Film * George Miller * Australian Dystopia * 1979
In the interest of full disclosure, I will describe the writing process of this particular article. I watched this movie for the first time this last summer. At the time I had kind of an idea about a blog-eventual-book-maybe thing I wanted to write about apocalyptic subjects and had my eye out for media that fit the category. So I’m hanging out with family at this cabin which happened to have an obscene amount of old VHS tapes (as if there’s another kind of VHS tape), one of which was of course Mad Max. It seems no one else I was with had seen it either, so we settled in and gave it a go. Turns out it was fucking awful. Everyone hated it. I had intended to take some notes about things that interested me about what I was looking at, but a third of the way in I gave up. Later, I sat down to do a quick write-up about my feelings on the movie, and what I wrote was a brief, flippant, dismissive entry about how bad it sucked. Then I let that sit for quite some time. Eventually, I brought it back up, reread it, and decided that article was every bit as bad as the movie itself. The problem was, a film like Mad Max is still worth talking about (kind of) seriously, even if I happen to think the movie is terrible. And if it isn’t clear, I still think the movie sucks. I was super disappointed. I went into it thinking “hey, this thing is a classic, it should be great!” Sometimes classic movies live up to their billing! Other times they do not, and Mad Max is one of the latter. That said, the idea behind these articles is to attempt to understand what these stories are trying to say, even if they have trouble conveying their message.
The story of Mad Max is a straightforward revenge tale that is told over a series of chase scenes. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Hell, the new movie in this same universe is nominated for Best Picture, and it’s not telling a story that’s any more complicated. The problem is coherence, which this film utterly lacks. Scenes happen and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for them. Cars zoom around and hoary-looking bikers do bad things and laugh about it and that’s kind of it. Max is presented as a clean-cut righteous kind of guy. He’s some kind of future cop, I guess. Most of the running time of the film is spent in a build-up to the events that make Max mad, but none of the set-up seems particularly vital, and the characters are pretty much flat across the board. Like I said, as someone who enjoys these kinds of stories, I was disappointed by this. There isn’t a whole lot to say about it, but let’s give it a fair shot anyway.
We’ll start with the setting, which is presumably a post-Apocalyptic world, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain how I know that. The movie offers next to zero exposition, which would be totally fine if there was any kind of story-telling told through its environments, characters, or incidental dialogue. The movie does not do this, however. It takes place in what I imagine 1979 Australia looks like, without much in the way of set dressing. They drive around in big dumb 70s cars, the bikers appear to be regular bikers and not post-Apocalyptic scavengers, and society seems to function like a society would. There are police, and stores, and a court of law. I guess the sign on the courthouse is crooked? Otherwise, there is nothing to signify that an apocalyptic event took place. The only reason I would even entertain the idea of apocalypse is because of cultural osmosis. If I were to take what the movie offered at face value, I’m not sure I could point to anything that depicts the post-apocalypse.
Also, who am I even watching here? There aren’t any characters, exactly. There are people doing things, but at no point do they show anything other than the broadest strokes of human behavior. Goose is fun. It takes pretty much the entire running time for Max to get well and truly mad, but the revenge-fetish payoff for this is brief and confusing. His wife and chubby baby are murdered by gang-boys and Max snaps, that much is clear. Max is quite skilled behind the wheel of a car, and he’s pretty much fearless. And then… he revenges them? The ending is abrupt and would be disappointing if anything preceding it was engaging in the least. The only thing that Max learns is that the world is a hard, unpleasant place and that only the ruthless survive for long.
Look, I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece here. However, I’m at a loss as to how this film attained a cult status in the first place. If all this seems overly negative I apologize. These write-ups aren’t meant to function as reviews. They’re supposed to be an examination of a work’s place in a culture fascinated by its own decline, so in that spirit I guess maybe the sheer amount of chaotic, unwatchable nonsense on display here is some kind of deep, meta commentary on the dissolution of civilized discourse of and about art… but I doubt it. It’s difficult to speak about what a film is trying to do when it seemingly flat-out fails to do much of anything. Here’s hoping The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome have a little more to say. Anything at all would be a start.