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Looking at ‘Mad Max’ then and now

Mel Gibson (right) and Tom Hardy as Mad Max in 1985 and 2015, respectively.Warner Brothers ; Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures

In its day, the “Mad Max” trilogy was considered groundbreaking post-apocalyptic action fare.

The Australian director of the series, George Miller, smashed the classic road movie into the western. Then he threw a revenge/redemption plot into its flames.

Miller also launched the film career of Mel Gibson, who played the title role of “Mad” Max Rockatansky, a traumatized cop turned drifter, in all three films — “Mad Max” (1979), “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981), “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985).

Who can forget the iconic image of Gibson cruising the Aussie wasteland in his black Interceptor? Or the gangs he confronts, clad in leather, wearing Mohawks and wielding crossbows, like a cast of neo-medieval Goth, punk, and New Wave survivalists scavenging an irradiated Outback for the detritus of our former civilization? The Mad Max films served up plenty of car chases and gleeful pyrotechnics alongside nihilistic social commentary about nuclear war and consumer culture gone too far.

But many considered the final installment a tame sellout. In her tie-in hit single, Tina Turner, who plays the chain mail-wearing Aunt Entity, crooned, “We don’t need another hero.” Or do we? Now, 30 years beyond “Thunderdome,” Miller returns with a fourth thrill ride: “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Tom Hardy replaces Gibson in the title role. The appeal of post-apocalyptic stories endures.


“The archetype winnows away all the inconsequential details of the modern civilized world and gets at something primal about the human condition,” says Jay Bonansinga, the Chicago-based author of “The Walking Dead” novels (set in the same universe as the hit TV show).

“Mad Max” practically invented the grim, violence-filled landscape now routinely populating movies, YA novels, TV shows, and video games. “Those films have since gone on to set a standard for post-apocalyptic storytelling — both in film and writing — that is still being copied today,” says Eric Moro, vice president of entertainment programming for the pop culture social network Wikia. Yet how fresh can the franchise feel in an age when these end-of-the-world tropes are as mainstream as those in a buddy movie or romantic comedy? One wonders if “Mad Max: Fury Road” adds any new ideas to the dystopian conversation, or if it can even speak Millennial.


A scene from the original “Mad Max.”City Wide Films

“Most teenagers who love ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘Divergent’ will know little to nothing about a 30-year-old series,” says D. Matthew Ramsey, associate professor of film and media studies at Salve Regina University, in Newport, R.I. He doubts the new installment “will be tapping into the zeitgeist in the way the original did.”

“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior”Warner Bros.

If “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner” fed 1980s fears about technology and corporations, then the “Mad Max” franchise reflected Cold War doomsaying. “The Road Warrior” especially warned that automobile culture and our thirst for oil could blast us back to tribalism. Those original films also took a core “of-the-moment” event, says Moro, like “fear the other” and “the need to right the social order, propagated by ’80s-era Reaganism,” and “wrapped [it all] up inside of a fantastical package.”

“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”Warner Bros.

But plenty has changed since Turner out-sneered Gibson, and Gibson battled a bad hair weave, in “Thunderdome.” Miller went on to direct “Babe” and “Happy Feet,” family-friendly fare whose penguins and pigs did not wield flamethrowers or dress as if for a fetish party. Gibson has wandered the wasteland of celebrity culture, becoming as nutty as Mad Max himself.


The story of “Fury Road” continues sometime after the events of the third film. Max is soon joined by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a War Rig-driving tough gal in search of petrol. She and everyone else are beholden to Immortan Joe, a warlord behind a Darth Vader respirator who rules a brutal Viking-like colony called the Citadel. He defends it with an elite guard of War Boys. In a possible nod to current events, a paradisal afterlife is promised any fighter martyred in battle.

A scene from the 2015 film MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, directed by George Miller. 03moviesquibs 03summermovies 10madmax Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures

But it turns out Theron’s one-armed character, and the armored tanker, are desperate to escape the despot’s steampunked lair of chains, platforms, and tunnels for more precious reasons. What follows is, essentially, a nonstop, hyper-kinetic car chase and mobile battle — one fueled by blood transfusions, paint fumes, thundering drums, and death metal played from a guitar that shoots flames.

The central premise of “Fury Road” — in a hopeless world, misfits team up to battle a common enemy and renew their trust and faith in humanity and the future — may seem as recycled as Max’s souped-up, salvaged vehicle from the first sequel. No matter. These post-apocalyptic narratives keep working precisely because they play off the fear that civilization as we know it may come to a bad end, says Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. “If anything, people are even more concerned about [the end of the world] now than in 1985,” he says, “which means that the new ‘Mad Max’ movie could be a huge hit.”


That fear is a renewable resource, so “Mad Max” and its ilk will continue to tell essentially the same story of destruction and redemption. Such movies “continue to resonate because they reflect the intractable problems of daily life,” says Bonansinga. “No matter how cushiony our digital utopia becomes, there is always heartache, grief, and mortgages under water — these are our personal Armageddons.”

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.