Features

Retrospectives #5: The Mad Max Series

Words By: Jack Dawson
Image Credit: Forbes

One of the things I like most about Australian media is how relentlessly bleak it is. Few happy endings, morally ambiguous characters, and long shots of the desert doing nothing much but hosting flies and lizards.
And Mad Max seems like the perfect embodiment of all of these qualities. With the new film recently released and sequels on the horizon, now seems as good a time as any to have a look at this venerable series. With that in mind, let’s have a look at George Miller’s own fractured fable of Guzzoline and woe.

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Mad Max:

I’d actually make an argument that the original Mad Max is the Australian film, the one that best showcases our values and ideals as represented in Australian fiction. It’s also notable in that despite informing most Post-Apocalypse Fiction, it actually takes place before any kind of Apocalypse, establishing a setting that’s on the very verge of collapse.
Max is a Police Officer who fights a losing battle to maintain order while supporting his Wife and Infant Son. However a new set of outlaws led by a man named Toecutter take exception to Max’s arrest of a low-level thug named ‘The Night-Rider’. Mayhem and bloody B-Movie Vengeance ensues.
The whole film is a masterclass in building tension, the stakes continuously ramp up until the explosive and wide-eyed climax, after which we’re left with a hollow shell of a human being who was once named Max.
That’s the real charm of this movie, it directly addresses the fact that it’s anarchic and lovingly realised vehicular violence is an aberration of society, and hardly a desirable state of affairs. There’s a lot of action films that tackle this theme, but they usually try to have their cake and eat it too, offering a flimsy moral code or vapid platitude that makes it alright when the protagonist commits acts of heinous violence.
It doesn’t hurt that this film was part of the initial wave of films in the 70s and 80s that put Australian cinema on the map. Films such as Priscilla: Queen of the desert, Crocodile Dundee, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and more emerged from this period, to say nothing of the many Australian Directors and Actors who got a start in Hollywood soon after. Granted many of these films began appealing to overseas crowds by utilizing American and British Actors, and there’s an argument to be made that this practice is foisted on films that ill need it to this day.
Mad Max endures as one of our best films, and certainly one of our most imaginative efforts. And it’s a testament to the film that a genre shift into Post-Apocalypse action felt completely natural…

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The Road Warrior:

Up until the release of Fury Road, Mad Max: The Road Warrior was one the most critically acclaimed of the series. Finally awarded a decent budget to realise the post-apocalyptic world of Miller’s fever dreams, this film is essentially a conclusion to the previous one.
Society has now collapsed, thanks to Nuclear War and the breakdown in communications between settlements, and Max is a lone Warrior on the move. But when he comes across an isolated community living in an Oil refinery who are trying to escape from the clutches of the Lord Humungous (just roll with it), Max is confronted over whether to be a Bastard, or a Complete Bastard.
Unlike the previous film which was dubbed over to cater to the delicate sensibilities of its American audience, this film was left relatively untouched. Once again Miller demonstrates his patented sense of timing and visual storytelling, as well as a newfound flair for the flamboyant in his costume design and set dressings. And even though this film is practically saccharine compared to the first film, it still has an edge that few other action films can equal.
Much as I’ve praised the first film from high to low, it was a rather slow affair and I’m forced to agree with critic Lindsay Ellis’ assertion that it’s essentially a prolonged Act 1. The Road Warrior is just a lot more polished, a lot easier to follow and watch, and all around just a more enjoyable film.
I guess one of the more alarming consequences of this film’s success is that it only reinforced the infatuation that Hollywood has with Joseph Campbell, casting Max as a mythological chosen one. It’s unfortunate, but I personally blame George Lucas for its’ obnoxious proliferation. Well I blame George Lucas for most things wrong with the film industry, it’s what everyone does.
Regardless, it’s one of the highpoint of the series, before the following film changed almost everything…

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Beyond Thunderdome:

