- Mad Max:between apocalypse and utopia
'What a lovely day!' The cynical exuberance with which George Miller's iconic Mad Max finally returned to movie screens typifies a contradiction that lies at the heart of this slippery storyworld. Simultaneously a joyous celebration of the beloved film series' long-delayed resurrection and an ironic expression of the film's toxic death cult, the phrase lingers in the mind because it combines the franchise's critical attitude with the visceral thrills it provides. This contradiction – between Mad Max as a work of cultural criticism and Mad Max as an audiovisual spectacle – manifested itself equally in the reception of Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller US 2015): the deluge of excitable reviews, editorials, think-pieces and memes it generated tended to focus either on the film's political agenda, or on its formalist ingenuity as an action film.
While the four films in the Mad Max series (and the occasional transmedia expansion) run the gamut from micro-budgeted Ozsploitation to pre-packaged summer blockbuster, this fundamental tension has defined the franchise and its cultural history. Influential to the point that the term 'Mad Max future' instantly brings to mind a harsh landscape of ecological devastation, resource scarcity and the total breakdown of institutions, its post-apocalyptic future is both existentially terrifying and fundamentally exciting – if only because of the sheer virtuosity of production design, stunt work and world-building. No other film series has made the post-apocalyptic, warlord-ravaged hellscape that seems like the inevitable end game of global capitalism so much fun.
Even Mad Max (Miller Australia 1979), an outlier in the franchise in more ways than one, exhibits this characteristic structure of feeling. Set just 'a few years in the future' – as the opening caption indicates – the first film plays like a slightly more futuristic variation on the 1970s Hollywood trend of cynical cop/vigilante action films, such as Dirty Harry (Siegel US 1971) and Death Wish (Winner US 1974), adding in more spectacular chases and more obviously batshit-crazy stunts. Considering the vaguely punk 'rags 'n leather' aesthetic that has flourished in the sequels, it is always surprising to find how the breakout Aussie hit that started the franchise is only minimally [End Page 301] science-fictional: for US grindhouse audiences – viewing the film in a rather hilariously dubbed American release version – it was surely the spectacle of lawless motorcycle gangs ruling over backwater towns surrounded by the unfathomable emptiness of outback roads that made it seem futuristic.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
But even more than its depiction of its near-future dystopian landscape, Mad Max established a genuinely nasty worldview, and a politics of absolute nihilism. It depicts a Western society on the brink of collapse, the very first shot in the film unsubtly depicting a dilapidated and falling-apart Halls of Justice sign1 as Max Rockatansky (an implausibly young Mel Gibson) fights an obviously losing battle with irredeemably evil motorcycle gangs. Explicitly identified as the last remaining embodiment of law enforcement, Max initially represents the implacable last vestige of social order, combining his legal status as police officer with his symbolic authority as head of an idealised nuclear family. But of course the gratuitous murder of his wife and infant child transforms Max from stoic cop to vindictive vigilante, hunting down and sadistically killing the individual gang members who conveniently combine societal collapse and Max's personal loss.
Where this first film thus gives a revved-up depiction of the more general sense of fragmentation and social decay so prevalent in 1970s genre cinema, [End Page 302] the sequels would move into a more explicitly post-apocalyptic future where the collapse has become total. In this context, the subsequent films repeatedly attempt to reverse the first film's dynamic. Beginning with Mad Max 2 (Miller Australia 1981),2 the narratives are organised around redemptive arcs, as 'that broken, hollow shell of a man' finds ways of reconnecting to various communities as a reluctant but obvious saviour figure. While the second film's memorable opening montage does combine stock footage of societal collapse with footage from...