Friends! It’s me, your old pal anna, back from a very long hiatus in which I did not much but sit around and watch stuff and not write about it. Since the last post, I’ve watched the entire Fast and Furious series, bought some comics, played some Magic: The Gathering (NERD ALERT!!), and started watching some of Netflix’s original content. Not bad! But the downside is that my computer is getting very old, and it’s harder to use it because of how slow and feeble it’s gotten. In fact, the last time I even had it up and running was sometime in April. Time to start shopping for a new one.
Anyway, I figured it’s high time to get back into the swing of things before my old compy sets itself on fire in protest, and what better than to talk a bit about the latest Mad Max movie?
As you’re well aware, there is a new Mad Max movie out in theaters (not for long, though; it seems that That Dinosaur Movie is taking over for a while), which means it’s been 30 years since the last one. Can you believe? The last time there was a Mad Max movie, Tina Turner was the co-star and raggedy man Mel Gibson still had a career. I’ve always been keen on these films, but truth be told, I hadn’t seen the first and the third in close to 20 years.
The first Mad Max movie, known simply as Mad Max (1979), is far less of a post-apocalyptic action film as many people remember. It’s a Ozsploitation / carsploitation revenge film where the revenge happens far late in the film. The film’s villainous biker gang The Acolytes, lead by a man known as The Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), looks no more punked-out or weird than most other 1970s movie biker gangs.
Mad Max is clearly set in some kind of dystopian future, although it’s not clear as to when. The bulk of the film is about The Acolytes taking over and terrorizing a town, leading to a young girl’s rape which goes unpunished due to either severe apathy or fear (the film doesn’t make this very clear – all we know is that no one showed up to the trial and so the case is thrown out). The fallout from this results in the police force’s best pursuit man, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), taking a holiday after seeing his partner burned alive. When The Acolytes show up to the family farm and run over Max’s wife and child, he…well, he goes mad, hunting down and killing the gang members one by one. The film ends with Max driving off into the Outback in his supercharged Pursuit Special.
Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior, 1981) is where the series really gains its momentum, set sometime after a global war in which the hottest commodity is fuel. Max has been wandering the Outback with his dog, scavenging for gas, food, and ammunition. Eventually he’s led by the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) to an oil refinery, which comes under siege by the “Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla” Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his band of savage punk bikers, headed up by Wez (Vernon Wells).
What follows is a Western-style tale in which Max offers to assist the refinery’s inhabitants in exchange for fuel, battling a far more cruel gang of outlaws than the previous film’s Acolytes. The setting is an open desert wasteland where very few organized of humans exist and it truly feels like every one for themselves, including Max. By the end of the film, Max is once again on his own, wandering the open road.
Years later, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), the world has fallen further into ruin due to an energy crisis in which whatever remaining pockets of humanity that exist are running on methane provided by pig feces. When his vehicle and supplies are stolen by rogue pilot Jedediah (Spence, again) and his son, Max finds himself in Bartertown. To get his things back, he is forced to make a deal with Bartertown’s tenuous ruler Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) to battle for control of the village’s methane, which is controlled by Master (Angelo Rossitto) and his enormous bodyguard Blaster (Paul Larsson). Max is sent into the Thunderdome, where “two men enter, one man leaves,” to fight against Blaster, but he refuses to kill mentally-challenged hulk. As a result, Aunty Entity exiles Max into the desert, where he finds a cargo cult of children and teenagers led by Savannah Nix (Helen Buday) who believe he is “Captain Walker,” the man who will fly them back home to civilization.
Max informs the children that he is not Captain Walker, and that they should stay in their oasis, because civilization has been destroyed. When Nix and a small faction decide to leave anyway to search for the fabled “Tomorrow-Morrow Land,” Max trails after her and they wind up back in Bartertown. After a battle and chase in which the children escape with Jedediah to a barren Sydney, Max is left at the mercy of Aunty Entity, who spares his life. Once again, Max leaves to roam and scavenge the wasteland.