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is unquestionably the worst film in the series, though it’s by no means an irredeemably bad movie, or even a mediocre one. And yet it’s the one that everyone remembers, with the most quotable lines and the most infamous plot twists. Even the title has taken on a life of its’ own, being used as shorthand for any sequel or instalment that takes a turn for the bizarre.
Max has procured himself a team of camels and a trading caravan before being waylaid by a curiously familiar pilot. After travelling to a city called ‘Bartertown’, Max strikes a deal to get back what was once his, which involves emerging triumphant from the gladiatorial Thunderdome. Things don’t go to plan, and he soon finds himself embroiled in the affairs of a tribe of children. Also, copious amounts of Pig Shit is involved.
I’ve heard at least one rumour that this was originally a completely different film without any connection to the Mad Max series before being foisted with the Mad Max brand, and I’m inclined to believe it. It’s almost obscenely upbeat, and though there’s a lot to like about this film it barely feels like it could take place in the same universe where Max burnt a man to death. There’s not even much in the way of action aside from the Thunderdome scene (which has not aged well) and the chase at the very end.
And yet this film really did codify several of the series-wide tropes. For one thing it reinforced the recurrence of Max as a passive observer in other people’s stories, it essentially threw any and all continuity into the wind, and it was one of the first times we ever saw a flourishing Post-Apocalyptic society on film.
This film had the most money flung at it out of the original trilogy, and I can hardly accuse it of wasting any of it. Bartertown is a joy to behold, and the world-building in this entry is really superb. Even the Wild Children’s society is complex and a fascinating utilization of modern technology, but it all feels for naught. The children are annoying, the officials of Bartertown don’t come off as cartoonishly evil as the film would have us think, and Max just doesn’t have that raw and desperate quality which is essential to the character.
All in all, it feels like the logical conclusion to Australian cinema trying to draw in International audiences, particularly American audiences. The presence of Tina Turner (and a song of hers being the first thing we see) the black and white morality, the happy ending, and the kid characters who feel like they were ripped out of Temple of Doom; all of it seems so pandering. Maybe that’s what I (and several critics) dislike about it, the pandering tone. Or maybe I’m a grumpy snob who dislikes children (well obviously I am, but still).
And that was the end of the Mad Max films, until…

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Fury Road:

Mad Max: Fury Road.
I think that while working on Happy Feet 2, George Miller quietly snapped, and henceforth set out to make one of the most enjoyably anarchic action films seen in years. So much of this film feels like a culmination of every element of the Mad Max series thus far, and I give it credit that despite having an even happier ending than Beyond Thunderdome it still retains the raw savagery that characterized the first two films.
I won’t talk about this film too much, not after the last tongue-bathing I gave it, but I will say this film is arguably the best out of the series. It has the best pacing, the best action, the best character interactions, the best visual effects, the best cars, damn near the best everything out fo the series.
Now having shed the traditional ‘One man against the world’ machismo which is ironically best exemplified by Mel Gibson, Fury Road is free to examine emotionally vulnerable heroes who fight against objectification and misogyny. I actually think it’s an excellent direction for the series to go, great fiction has always been preoccupied with examining the societies they are made in, and I fail to see the downside to social commentary expressed through explosions.
This series Lived, Died, and now Lives again, and aside from causing a high demand in silver spray paint, it remains to be seen what legacy Fury Road will leave behind for Australian cinema.

It’s rare that a local product experiences such success as the Mad Max franchise. I suppose one could argue that it’s as much an American product as it is an Australian one, but I’d argue that no matter how many production companies stick their fingers into it, Mad Max is still a result of decades of Australiana. The bleakness, the desolate deserts, the emphasis on Car Culture, even the future-speak vernacular are all rooted in the series roots, which lends it a charm and voice that’s all its own.
So now it’s just a matter of waiting till Mad Max: The Wasteland. But how to pass the time?

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Well, the future does belong to the Mad…