The Mad Max films have seeped into popular culture in a way few franchises manage, but are still often overlooked. Their ultraviolence and moral ambiguity feel very modern, yet the first instalment arrived back in 1979. This month, Jonathan Whitelaw tells us why we don’t need another hero…
Albert Einstein famously said: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” That Einstein himself was partly responsible for the invention of the atomic bomb, our most deadly, devastating weapon, merely embodies that we, as humans, are both brilliant and bone-headed all at once.
There is an argument to be made that no film franchise embodies this mentality more than the Mad Max quadrilogy. At over 40 years old, the dystopian, violent, disturbing future painted in George Miller’s seminal Australian movies have become a byword for what post-apocalyptic has come to mean. It can be seen from everything like serious narratives in the Fallout games to the more comical and farcical in Futurama and even The Lego Movie. From the terrifying and iconic aesthetics of semi-nude bikers causing mayhem and murder in the wilderness to the haunting sense of loneliness — the Mad Max universe, unlike so many other movies, has always captured the sense that humanity are our own worst enemy. And, ultimately, our own destruction at our own expense. Ever since the first picture debuted to little fanfare in 1979 all the way up to 2015’s highly regarded Fury Road, there’s always been a great sense of self reflection of who we are and, god forbid, where we’re heading.
“We wrote back stories for not only all the characters, [but] every vehicle, every steering wheel. That gave it its texture.” Miller’s words, taken from an interview with Vanity Fair in 2015, sum up the dedication and depth of his worlds.
For those unfamiliar with the downright bonkers Mad Max movies, the plot is, on the
surface, relatively simple. Max Rockatansky is a former road cop who, having lost his young family to a no-good biker gang, becomes a lonely crusader, wandering the endless highways of the Australian wilderness trying to stay alive and bring sense and justice back. The first three films of the quadrilogy, made up of 1979’s Mad Max, it’s sequel Mad Max 2 (1981), and third instalment Beyond Thunderdome (1985), all star Gibson in the titular role. 2015’s sequel Fury Road sees Tom Hardy take on the lead role in a mixture of reimagining and continuation all at once.
The world Max lives in is filled with strange characters that range from the downright
ugly and mean, to the more cryptic, mysterious, and sometimes silly. There are long car chases, high-octane fights between lorries and bikers, stirring storylines, sub-plots, and intrigue. And Tina Turner. Yeah, Tina Turner is a baddie in one of them.
The cultural significance of the Mad Max movies has gone a little under the radar in
recent years. Audiences heading to the cineplexes in 2020 are very, very different to those who ventured out in 1979. Original storytelling, it could be argued, has been relegated in favour of bankable sequels, franchises, and stars who are guaranteed to bring in the big bucks. The irony, of course, is that Miller’s movies are now in their fourth decade and fourth cinematic outing.
Miller’s struggles to get his Mad Max adventure made again are well-documented. From using friends and family and their various vehicles to the meagre $300,000–$400,000 budget, circumstances around the first film’s inception were very different. Opening in April 1979, the grim picture from the unknown world of Oz would go on to rake in $100 million US dollars. Praise for the movie was forthcoming, and it would be the director who took the lion’s share of plaudits. “George Miller, a doctor and film buff making his first feature, shows he knows what cinema is all about,” Variety wrote at the time. It would catapult then relatively unknown Mel Gibson to a global audience, but more importantly, it paved the way and kicked down the door of the world for Australian cinema.
The journey of our hero Max starts off in relative normalcy. Here is a character very, very different to the one we most recently saw wearing Tom Hardy’s face. A loving family man, he’s a cop who sticks by the rules in a society teetering on the edge of civilisation. When his world is ripped from him, left for dead in the middle of some bleak, unknown, if strangely beautiful highway, he was killed too. The man we have grown to love over the course of the film is as dead as those he in turn loved. And in its place is a vengeful, dangerous, capable killing machine that strives to get even.
It’s not a coincidence that this transformation happens against the backdrop of the world it was released into. The James Bond movies are often credited as celluloid time capsules, embodiments of the eras and years in which they’re made. Moonraker sees Moore’s 007 head into space for a laser gun battle — 1979 being at the height of the Star Wars sci-fi renaissance. But, while Bond dons his disco-shimmering spacesuit, Max is getting mad. He’s a downtrodden police officer who’s fighting to preserve a system quickly crumbling around his ears. It’s a vision of the future that reflects the time’s global politics and economics much closer to home.
By the time the sequel rolls around, the world that Max lives in is very different.
Houses with front lawns and neat picket fencing have been obliterated. Society has
crumbled under the weight of war and we’re left scratching about in makeshift shanty towns made of old scrap iron and hollowed-out buses. “I’m just here for the gasoline,” Gibson mutters in one scene — the lone warrior stumbling across a pocket of society still clinging to the hope that if they try to stay humane to each other then it’ll be ok. Even if there is a sadomasochist biker gang circling, quite literally, around their little haven.