Somehow, Max (here played by Tom Hardy) gets his old Pursuit Special back in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); he’s been surviving alone in the desert, but it doesn’t take long before he’s caught and captured by a roving gang of Warboys, the followers of a ruthless and cruel dictator named Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne again). Joe controls the clean water (and therefore any plant life) in a society dominated by men and destruction. A supply run headed by one of Joe’s generals, Imperiator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), is detoured shortly after beginning — Furiosa has something else in mind than just getting gas and bullets, she’s rescued five of Joe’s wives from a life of breeding viable male humans to shore up his army.
They are on their way to Furiosa’s childhood home, the Green Place, where the land and water are perfect for sustaining life. They cross paths with Max, who is being used as a “blood bag” for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe’s half-life Warboys. With his survival instincts, and Furiosa’s skill behind the wheel of a War Rig, the chase is on to protect the wives and save what’s left of humanity. As with the previous films, when the mission is complete, Max leaves to roam free, the lone road warrior across the open land.
The whole of the Mad Max series has a great interesting arc — they progressively show the deterioration of the landscape and civilization, and resources slowly become more and more scarce to the point where human beings are the last major commodity. Max also becomes less of the main character along the way, from pairing up with the Feral Kid and the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior, to stepping aside for Furiosa to take the lead as protagonist and hero in Fury Road. And starting with Beyond Thunderdome, the films give significant, nuanced roles to women, both good and evil — Auntie Entity and Savannah Nix are two sides of a coin, one shrewd and controlling but still benevolent in a way, the other caring and motherly and protective of her clan. In Fury Road we get the Vuvalini, a tribe of older biker women, keepers of seeds and therefore life, distrustful of men who killed the world.
There’s been much talk of how feminist Fury Road is or isn’t, and it’s a discussion not without merit. In terms of action films, it’s far more feminist overall than 99% of Hollywood’s output; however, it’s a very white cisgender type of feminism that crosses very few intersections. Two of Immortan Joe’s five wives, Toast (Zoe Kravitz) and Cheedo (Courtney Eaton) appear to be of non-European descent; they are the only major people of color in the film. The focus on saving them from Joe is in terms of bodily autonomy — the wives are only used as breeding stock — as they don’t want to be treated as things anymore. However, this autonomy only extends to women who can bear children; this is where the line between “women” and “things” seems to be drawn.
On the plus side, Fury Road has one of those rare instances where a female character in a leading role has a disability that isn’t seen as a crutch or a source of narrative magic. Furiosa is missing part of her arm, she has a prosthesis (and a pretty badass one at that), and that’s that. There’s a moment in the film where Furiosa punches Max in the face with her stump; I’ve never seen anything quite like that in a major motion picture before, and it was kind of amazing.
Rewatching the Mad Max films has been incredibly entertaining. I’ve enjoyed spotting all the little connecting threads and visual cues between them, as well as all these great character names. My god, what other film series has given its characters such awesome names? Even when an individual film falters — case in point, Beyond Thunderdome kind of forgets the plot in its second act — the collective stories do wonders for building a myth, a series of legends, around a singular man.
Max Rockatansky is as part of the landscape as the sand, drifting in and out of the lives of each tale’s characters. The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome in particular feature the concept of an oral history, and Fury Road alludes to something similar in its final title card before the credits roll. The films act as a visual version of these fireside tales, and despite any flaws in the individual pieces, the emphasis on carrying the story from generation to generation makes the Mad Max series quite timeless.
Bonus Mini-Review: Insidious Chapter 3 (2015)
Heads up, the new Insidious movie is pretty dire, at least up until the final third, when psychic Elise (the ever-brilliant Lin Shaye) teams up with Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson, who also shows up in Mad Max: Fury Road as The Organic Mechanic). Those three have some pretty great chemistry, but that alone can’t save the entire film, which is really bland and over-reliant on jump scares and loud noises to keep the audience paying attention.
Skip this, and watch the original Insidious (2010) instead.
Rest in peace, Christopher Lee, who passed away on June 7, 2015 at age 93. Out of the three major horror legends — Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Lee — I feel incredibly honored to have lived in a time where I could see at least one of them actively making films. Not only was Lee a phenomenal and productive actor, appearing in over 300 credited roles, he was also a total hardcore bad-ass. I leave you now with Lee’s heavy metal rendition of the Sinatra classic, “My Way”: