Miller was splitting his time between medicine and short films when he made his debut feature, starring a then-unknown acting-school grad named Mel Gibson as a stoic, tough-as-nails highway cop. As the story goes, the director was inspired partly by the time he’d spent working in an emergency room, seeing amputations and car-accident victims. He wed that with his love of Buster Keaton slapstick and Western myth, shot through with Peckinpah-esque stylization. Something truly amazing emerged.
The franchise is synonymous with a post-apocalyptic aesthetic marked by blasted landscapes and grab-bag, end-times couture. But the first film doesn’t quite fit within that genre. It’s set not in a lifeless wasteland of scarcity and misery, but rather along a verdant, sleepy stretch of Melbourne where people go about their lives as society begins to fray: Max, the black leather–clad pursuit officer, goes to work in a building with a busted “Halls of Justice” sign out front and garbage and debris lining the corridors. The judicial system is a sham, and the roads are ruled by bikers and madmen.
This tension — between the protagonist’s pleasant home life and the insane carnage of the road — is deeply unsettling. It captures something of the late 1970s’ concerns about runaway crime and the fear that government institutions weren’t powerful enough to keep order. Miller has said he was partly inspired by violence during a fuel shortage in Melbourne at the time. The film is thus less Fahrenheit 451 or Planet of the Apes and more Dirty Harry or Death Wish. That setup isn’t unfamiliar: Max and his fellow cops are the only line of defense between psychosis and domesticity. But here it all ends with the hero’s wife and young son cut down by rampaging bikers. That line has given way, while Mad Max also hints at a crisis of masculinity that would be worked over in the later films.
It was only with 1981’s The Road Warrior (released in Australia as Mad Max 2) that Miller’s series went fully post-nuclear. Now, Max is a broken loner driving the desert wastes of Australia, scrounging for oil and doing battle against biker gang-cults even more flamboyantly nihilistic than those of the first film. The sequel is a fevered vision of every early ‘80s anxiety: gas shortages, nuclear war, environmental devastation and, yes, punk rock (with a bit of mild homophobia). You might think that would date the picture, but no: The Road Warrior defined the post-apocalyptic genre for generations. The world found something alluring in Miller’s suggestion that once we killed the planet all our ids could run free.
Thunderdome, which was rated PG-13, at times plays like Miller’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of E.T., Indiana Jones and Star Wars, especially as the focus shifts to world-building and sentiment — and Miller introduces that vaguely adorable young supporting cast. But the director’s sensibility is too perverse for the film to turn truly mawkish or bland. Instead, Miller’s “lost children” come off as twisted innocents who have learned to work together to survive. And as the kids’ collectivist impulses get pitted against Auntie’s ruthless capitalism, the story becomes an elemental confrontation between the forces of civilization and commodification.
Thunderdome also finds Max finally taking on the father role he had long ago abandoned. In the first film, his inability to protect his wife and child highlighted his ultimate powerlessness over the chaos of the highways — a tragic reckoning with the encroaching anarchy of the world. In The Road Warrior, he was a reluctant fighter, refusing to be part of any tribe and rejecting the role of surrogate father to a young, boomerang-tossing child who was drawn to him, the Feral Kid (Emil Minty). In Thunderdome, Max seems as if he’s finally beginning to work off his guilt and shame.
At times, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, made three decades after the third installment, offers a replay of Max’s entire trajectory from the first three films as he goes from failed father to wounded captive to reluctant mercenary to benevolent warrior, fighting alongside Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and a group of fugitive Brides/sex slaves. Early on, Max is haunted by the images of a child he couldn’t save — not the baby boy of the first film, but a girl of about 9 or 10 — which fuels his need to keep running and steer clear of any alliances.
It’s worth pointing out that Max’s phantom daughter in Fury Road doesn’t call him anything but “Max” for the first half; she only calls him “Pa” later, after Max has let Furiosa and the Brides go off with the female warrior tribe of the Vuvalini across a great salt desert as he gets ready to light out on his own. It’s only at this point that Max, looking out over the empty terrain in a shot that echoes the film’s opening image, sees the ghost in the distance. “Come with me, Pa,” she says, as if calling on him to rejoin his comrades and become a parent again.
We occasionally hear of the old world in Fury Road, but it’s now a distant myth talked about in vague aphorisms and recalled via faulty memories. In the earlier films, characters would discuss what they had lost, the people they once were. Now, it seems that generations have passed. A new civilization is being conceived, and it’s a terrifying one founded on strongmen like Immortan Joe, who has carved out an empire inside a mountain fortress called the Citadel. Here he pumps water from deep inside the earth, grows and hordes crops and rounds up fugitives to harvest for blood.
How telling is it that Joe is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the Toecutter, the leader of the biker thugs in the first Mad Max? Toecutter inspired a similar kind of devotion — he’d sit in the back of a truck, blessing his bikers as they sped down the highways. Watching this small-time blacktop despot now as a godlike tyrant speaks to the way that the lawless anarchists of the past become the totalitarians of the future. It’s clear that Miller has read his share of world history.
But Immortan Joe isn’t the only god here. Nearby is the Bullet Farm, run by (who else?) the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), a gun-crazy psychopath, and Gastown, run by the People Eater (John Howard), a grotesque businessman decked out in a combination three-piece-suit and bondage-gear — religion, military and business, all in collaboration. We’re also presented with a vision of strongmen working together, not against one another. That’s rare in movies, where autocrats and gang bosses are perennially depicted as being at odds, ready to be played off each other by our savvy heroes.
And that’s where Miller’s film truly gets too close for comfort to our current reality. I’ve seen Fury Road more than a dozen times since its release, but watching it again in February 2017, I’m seized not just with admiration for its dazzling technique and spellbinding storytelling or its characters’ stirring heroism. I’m also seized with fear at its portrait of totalitarians making common cause against the weak, the powerless, the downtrodden. It appears that Miller has once again looked out at the world at this moment and distilled its darkest truths into a cinematic nightmare. I shudder to imagine what he’s got planned for us next.