Tuesday, December 11, 2007

One wild ride: Mad Max is postapocalypic fun, with a message

Part 7 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

I am the Night Rider--I'm a fuel-injected suicide machine. I am a rocker, I am a roller, I am an out-of-controller.

The raving, lunatic speech of the Night Rider which punctuates Mad Max's manic introductory car chase gives us only a glimpse of the savage violence and carnage to come in this underrated action classic.

Despite its cult status, Mad Max is a film that seems to garner little attention these days, even among sci-fi/action aficionados. Maybe it's its age (1979) or its low-tech effects, or it could simply be that it's been overshadowed by its sequel, the brilliant The Road Warrior, which most consider a superior film.

While that may be true, Mad Max has always had a soft spot in my heart for a number of reasons. These include:

The unexplained wasteland. We're left to our own devices to figure out what has brought about the collapse of society in Mad Max (although this is revealed in a later film). As I've said in other movie reviews, I'm fond of fims that don't spoon-feed every detail. The human mind has a wonderful ability to speculate and fill in the gaps, and by not explaining the wasteland or the rise of the savage, roving gangs which threaten to overwhelm the last vestiges of society, director George Miller forces us to think of why--and how--it all occurred.

The decay of order. Miller placed several smart, deliberate shots in Mad Max and its sequels, which convey not only atmosphere but meaning. The rusting, weed-grown Hall of Justice is one example, as it presents an overt symbol of the decay of law and order in this apocalyptic land. A stop sign conspicuously placed in the center of the shot could mean that justice stops here at its gate.

The sergeant, a giant, bald, moustached man curiously named Fifi, is one of the few bastions of order and the rule of law, but it's obvious he's fighting a losing battle, and his rallying cry ("We're going to give them back their heroes!") rings hollow.

The morality of the road, and the allure of violence. Even before the murder of his wife and child and the vigilantism it inspires, Max (played by Mel Gibson) is already feeling uneasy. Why? It's not police work or the pursuit of justice that motivates Max, it's the allure of the road, the high-speed chases, and the everyday dance with death: "It's that rat circus out there, I'm beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal crazy," Max says to Fifi. "Only I've got a bronze badge to say I'm one of the good guys."

By the end of the film the facade of law and order is completely stripped away. It's noteworthy that, while pursuing Johnny the Boy in his last act of vigilantism in the film, Max passes right by a sign declaring "Stop--Prohibited Area." This act symbolizes his final casting off of civilized behavior and a passage into barbarity.

Car porn. While I don't know a damned thing about how cars operate, even I get excited by the talk of "the last of the V-8s," nitrous, and screaming, supercharged engines with blowers.

Jim Goose. I don't know whether actor Steve Bisley ever did anything before or after Mad Max, but I thought his portrayal of the cocksure and stylish but dedicated officer Jim Goose was perfect.

Bubba Zanetti. Another memorable bit role from Mad Max, Zanetti almost defies description with his need to perform every act with an exaggerated sense of style, all the way down to his intense, measured speech. Memorable Zanetti line: When a kid asks him what happened to the car that he and his gang members demolished, he answers cryptically, "Perhaps it was a result of anxiety." I'm not sure what this means exactly, but it's pretty cool.

Electrifying car chases and crashes. Miller's car pursuits and crashes are filmed with a high style that captures the speed of the cars and motorcycles and the violence of their collisions. The head-on collison between the Toecutter and a semi is a thing of beauty. And watch closely for the names of the roads on the white sign at the beginning of the film ("Anarchy" and "Bedlam"), which capture the spirit of what goes on in the two-lane highways of Mad Max. These effects of course all done without CGI, and despite the advances in effects-driven technology I still prefer low-tech effects. Done right, as is the case in Mad Max and The Road Warrior, they are more believable than CGI.

Cool imagery. Although Mad Max was filmed on a very low budget ($300,000 in Australian currency, according to Wikipedia), it's helped considerably by the sparse Australian landscape in which it was shot. Combined with Miller's use of the driver's eye and the wheels's eye view of the roads, Mad Max is a memorable visual experience.

Characterization/humanization of the evil biker gang: While it would be easy to cast the biker gang as a group of mindless thugs, Miller offers in their portrayal a few glimpses of lost humanity (twisted though it may be). For example, Nightrider's line after he loses a game of high-speed "chicken" with Max: "There will be nothing left--it's all gone"--could simply mean the loss of his nerve. But it carries deeper undertones, as if he were weeping for the collapse of society and the loss of civilization.

Likewise, the Toecutter, the cycle gang's murdering leader, displays a surprising depth of emotion when he demands to be left alone to mourn with the Nightrider's coffin. And his insistence on indoctrinating the maddening and pretentious Johnny the Boy into the ways of the gang displays at some level his need for organization and family, institutions which are hopelessly fractured and in danger of total collapse in the dystopic future of Mad Max.


Jesse said...

The Road Warrior is the 2nd greatest philosophy film ever.

Brian Murphy said...

What was the first, out of curiousity?

Falze said...

Ah, Mad Max. Truly an underloved classic. With those memorable lines...

"You're blaspheming again. I don't have to work with a blasphemer."


"People lives are in peril!"

spoken by a man soon to be "hurt bad in the throat".


Falze said...

It would be even better if it didn't have typos! My bad.

"Peoples' lives are in peril!"

Jesse said...

The first would be Conan The Barbarian. :)

Brian Murphy said...

Well, I'm not sure whether I would put Conan first (Blade Runner is up there for me in terms of conveying a strong message), but I think the larger point stands: There's a lot more going on in these films than a lot of critics give them credit for.

Oh, and Falze: I think the first time I saw Mad Max was with you on a VCR tape you copied from Cinemax or HBO.

Falze said...

Taped off of cable? Would I do that? I mean, we never figured out how to get free pay channels on cable with a high tech bypass device or nothing back in the day. A flux capacitor? Oscillating fullwave amplifier? No, none of those...back when you could get the pay channels on a cable box with an index card.