Ahead of next week’s release of Mad Max: Fury Road, we’re taking a retrospective look back over George Miller’s original trilogy of post-apocalyptic action films.
by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
Back in 1979, George Miller exploded onto the scene with low budget action film Mad Max. Having only previously made a short with his buddy, Mad Max producer Byron Kennedy, Miller brought a vision of the future to the screen rarely seen before. Wrapped in a real life fear with an unmistakable prediction for our future, Max’s world was one of chaos. A world shaped by the population’s relentless desire to keep their vehicles running on the increasingly rare petrol that we took for granted before the oil wells dried.
Casting a then unknown Mel Gibson, a man with only one theatrical film credit at the time (and honestly, do you remember the Australian “thriller” Summer City? Rated a spectacular 4/10 on IMDB? Me neither) with no money, a star no one had heard of and with nothing to lose, George Miller put his heart and soul into a film that, if it had gone badly, could have ended his film making career before it had even had a chance to splutter into life.
Now this was the late seventies. A time long before just the hint of a film idea had studios clambering to find room on their lots to film a trilogy, or more. A time before people would be walking out of the cinema already talking about a sequel and a time before franchises were churned out into multiplexes no matter how successful, or unsuccessful, they were. So when you see that Mad Max spawned a trilogy in a time where trilogy meant Star Wars and The Godfather, NOT the Alvin and the Chipmunks or the bloody Transformers, you know it was something special.
On what amounts to a shoestring budget, George Miller created a dystopian world to simultaneously amaze and depress us. And with Miller returning to the desert soon with Mad Max: Fury Road, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the trilogy that launched Gibson to superstardom and gave Miller a directorial career that spans more than 35 years. I wanted the franchise fresh in my mind ready for the fourth instalment, I wanted to return to the world I first visited as a kid and most importantly, I wanted to see if the trilogy still held up today as one of the greats and it isn’t, as so many things are nowadays, simply being held together with fond, rose-tinted nostalgia.
1] Mad Max (1979)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Law and order is beginning to collapse as fuel, the worlds most replied upon resource, becomes it’s most precious. Set “a few years from now”, Mad Max is the story of Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky. Policeman, and top pursuit driver for Australia’s Highway Patrol, the MFP.
The thing that makes Mad Max stand out amongst a lot of other films, is that at less than 90 minutes, it wastes very little time on action scenes and set-pieces that it doesn’t need. Opting instead to spend the majority of its run time building the world and letting the audience become a part of it. After a spectacular 10 minute car chase, ok, not The French Connection or Ronin kind of spectacular, but it was pretty great, the film spends an hour with very little going on as it elects to instead flesh out its characters and tell the story that Miller wants– no, needs to tell.
You see, Mad Max‘s concept came from an international crisis just a few years earlier. For many and varied political reasons the Arab nations that control the vast majority of oil in the world declared an embargo against the U.S. and their allies in a show of strength against them. Knowing they couldn’t combat them in a traditional, military sense, these nations hit the Americans where it hurt the most. Their wallets. By cutting off the main supply of oil, the import cost for the U.S. went through the roof and made the price of a barrel of oil nigh on unbearable. Anyways…
This was the basis for Mad Max; a world where fuel is a rarity and people will do anything to get heir hands on more. A world that grows ever more dark and violent as gangs carve their way through the country and terrify the general population. The gangs and the Main Force Patrol clash on the roads, bringing mayhem and destruction with them and only offering a passing glance to the safety of the people anywhere near these vehicular skirmishes.
Max‘s madness comes when his friends and his family are caught in the crossfire of this long running war. Maniacal gang leader “Toecutter” (played by the terrifyingly brilliant Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his band of ultra-violent misfits gradually feel the wrath of a man who tried very hard to do the right thing by his family, his friends and the law and instead becomes the thing he feared the most. One of them. In an effort to be the good guy, Max had to become the thing he has spent his life trying to protect others from and to make sure that no one else has to go through what he has, he must do the despicable and wipe these animals off the face of the earth.
Max spends the last 20 minutes or so systematically pulling apart Toecutter’s gang in some fun and imaginative ways. Taking all of his rage out on the bikers that ruined his life, making sure they can’t do it to anyone else, Rockatansky becomes wrath incarnate as the final, maybe the film’s most famous, scene comes to an end and the credits roll we all take a breath and know we’ve just watched something special.
Made on a modest $350,000, Mad Max made millions of dollars back and not only rocketed its star and its director straight into the limelight, but made a sequel an all-but-guaranteed thing.
2] Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
The turnaround from the first Mad Max making a tremendous profit to us getting a sequel wasn’t long at all. Only a couple of years after we saw Max become a one man army, we are reunited with the “Road Warrior” as he lives a lone wolf kind of life, moving across the ruined countryside searching for his next meal or his car’s next fill-up. One man alone has become one man and his dog as the world goes from a slightly recognisable dystopia to a full-on, no more law left post-apocalyptic wasteland. And with a bigger budget and some studio confidence, George Miller spent a lot of time and attention (along with his production crew, of course) crafting a world that not only looked menacing and hopeless, but one that also become the benchmark for post-apocalyptic settings for years to come. Influencing media across all forms. You can see Mad Max 2‘s DNA still seeping through as recently as films like Book of Eli and even in video games like Rage.
If Mad Max was the story of a man losing his humanity, Mad Max 2, sometimes subtitled “The Road Warrior” is the story of how that same jaded soul finds a reason to dig deep and find some compassion as the film takes a page or two from almost every western ever made and has Mel Gibson’s leading man protecting a settlement from leather and rubber clad marauders intent on stealing supplies.
The bad guys definitely get to see the majority of the film’s increased production value. There is a notable change in the aesthetic of anything that isn’t a good guy. Cars aren’t just cars, they are all heavily modified death machines with a Death Race look about them with gang members all leather-clad and using old tyres to make those awesome 80’s shoulder pads. The film’s critically acclaimed costume design begins with lead baddie, “The Humungus”, a terrifying individual who wears a hockey mask, an uncomfortable looking pair of pants and a bizarre S&M harness and it pretty much ends with his lieutenant, Wez. Wez is a mohawked psychopath who terrifies the populace in arseless chaps! Ok, so maybe it’s not the greatest costume design ever, but for its time it’s a spectacular vision of the near future and more than 30 years later it still holds up as one of the best original post-apocalyptic films ever made.
Widely lauded as the best of the trilogy, Mad Max 2 still holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has a thoroughly well deserved cult status amongst film lovers across the world. An amazing sequel that turns the original’s formula on its head by switching tension building drama for telling it’s story through its action sequences. If Road Warrior has a flaw, it’s that one of the greatest action films ever made somehow spawned…
3] Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
The problem with Mad Max 3 isn’t that it’s bad. It kind of is, but that’s not its biggest issue. Beyond Thunderdome‘s main issues come from the fact that it simply tried too damn hard. It tried to be bigger and better than Road Warrior and not only falls short, it stumbles almost immediately and never quite picks itself up.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome can only really be described as silly. Its premise is a good one but it’s poorly executed. The idea that 25 years after the events of the second film society would have learned to build themselves into little communities that have learn to NOT kill each other is a great one. Power struggles and the fight for the fuel that must have surely run out by now should add nothing but tension but it just plays out as daft. Ok, so they worked out how to get fuel into their film and added a pig crap methane factory thing that produces the energy for the Tina Turner controlled “Bartertown”, but it doesn’t explain how a dude that lives in a little area in the desert that’s surprisingly reminiscent of the house Luke Skywalker lives in on Tatooine has a plane that never runs out of fuel.
Even the film’s titular battle arena disappoints. Thunderdome is a giant cage, built to house two people who fight to the death. But it comes off as ridiculous when the men are attached to giant elastic ropes and forced to bounce around the giant birdcage like a pair of rubbish Cirque Du Soleil performers who have had one too many alco-pops!
Everything from production to story has gone down the tubes! Costumes have gone from looking like they were actually scavenged by the people wearing them to looking far too clean and precisely cut (I’m of course forgetting the buttless trousers) and the story forgoes the brutality of its predecessors and instead somehow turns into a slightly more violent version of Hook, right down to the silly looking Lost Boys.
Mad Max 3 falls into the same pit as so many third instalments. It tries way too hard to prove itself relevant and simply falls flat. If Mad Max 2 is the film that all the post-apocalyptic movies since have tried to be, Beyond Thunderdome is the film they have tried hard not to be compared to. Not only is it the poorest of the trilogy, it’s easily the one to have fared the worst against the test of time.
And that can only leave us with…
4] Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: –
30 years since the last film and 15 years since the movie was officially green lit by Warner Brothers, George Miller returns to the wasteland with Mad Max: Fury Road. Tom Hardy will be taking the title role, joined by Charlize Theron as we return to the desolate world that has been influencing Hollywood for almost four decades.
Only time will tell if Miller and his new star can relight the fire that Thunderdome kicked sand all over.
Fury Road will be released in UK cinemas on 14th May 2015. Brooker will be back to review it for the site soon after, and you’ll be able to hear our podcast review some days later.