown the boulders, she can deftly skip around them and joyfully leave them behind. Petty’s performance is one of rare energy and inventiveness, navigating effortlessly through a song and dance number, several gun battles, animated montages, and every other filmmaking trick that director Rachel Talalay throws at her.
Tank Girl’s resilience in the face of adversity (both the character navigating the film’s challenges as well as the actress navigating the filmmaking challenges) gives her an incredible sense of agency. The poster for the film proudly proclaims “In the future, the odds of survival are 1000 to 1. That’s just the way she likes it.” It’s a snappy throwaway line, but also incredibly apt; Tank Girl thrives in crisis, and she does so in a very positive way. This is a dystopian future—the end of the world as we know it—and yet our heroine flourishes; she has friends, she has fun, and she gets what she wants. Unfortunately, the irrepressibility of the lead character makes it difficult for the film to present stakes with any sense of urgency.
There is perhaps only one scene in which its possible that our heroine might not make it; captured by the sinister head of Water & Power (Malcolm McDowell), tied in a straightjacket and about to be sent rocketing headfirst down an ever narrowing tube, Tank Girl—true to form—jeers at her situation. But just as she’s about to be plunged into the tube, her breath catches, and it becomes apparent that she’s afraid. Extreme close-ups of her bulging, heterochromatic eyes and wild, slashing edits to scenes of death and explosions make clear the deeply held panic crackling through her shackled body. Her eyes roll back, and mercifully, she faints. It’s a shame the film uses this tactic so early in the plot (only 30 minutes in) because it makes manifest the unsettling possibility of a world without Tank Girl. One of the first children of this new life without water, she’s a creature perfectly suited to her environment, and it’s haunting to think of that light being snuffed out. Picturing the world of the film—its expansive deserts, motley, tumbledown houses, menacing power plants, sleek nightclubs fashioned out of abandoned shopping malls—without Tank Girl is impossible. She comes with the set. You get one, you get the other, right? I sincerely hope so, because if not…
In a TedTalk from 2012, speaker Colin Stokes contemplated the way heroes in movies were being presented to his two young children. He saw that Luke Skywalker from Star Wars had a much different journey from that of The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale; namely, Luke saves the universe by using the magic he was born with, while Dorothy triumphed by making friends with everybody and being a leader. In this very important way, Dorothy has agency. She’s good at something, which is a disappointingly rare thing for women in films to be. Dorothy is friendly, organized, motivated, and she cares for the people around her, helping them realize their full potential. When contrasted with sepia-toned Kansas and the fiery powers of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy is a cool drink of water. Let this girl use the things she needs—her resourcefulness, intelligence, agency, wisdom, kindness, and the strength of her friends and family—and she will get what she’s after, enriching the lives and experiences of those around her. These traits also apply to the kind and caring Mary Poppins, the clever and ambitious Clarice Starling, the observant, hardworking Marge Gunderson, and the resourceful Hermione Granger; these women are cool, cleansing rainfalls, patient glaciers, stinging snow squalls, and roaring rivers. Although the utter weirdness of her film may keep Tank Girl out of the commemorative portraits, the same element is present in her as in these prestigious women.
It’s keenly uncomfortable to imagine a world without an ocean. All that power, all that mystery, just one day…gone. The land cracking under the sun, trillions of marine lives extinguished, carcasses of ships and whales and giant squid littering the unfathomable depths. The blue part of the map is sort of a given; we just never think of it. The mostly deeply upsetting aspect of the apocalypse is that the parts of our world we take for granted suddenly aren’t there any more. The scope of that possibility invades every formally trivial aspect of our daily lives; no more allergy medication, no more sitting in the back row at the movies, no more dogs with mismatched eyes. A good day is any day that you don’t have to think about your own survival, and now suddenly you have to think about everything.
In a future where the odds of survival are 1000 to 1, you’d better be scrappy, capable, and at least a little irreverent. You need to be able to find the tiniest cracks in an insurmountable obstacle and squeeze your way through. You’ll need patience, and the ability to give strength to others. You’d better have a little bit of the ocean inside you.
Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.