An Appreciation for Harlan Ellison and A Boy and His Dog

Movies Features A Boy and His Dog
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An Appreciation for Harlan Ellison and <i>A Boy and His Dog</i>

It’s the post-apocalyptic barren desert landscape of 2024’s America. A scraggly young boy named Vic (Don Johnson) communicates with his partner as they track a female human, a very rare commodity in this world. As they bicker about strategy, it becomes clear that Vic’s partner is a shaggy sheepdog named Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), with whom Vic communicates telepathically. Vic makes it to the girl and is disappointed to find out that another gang has already raped and murdered her. “They didn’t have to kill her,” he complains to Blood. “She could have been used three or four more times.” As the twangy and uplifting main theme plays over the credits written with a cartoonishly happy font—following a rather crude masturbation joke no less—it gradually dawns on us that these two are our protagonists.

Yes, in a world where all civilized behavior is thrown out of the window and the reptilian brain rules, this rapist boy and his manipulative, enabling canine buddy are as close to any depiction of humanity as we will get. If you’re looking for a role model or any glimmer of hope for civilization in A Boy and His Dog’s world, an abrasively cruel yet inevitable result of man’s folly and penchant for destruction, you’ve come to the wrong place. Yet the film, even at its most bitter takedowns of human cruelty, never lets go of a playful sense of humor that skewers man’s futile goal of superiority in a world that has crumbled beyond recognition. The planet is a rancid shithole ruled by murder, rape, and as we get to the second half of the story, unbridled American fascism, but that doesn’t mean we can’t cackle at our own demise.

Those unfamiliar with the work of the great yet complicated (codeword for “asshole” in some literary circles) Harlan Ellison might be baffled by how a film that contains so many realistic depictions of violence can be so flippant about it. Yet for those with a passing knowledge of Ellison, it’s business as usual. Ellison, who passed away on June 28, was a versatile and contentious powerhouse of a writer who inserted unapologetically nihilistic worldviews even in his most seemingly hopeful work. This includes his Star Trek script for The City on the Edge of Forever, which ended on a surprisingly fatalist note. Like George Carlin, he found the beauty in the individual, but had very little hope for humanity as a whole.

His stories were filled with the eventual demise of humanity. His story I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream was about a computer who gains sentience and immediately wipes out all people except a handful to torture for its amusement. Soldier, a short story upon which he successfully sued James Cameron due to its similarities with The Terminator, was about a soldier who came back from the future to warn people of the upcoming apocalypse. The people listen to the soldier and change their ways, but why is the soldier still around if the future has changed? Or are we doomed regardless of what we do?

A Boy and His Dog, based on Ellison’s famous novella and the only feature-length adaptation of his work, sticks fairly closely to the tone and structure of the source material. Some elements are changed, mainly because the low-budget production couldn’t afford to create some of the high tech in the story, like spider-shaped robots that patrol the fascistic underground society that dominates the second half of the narrative. The genius solution that co-writer/director LQ Jones comes up with as a low-budget replacement for the robots, and one of the funniest lines in film history that refers to it, is something you should experience on your own.

Vic, still horny from his lack of rape and murder, uses Blood’s supernatural sniffing power of tracking females to capture Quilla June (Susanne Benton), an odd girl who, gasp, seems to actually enjoy sex. His first consensual sexual experience drives Vic crazy, and against Blood’s pleading for the opposite, he decides to follow her into an underground world that still strives to hang onto a white picket fence, barbershop quartet at every corner utopia of old-fashioned Americana. A stark contrast from the wide desert vistas of the surface, this town called Downunder is a claustrophobic nightmare depiction of all-American goodness. It’s full of people who are obsessed with holding a semblance of their old civilization by forcing a draconian set of rules on each other as a last-ditch attempt at morality. In an apt metaphor for how appearances often are far more important to American society than the truth, they would rather paint their faces to look like clowns from hell than acknowledge the decay that a lack of exposure to the sun does to their bodies.

In many ways, Ellison and Jones show even more scorn for this “society” than for that of the atrocity-littered surface dwellers. Sure, the surface is as violent and cruel as Downunder, but at least they’re not hypocrites who cover their monstrous nature under a thin veneer of civility. Led by the hilariously morbid performance by Jason Robards as the mayor of Downunder, this section of the film cranks up the biting social satire to 11, with a terrifically ironic fate for Vic as a bonus.

The highly controversial ending, and the final line of the movie, the cause for a rift between Ellison and Jones, is bound to shock first-time viewers. What transpires is shocking and barbaric—and there’s that trademark flippancy, again—yet based on what has transpired, could it have ended any other way? The act is the same in Ellison’s novella and Jones’ film, yet the tone is different. While Ellison portrayed at least a modicum of guilt by the remaining characters, perhaps a glimmer of hope for humanity, Jones went the more bitter route, letting the infamous final line work not only as an appropriately lame pun, but as yet another step in humanity’s downfall.

For Jones, an esteemed character actor whose one time in the director’s chair yielded this subversive piece of genre-bending filmmaking, A Boy and His Dog represented a bizarrely original note to step in and out on at the same time. (At 91, he’s still alive and kicking.) A favorite of Sam Peckinpah’s, Jones obviously took a lot of notes from his mentor, since his film is as close to a science-fiction movie Peckinpah will ever deliver. A delightful visual mirror to late Harlan Ellison’s sensibilities, A Boy and His Dog is also credited as the first post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie and a direct inspiration to Mad Max. It’s grisly, dirty, gross, hilarious, aggressively non-PC, brutally against human hypocrisy and cruelty, and an all around great time for genre hounds with a particularly sick sense of humor. As such, it may well be the closest you’ll get to an uncut representation of Ellison’s work.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.