We all know Fury Road is great, but perhaps you need some convincing that the original Mad Max trilogy is worth your time. Perhaps you missed Beyond Thunderdome each of the many times it was shown on a cable outlet, and are now leery of Tina Turner in a fright wig. Perhaps you think moviemakers couldn’t create a believable post-apocalyptic landscape in the (mostly) CGI-free days of the 1980s. Perhaps you just can’t with Mel Gibson. I understand. (Truly! Especially about that last one.) But I’m here to show you that the original Mad Max trilogy holds many wonders.
There will be people who tell you that the first film is crap, or that the last film is crap. Those people are wrong. The original Mad Max does indeed have long boring stretches, but those patches are interrupted by some of the best chase sequences in all moviedom. And yes, Beyond Thunderdome is…well… silly. Deeply silly. But it’s also fun, and the first half in particular has some of the best post-apocalyptic worldbuilding I’ve ever seen. Which leads us to the first reason you should watch it:
It’s Not Just Another Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland
In fact, the beginning of the trilogy takes place in a pre-apocalyptic wasteland. One of the most unique things about the Mad Max trilogy is the way it shows the full arc of an apocalyptic event. In the first film society is definitely on the decline following a major energy crisis, but it does still exist in recognizable ways: there are highways, towns, ice cream shops, and enough of an infrastructure to keep things hobbling along.
Mad Max initially works as a cop (note: Max is a civil servant, not a vigilante or even a military enforcer) trying to keep the roads clear of gasoline-siphoning biker gangs. By Road Warrior, the lawlessness of the gangs has become the norm, and Max, now a lone drifter, ends up helping a small community who were lucky enough to find an oil refinery—but unlucky enough to be targeted by a terrifying gang leader named The Humongous. Finally, in the third film, we learn that the nuclear apocalypse has actually occurred—Sydney’s gone, and presumably most other cities have been reduced to radioactive ash. The only people who have survived are the ones who were further out in the country, and now it’s up to them to figure out if things are even worth rebuilding.
It’s Pretty Much the Best Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland!
As other, more mainstream filmmakers were batting around the idea of the apocalypse with utter seriousness (Wargames), utter nihilism (A Boy and His Dog), or utter faith (A Thief in the Night) George Miller was making a snarky, explosive, and somehow totally realistic trilogy about humanity’s slide into a dystopian wasteland. Mad max also stands apart from all of these scenarios by focusing on the thing I think is actually going to kill us: the utter breakdown of society in the face of resource depletion.
George Miller’s Stellar Naming Conventions
Here’s a short list of the characters you will encounter in the Mad Max Trilogy: MasterBlaster, Aunty Entity, Goose, Toecutter, Feral Kid, Jedidiah the Pilot, Scrooloos, The Humoungus, Mr. Skyfish, Slake’m Thirst, and Pappagallo. The vast majority of these characters live up to the awesomeness of their names. Feral Kid is obviously the best. I mean, look at him.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the bondage gear? Maybe even a little freaked out by it? I would argue that in addition to being visually striking, it’s also meant to be silly and impractical—a constant joke puncturing the seriousness of Apocalypse Times. It also links all of the characters; how is skintight-leather-clad Max truly any different from The Humungous? The Refinery tribe wears crazy feathers in their hair, the gyrocaptain wears canary yellow skinny jeans, and Aunty Entity wears a chainmail disco dress. Everyone looks equally ridiculous, without any simplistic telegraphing through clothes.
The Violence is Explodey But Not Gratuitous
Yes, there is a moment in Mad Max that literally inspired the entire Saw series. There is also rape, torture, and dog-murder. So what I’m about to say will seem weird, and possibly wrong-headed, but I would actually argue that the Mad Max films as a whole are not gratuitously violent. There is no tortureporn-style lingering over details, or reveling in human pain, or straight-up nihilism, as there is in, say, A Boy and His Dog. Most of the truly horrific moments either occur off-screen, or are dealt with in a way that gives emotional weight to people’s suffering.
The most violent sequence in the trilogy is the Thunderdome fight, but even then the action is directed against our nigh-indestructible hero, and the whole thing winds up pretty cartoonish. And the two times Max is actually meant to be gratuitously violent are far more complicated than they usually are in action films—these are moments when the character is very clearly pushed over the edge. Max is not the type of hero who punches his way out of problems. In fact, Max isn’t really a hero at all.
Max isn’t Actually A Hero
It turns out Tina Turner is not being rhetorical. You can read Max in a bunch of different ways, but one of the best things about the character is that he doesn’t adhere to any particular heroic arc. Sometimes he’s a lone mercenary, just out for himself. Sometimes he’s a Shane-like protector. Other times he’s a Jesus-esque sacrificial figure. And sometimes he’s just a pawn in other characters’ games.
Over the course of the trilogy Miller plays with several different heroic tropes, allowing us to see Max as lonely human in need of redemption, while also keeping him cynical enough—and smart enough—to hold other people at arm’s length. In The Road Warrior, the leader of the Refinery Tribe calls Max out for his self-pity, reminding him that everyone has suffered, and in Thunderdome he never quite becomes the messiah some of the kids want him to be. By using the character to question what makes a hero, Miller allows the films to slip between different genres and tones rather than just being slavishly “Western” or “Sci-Fi.”
There is, as I mentioned, lots of violence and a few moments of straight-up brutality aimed at women in the Mad Max trilogy. But there are also several important female warriors who protect the Refinery Tribe in The Road Warrior, and who hold their own against The Humungous’ gang. And in Beyond Thunderdome we get two different female leaders: Aunty Entity, the founder of Bartertown, and Savannah Nix, the young woman who wants to lead a group of plane crash survivors to a better home. Both of the women are real characters; rather than being noble cardboard cutouts, they make mistakes—and have to pay for those mistakes. But they’re also accepted as leaders by everyone around them, without having to fight any tired sexist battles to prove themselves.
When Max is discovered by the young plane crash survivors, we learn that Cusha (second from the right in the picture above) is “ready to pop.” That’s because these kids formed a post-apocalyptic community together, survived, hit puberty, and… figured stuff out. The film doesn’t dwell on this, Max doesn’t dwell on this, it’s just there in the background. It shows that humans can adapt and survive no matter what, and that’s kind of great.
You’ll Increase Your Reference Quotient At Least 1000%!
- Who Run Bartertown?
- What happens when you bust a deal?
- Should you just walk away?
- Are there any alternate definitions of the word “gulag” I should know about?
You’ll be able to answer these questions, and so many more! These films inspired the Saw series, Fallout, a whole slew of lesser imitations, and helped gain attention for the more self-consciously artistic branches of the Australian New Wave. It also gave us Mel Gibson! A mixed bag, perhaps, but… he was great in Gallipoli? But best of all, this MST3K skit will be even funnier.
It’s Actually Pretty Optimistic!
By centering us on Max and his fellow civilian survivors, Miller allows us to experience the apocalypse the way most of us actually would. We’re not in secret meetings in the War Room. We’re not the phone phreakers who inadvertently triggered Global Thermonuclear War. We’re not pilots trying to decide whether or not this is a drill. We get to watch humans like us who try to create communities together and build a better tomorrow. Granted, some people just want to watch the matches at the Thunderdome all day, but some people become gyrocopter pilots, some people build whole towns that run on a certain type of justice, and some people become reluctant messiahs. As Aunty Entity says, “On the day after, I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.”
This article was originally published in May 2015.