Because the Future is Fun

Remembering… the Mad Max Trilogy

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Unsurprisingly, with a brand new Mad Max film out in cinemas, the web has been full of features about the film, and a few about the original. We strongly recommend Mark Hartley’s fantastic 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild Untold Story of Ozploitation!, a movie as entertaining and NSFW as most of the films it looks at, to anyone looking to understand more of the film culture the original trilogy emerged from. That said, even the first of the films was an outlier in a cinematic culture that was an outlier on the global stage, a true indie made by a medical doctor and an award-winning young film-maker/producer as the first film by their own company. Dr. George Miller and Byron Kennedy met on the film course at the University of New South Wales in the early-to-mid seventies, shooting a short that won acclaim and founding Kennedy Miller in 1975. Mad Max came out in 1979 and became one of the most profitable films ever made, putting them and Australia on the map and waking up other film cultures to the possibilities inherent in blending post-apocalyptic sci-fi with the Western and car chase movies.

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Watching it today, it may have lost some of its impact in terms of its original context, but it still retains a great deal of power, mostly because of the ambitions of Kennedy and Miller and the talents they gathered around them to realise them. Stunts that still look dangerous now punctuate a finely balanced sense of brutality and lyricism used to recount a narrative that has all the best qualities of the finest comic books in its blend of visual and verbal storytelling. It is by no means a deep movie, or one intending to provoke in the manner of American post-apocalyptic films such as the Charlton Heston-starring trio of Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green; arguably it has more in common with two other American subgenres of that period, “rogue cop” and car chase thrillers, as well as the Western, using them and the near future of Australia rather than their then-present day to find narrative freedom. In its story of outlaw bikers versus leather-clad law enforcers pursuing each other violently over sun-beaten blacktop we see society as the creators and the audience knew decaying fast, expressing local fears over crime rates and biker gangs while maintaining a certain jaundiced view of Outback towns and culture that is a recognisable thread of Australian cinema up until that point in time. It is one of those films showing us a civilisation heading towards its end, putting it in the same boat as films like Miracle Mile and the aforementioned Soylent Green rather than true post-apocalyptic tales such as The Ultimate Warrior, A Boy and his Dog or The Quiet Earth.

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The 1982 sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was indeed one of these, however, a classic sequel, bigger, brasher, and bolder yet somehow retaining that aforementioned combination of brutality and lyricism that gave the first film more emotional content than your average violent B-picture. Opening up the world-building of the first to a time further down the road when society really has collapsed, Max has become a hard-bitten cynical nomad, estranged from civilisation and his humanity, although vestiges of it clearly remain, not least in his relationship to a dog he has picked up along the way. He ends up coming to the aid of a beleaguered settlement holding together around an oil well, confronting muscled masked villain The Humungus and his gang, leading to the finest all-action third act until James Cameron’s Terminator 2:  Judgement Day.

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Ripped off time and again, setting a template for Italian and American b-pictures and straight-to-video flicks to come, it is as exciting and entertaining a film now as it was then, undiluted by the copying and borrowing, again due to the talent across all departments coupled with Miller & Kennedy’s particular way with camera positioning and editing. Modern reviewers wax at length about the risk the stunt performers and sometimes cast took in these first two films, but one should note that it was equally as hair-raising for the crew tasked with capturing the images and sound on location, clearly putting themselves at risk to capture some of the insane footage. Only Italian Eurocrime films of the seventies had come so close to placing us in the middle of such outrageous automotive carnage before, but this was out in the stunning scenery of the Australian Outback, well away from urban environments, and one remains amazed that more people weren’t hospitalised during the making of these action sequences. Another great score from Aussie composer Brian May is the icing on this still-tasty cake.

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1985’s trilogy capper Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is held up by many fans of cinematic SF as a perfect example of a disaster, a film too far, and yet is the most lyrical and most solidly realised SF film of the series at that point. Sure, it doesn’t hold together as well as the other two, and is clearly aimed at the growing “summer blockbuster” audience with all those things that even then we were coming to accept as standard:  gimmick casting to get wider American audiences on board who may not know of what was something of a cult Australian series at that point, a tie-in soundtrack to do the same as well as a score from blockbuster specialist Maurice Jarre, trying to wrangle in multiple demographics to the cinema with storylines for young and adult alike, tempering the violence to achieve that all-important PG-13 rating in the U.S, and fan outcry at all of the above. The previous two films had achieved R ratings from the M.P.A.A., but here in Blighty the first film achieved an X certificate from the B.B.F.C. after 49 seconds of cuts, which were still required for an 18 on home video in 1984; we wouldn’t get to see Mad Max uncut until 1992, but now it warrants only a 15, the same as the sequels.