This is 1982, almost in a nutshell. The Cold War kept everyone awake at night — most people felt that the button was never far from being pushed. Between 1981 and 1984, the fabled Doomsday Clock was switched from four minutes to three minutes to midnight, signifying that society was, once again, prepared to destroy itself in a nuclear Armageddon.
That Armageddon never came — not in the 1980s, at least. And while the core message of Mad Max 2 was one of “what have you done?” there’s still a sliver of hope that audiences can cling to in arguably Miller’s finest work. Max helps the villagers escape — at his own cost, naturally. And he’s left to wander the roads again, by himself, eking out an existence when nothing else seems to matter. The Road Warrior, like everyone else around the world in that dangerous time, kept going.
By the time Beyond Thunderdome was released in 1985, the franchise had become
hot property — as had its star in Gibson, who was fast becoming the go-to leading man in Hollywood. The tone of the third Mad Max movie is very different. The tragedy of producer Byron Kennedy’s death while scouting for the movie hung heavily over production. Miller shared directing duties with pal and collaborator George Ogilvie; in his own words, “I had a lot on my plate.” There were even doubts about the movie’s entire production.
The picture was made and opened on July 10th and, since that day, has divided fandom and critics alike. Many can’t decide if it’s a high point or a low point for the franchise. Flashes of brilliance seem to sit uncomfortably alongside moments of pure Hollywood hogwash. And that was reflected in the box office — returning just $36.2 million in North America on its $10 million budget.
Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, Beyond Thunderdome has still earned its own place in popular culture. Much of the action takes place in a town overseen by Tina Turner’s perfectly pantomime Aunty Entity. She stomps on those who oppose her, dressing her tyranny up as being for the greater good. The people of Bartertown are led to believe they now live in what the future should be like: fair and equal. But it’s a dictatorship, pure and simple.
It all would sound familiar to a 1985 audience. In a world divided in two — quite literally, between east and west — there are two opposing viewpoints towards economics and society. Consumerism is worshipped in the west by yuppies, while the ideals of communism make for harder times in the east. Beyond Thunderdome smashes the two together — a pastiche on both ideologies, thick with satire. Miller once again delivers a cracked mirror held up to society and offers a reflection, albeit fractured through the lens of science fiction.
After Beyond Thunderdome there would be a long absence from the Mad Max universe. Audiences were teased and given false hope for almost 30 years. A number of mishaps, blunders, studio interference, and time meant that Mel Gibson’s Max had had his swansong. When Fury Road was released, it was Tom Hardy who wore the battered leather jacket and leg brace. He’d inherited the keys to the Pursuit Special and boy did he take it for a ride.
The world was a very different place. Three decades can do that to a planet. Yet somehow, when the vast, opening shot of Fury Road appeared on the big screen, there was no sense of nostalgia. The world depicted felt fresh.
Miller delivers in Fury Road a Mad Max movie built for the audience and time it occupies. The iconography is the same — we’re still in the desert, still with our Road Warrior, still wanting him to succeed. Yet this world, this old, new, future world, has still somehow moved with our times.
We’re introduced to the fascist cult leader Immortan Joe, an ageing man staving off death at all costs as he tries to secure his own legacy and future through oppressive masculinity and violence. Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, whose stand-out performance and character arc makes her arguably the co-lead, is the world-weary warrior trying to get the hell out of dodge, taking the women destined to be slaves for their grotesque master with her. And into this strange set-up comes Max. Hardy’s portrayal of the character differs slightly to that of Gibson; here we have a much more angst-riddled Max, who battles his own demons more vocally than in previous instalments.
We live in a time of social upheaval, and that’s reflected in Fury Road. The new, the future, races across a barren landscape potted and pitted with danger, both natural and man-made, in a bid to be free of the world it longs to leave behind. Max is the conduit through which this happens. And, by the end of the picture, his job is done. He has no place in the new world — it’s not for him. He was there merely to facilitate a future where there was none before.
A powerful, touching scene from Fury Road suggests that even in the chaos of the Mad Max universe, there’s still a future. Bathed in a cool, calming blue hue from the desert night, one of the wives is shown seeds. It’s not long — 30 seconds or thereabouts — but as a moment among the madness, it is profound and touching. Seeds represent the future; they are an investment in times yet to come.
The four Mad Max films aren’t just great fun, though the car chases are amongst cinema’s most thrilling. They’re tight, brilliant films carrying prescient messages about ourselves, our instincts, and what happens when the chains are off. George Miller’s films have always argued that we are our own worst enemy, and the Road Warrior and his world have become a dominant vision of what our world could become. They are a giant, glaring, neon sign, pointing to a possible future — both of our world, and of ourselves.