It’s hard not to look at the future and see only arid, lifeless deserts and murderous biker gangs. If grim stories of the apocalypse have taught us anything, living through nuclear winter and/or the energy crisis only to be faced with underground pig farming or caged death matches seems to be fairly inevitable. Is there any way to avoid the maniacal violence and swine labor? Sure, maybe the polar ice caps will melt and people be mutated into fish men instead, or destiny will doom you to walking down an interminable road with some kid, not talking and being excited by any food that isn’t human, but I doubt it.
Regardless, it’s going to be rough out there. How did it come to this? It all seems to happen so quickly in the movies, the fall of mankind, but those people who have to make the actual transition from bad to hell-on-earth worse are rarely portrayed – what of them? The ones who, while clutching the last scraps of their moral codes, must somehow psychologically come to terms with the changes brought on by the end of everything they thought to be right and just? The process must be painful, filled with messy conflict both outside and in. So how are you going to handle your entire family being killed and everything you cared about turning to dust? Be sad? Try to retain some small part of your former civilized self? Are you going to cry? If you said yes to any of those things, cinema history of the future tells me you’re already dead. No, the only way to survive a situation like this is to become angry. Or better yet, get mad.
Yes, The Road Warrior may be the best and most iconic, and yes, Beyond Thunderdome may be the weirdest, and yes, Fury Road may be the most intense. Before any of those classics, however, there was the low-budget story of why an otherwise perfectly sane Australian Main Force Patrolman named Max Rockatansky eventually became Mad Max. Taken as a whole, these movies form a franchise of dystopia that is unrivaled, but it’s the sequels that seem to get most of the play time – not the one that started it all. It’s easy to see why, with their imaginative, visually stunning takes on what life without society looks like. The Road Warrior especially has defined the look and feel of these types of films since its release, with scores of wannabes and copycats, but what these uncivilized films lack is what I find most fascinating about the original Mad Max: civilization.
What? You mean it’s not all about the speed of the car chases (exhilarating), the epic crashes (fantastic stunt work), or the badass hero (Max is as cool as ever)? Yes, those elements are all still great reasons to watch Mad Max, but in truth they can also be found in the other entries in the series. What makes the first so special is its glimpse into the final days of a society, the dissolution of the sociological glue that holds people together, which is something more haunting than the disastrous end results later shown. We all live and die under order and authority, blankets that keeps us sane and safe. Classic westerns (like The Searchers) have explored the effects of the untamed frontier on civilized man, his inability to cope with a lack of structure and rules he can’t understand, but the wild west doesn’t exist anymore. The world has been vastly explored, vastly populated, and vastly industrialized. Mad Max presents a new version of this old idea, with a new frontier emerging out of societal failure, and those yet clinging to their urbanity struggle to come to grips with the fall. They cannot see that in order to live in the wilderness, one must become wild.
Taking place at a time when there has been a massive energy crisis, Mad Max shows a world where institutions are only starting to break down. There are still cities, governments, laws, and police. Most people have not abandoned their jobs for pillaging and plundering (yet), but things are getting worse, day by day. As a result, motorcycle gangs have formed in the outlying parts, testing the reach of urban order. Thus, we have Max. The best officer on the force, Max is a man known not only for his impressive driving abilities, but also (and almost more importantly) his lack of fear. However, there’s a softer side to the hardened patrolman, brought out by his wife, Jessie, and his son, simply called Sprog (Australian for “squirt”). He has a cozy, modest home, and the moments we spend there are a stark contrast to those on the job, on the road. In their marriage bed, Max seems happy, content, at peace.
This is a part of the bleak future we rarely get to be a party to, where things might not really look so bad at the moment (though they are), but writer-director George Miller takes some time with it, establishing a Max that is beginning to break down from the violence and depravity he is a witness to every day, just like the society he inhabits. He doesn’t like what he is turning into, and so threatens to leave law enforcement altogether, no longer sure whether he can tame the predator inside. Max does his best to preserve his domestication, much like the world itself, afraid of what the alternative may cost him, but a wild heart still beats within his chest, too inherent to ignore. Eventually he is lured back to the road (to the disapproval of a spendthrift government lackey) with a bribe of independence in the form of automotive technology.
Cars are important in a world with a gasoline shortage. Those who have them are mobile, which equates to self-reliance. They can run in defense or pursue what they desire. They represent power, freedom, and a lifestyle open to possibility and excitement. This is an enormous temptation for the dual-natured Max, with the thrill of the chase competing against a potential stable serenity. The car (and the hunter) wins out, doing what an accompanying speech about the merits of society could not. It is here, when Max makes a conscious choice to partake in the increasing savagery of reality, that we know the apocalypse is truly upon us, and soon it will be every man for himself.
An attack upon his co-cop and best friend Goose ends up with Max and family taking a nice, long holiday, a last-ditch effort of refusal in accepting the inevitable. Yes, in this crumbling world, people still think they can go on vacation. The population buries their heads in the sand in a vain attempt to deny the world changing around them, and of course tragedy follows, as it must to those who resist adaptation – like a hero in refusal of the call. When the Evil Biker Gang takes out Max’s family, running them down in brutal fashion, the villains have birthed the new breed for this phase of humanity. Whatever is left in Max’s civilized heart dies along with his wife and son, and he turns into a merciless hunter, a body fueled on revenge, unclear and unconcerned as to what happens when his hunger for bloodlust dries up. He is now an animal, and can never go back.
Coincidentally, this is also when Max seems to fit in best into the story’s world, seems to exist in his most natural state. No more internal conflict, no longer torn between primal urge and societal responsibility, he is free to act on instinct, a regression that slaps all the restrictions and niceties humankind has achieved over the last several thousand years right in the face. The logic of his new “insanity” supersedes any of the arbitrary rules that some nameless, outside force can no longer enforce. Instead of futilely opposing the new reality, like so many others who will soon become mere prey, Max embraces what is happening, and though philosophical questions of the soul will be dealt with later, he ensures his own survival by choosing the winning side.
So, is Mad Max named such merely because he’s angry over the death of the only two people that gave him the possibility of happiness? It’s possible, in a superficial sense. But couldn’t it also have to do with the fall of western society and the important transition from hopeful dreamers to maniacal race car murderers we all must mentally make in order to survive the lack of civilization in the outback of the apocalypse? I like to think so. Regardless, Mad Max stands out in the genre, an outstanding take on the dystopian future, with a captivating look at the tattered remains of a world order taken for granted.
Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Goomba Stomp’s Film section.