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Nevertheless, despite these constraints and Miller working with new co-director George Ogilvie following Kennedy’s death in 1983 – Beyond Thunderdome is dedicated to him – the film has spectacularly shot sequences that work just fine in and of themselves, as if Miller & Ogilvie had a more expansive vision that had to be shoehorned into a studio feature running time, when maybe it might have worked better as chapters in a TV series (although no-one anywhere in the world would have given them the money and time back then to make such a series!). There’s no question that while many today claim to reference the second film, particularly in videogames, it’s this third outing that seems more redolent of Fallout 3 and the like. Tina Turner actually pitches Auntie just right for the sort of world we’re witnessing, believably holding court over a new pocket of civilisation slowly birthing out of the wilderness and warfare we witnessed in the middle film, yet held ransom to the fundamental need for power to keep things going, a far more credible performance than many a rock star has given in a big U.S.-funded movie. Even the kids of the second half of the film give good performances, moving beyond facile Lord of the Flies comparisons to suggest much of the backstory between them and behind their tribe’s existence before all is revealed explicitly. It’s a good thing they’re there too, as this third film hits the same problem Lethal Weapon 3 would face a decade later:  what’s it gonna take to make Mel mad this time? Max at this point is clearly running on empty, and as a reluctant hero he needs a reason to be heroic; a living reminder of the family and world he has left behind is what moves him to finally do what’s right in a world starting to find law again in pursuit of order.

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If the film has one key weakness beyond the disjointed parts and defanged violence it is star Mel Gibson. The first Australian star of the blockbuster era, there’s a visible world of difference between his raw charismatic performance in the first, his leaner, meaner one in the second and this physically comic version that features the Americanised accent and tics we are now all more than familiar with after decades of his work. If the first two films have something of the respective qualities of Sergio Leone’s first two entries in his Dollar trilogy, this third one has the sprawl and the comedy of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly without the tension or exciting action (actually, the Star Wars original trilogy is maybe a better comparison given Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks and so forth). The obvious wig in the first part of the film does him know favours, but neither does his now more recognised tendency to mug for the camera, although we are at least spared the martyr-like suffering that he has forced later characters to go through. Still, one could argue his performance reflects the film in all its contradictions, and when he has to dig deep for key moments he does indeed, visibly connecting this Max with the ones we’ve seen before.

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The video and audio of the U.S. region-free blu-rays reveal much about aging film and the many difficulties of transferring it to modern media. The quality of the transfers generally improves with each budget, but all of them show some of the fluctuations in quality, while U.K. buyers beware as the first film here has only a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track instead of the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix of the U.S. disc. Extras are limited to good crew commentaries on each of the first two, plus a featurette on the first and a critics’ intro on the second, although the U.K. edition of the first drops both the commentary and featurette; the third is bare-bones. By no means the definitive retrospective collection, whatever the packaging and marketing/PR have suggested, as the third film has known deleted scenes and obviously Tina Turner’s music video at the very least to accompany it all of which are M.I.A. The new Shout! Factory disc for the first film out now in the U.S. is region-locked unlike the Warner one, and adds three new interviews totalling half an hour to the existing extras from the Warner U.S. disc.

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When all is said and done, the trilogy remained financially successful even as its budgets increased and profitability decreased. Home video came at just the right time for these films to have a shelf life far longer than your average b-pic of the era, leading to near-legendary status amongst some fans that is maybe more than the first and third pictures can actually bear. There’s no question that while the series varies and changes over the three films, the grander ambitions of Miller and his co-creators shine through time and again, building a seminal sci-fi screen franchise that has stood the test of time as entertainment with ideas, even if the first and the third seem resolutely of their times in a way the second doesn’t, transcending its production era instead. It’s easy still to see why Max Rockatansky holds the place he does in fans of a certain age after all these years, although we’re only just seeing what folks make of him with a new face and maybe a new future. We look forward to seeing Miller and Max return to this world and explore it further while indulging in yet more insane car stunts and on-screen violence.

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