Is there anything to say about the Mad Max Trilogy that hasn’t already been said in the thirty four years since audiences first thrilled to the deep rumble and furious roar of the last of the V8 Interceptors? Now there was a sound to strike fear into the hearts of the feral punks reaving their way along the outback highways of a society in full-throttle decline to an apocalyptic abyss! The movies have been reviewed and critiqued extensively and their influence and legacy have been acknowledged far and wide, so, to answer my own question, there’s probably not much more to say.
On the other hand, that’s never stopped me before and the release of the three movies together on Blu-ray for the first time is as good an opportunity as any to acknowledge the influence of George Miller’s iconic creation once more.
Mad Max was the 1979 directorial debut of George Miller, a movie that for two decades held the Guinness world record for most profitable film: it cost an estimated $400,000 to make and earned more than $100 million at the box office. Like, love or hate the movie, that is an undeniably staggering result. Coupled with the movie’s 95% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, you can take with a pinch of salt any criticisms I might choose to level at this movie!
As an adolescent, the first two movies held great appeal to me with their comic-book action and anarchic violence set in a dystopian and then post-apocalyptic setting. Even today, thirty years on, Max strikes a cord as a proto-mythical hero straight from our collective unconscious, a force of fury visiting righteous vengeance on the wicked.
But thirty years on, it does seem all too simplistic and, well, adolescent. Miller appears to have been painting a picture with extremely broad brush strokes: love, hate, vengeance – primal emotions depicted without complexity or subtlety. Perhaps it is also intentional that his characters appear to be emotionally stunted, more childlike than adult? Could Miller be presenting a study of characters in a dystopian society in rapid decline and descending into chaos, a society in which existence (and the emotional life of its members) is dramatically simplified (because all that matters is simply to survive)? Either that or the acting is not very good. Does the exaggerated and theatrical style employed by actors playing the villains (who often seem slightly too preoccupied with their hair and makeup) add to or diminish their menace? The performances often fall one side or the other of a fine line between suggesting a sinister perversion and a slightly too twee camping up of things.
Thirty years on and with my adolescence assigned to distant memory, I’ve become more of a fan of the movies’ legacy than of the movies themselves. But it is a remarkable legacy. Miller’s distinctive film-making style (which itself took its cue from others from George Lucas to David Lean) and his vision of a post-apocalyptic future have been immensely influential on more than one generation of filmmakers. Max himself has become an iconic figure in modern cinema, and perhaps even popular consciousness.
With 1979’s Mad Max, Miller gave us a brutal and gritty (and brutally simplistic) origin movie which traces the route taken by Max Rockatansky from Main Force Patrol Cop and loving husband and father to Old Testament force of righteous vengeance. Max is the best of the best, a ruthless MFP cop with a reputation for getting the job done: if not bringing Order to the roads, eliminating the agents of Chaos, ruthless motorcycle gangs reaving their way along the highways in search of fuel (and anything else that takes their fancy). As good as he is, Max wants out. He is afraid. Afraid that he is becoming like the men he hunts. When his wife and infant child are brutally ridden down, Max is set on a path which both reduces and elevates him to a force of fury and vengeance.
With a budget of $400K, the result is, for all its flaws, a remarkable achievement in cinematic history.
With an additional $4 million at his disposal, Miller found the sweet spot in development and production of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, a far more polished undertaking than its predecessor and yet one that retains the original movie’s primal rawness. Due to the first movie’s failure to make much of an impression with US audiences, the sequel was intended to stand on its own: Max enters the picture as a fully formed hero. He is a survivor, wandering the outback in search of fuel, adrift and without purpose until he encounters a community refining its own oil. Like moths to a flame the nomadic reavers are drawn to the community, hacking away at its defences. Much has been written about Max’s rediscovery of his humanity through his interaction with the community, but it is not entirely convincing. Throughout the narrative, Max remains a loner motivated by self-preservation (he is a survivor in a very hostile environment) but at his core, always and forever, he is a protector of the weak and vulnerable. This defines his humanity and despite everything it is never entirely lost. In this second movie, Max’s motivation remains self-preservation: his actions are brave and approximate heroism but it is only truly with the third movie, Beyond Thunderdome, that Max’s heroism emerges fully when he sacrifices his interests for those of others.
By far my favourite movie of the trilogy, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior somehow elevates its predecessor retrospectively, making Mad Max a more satisfying origin story for this wandering loner.
For all that Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome completes Max’s journey to true heroism, it is the least satisfying of the trilogy. It seems that Miller was after something of the epic look and feel of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (which might explain the choice of Maurice Jarre to write the score for Thunderdome as Jarre also composed the score for Lean’s masterpiece), but the bigger budget did not result in a more compelling script and only succeeded in polishing away the primal rawness of the original almost entirely.
Fortunately the third installment is not the end of the story and Mad Max will become a trilogy in four and perhaps five parts with filming now (and finally) complete for a fourth movie, starring Tom Hardy as Max. Costing some 250 times more than the original Mad Max, Mad Max: Fury Road is due sometime before oil reserves deplete entirely (or 2014, whichever comes sooner).
For all its flaws, George Miller’s Mad Max Trilogy is more than worthy of our respect and acknowledgement both for its creation of one of the most iconic heroes in modern cinema and for the films’ influence on several generations of filmmakers.