With franchise sequel Mad Max: The Wasteland currently in the works, VHS Revival trawls the stunt-fuelled annals of a dystopian classic
Whenever I hear the words ‘Mad Max’, two images immediately spring to mind: car chases and Mel Gibson. There are other memorable franchise elements that I will touch on here but it is those two that cut into my memory banks like so much twisted metal. This tells me two things. The first is that we enjoy the Mad Max movies for their smash-mouth simplicity. The second is that Max and Mel Gibson, at least to a certain generation, are one and the same. I’ve shared my thoughts on modern studio reboots many times in the past and have even begun a VHS Reboots category on VHS Revival. It’s difficult to watch some of cinema’s cherished characters succumb to the corporate wringer, particularly when studios are willing to rush any old crap into production. For producers, reboots are simply a way to slash marketing and advertising costs. What they have is a ready-made meal ticket; a sure-fire sell, whatever the critical backlash. After seeing the likes of Rob Zombie’s Halloween and 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street tarnish their respective franchises beyond recognition thanks to some dubious decisions, an overabundance of shoddy CGI and a clear lack of understanding of what made those characters so special, you can surely forgive me for fearing the worst when I heard that Mad Max was returning to the silver screen after almost three decades.
Straight off the bat, it was clear that Gibson would no longer be taking part; not because of age – just look at Harrison Ford’s recent record of reviving long-cherished characters – but because of a series of high-profile domestic and race rows that had seen the star ostracised from mainstream Hollywood. Once the blue-eyed boy who would break women’s hearts while winning over the male demographic with hard ass characters such as Lethal Weapon’s semi-reluctant killing machine Martin Riggs, a gnarled Gibson had become unsalable. There was, however, a streak of light at the end of the tunnel, one that flashed with a George Miller shaped silhouette. Instead of simply rebooting a breadwinner and handing it over to the first novice filmmaker or genre fanatic hungry enough to bite, Max would be taken under the protective wing of his long-estranged father – a man who singularly understood what made those movies tick. Gibson may have been the face most synonymous with the franchise, but the Mad Max series was just as much about Miller.
The original Mad Max movie is superlative bare bones filmmaking. With budgetary restrictions of $350,000 – $400,000 (that’s Australian dollars, folks), the odds were stacked against this sleeper hit from the very beginning. For one thing, it was unheard of that an Australian film would break the US mainstream back in 1979, let alone a distinctly indie venture. Of course, those were different times, and the likes of George A. Romero and John Carpenter had established a commercial foothold in the very same manner, but Miller’s hill seemed just a little steeper. Still, the filmmaker’s vision was made for a humble setting. It also carried with it a rather pungent whiff of mainstream appeal, particularly when dystopian themes in sci-fi were becoming more common after the kitsch ‘50s sci-fi of yesteryear. Miller had originally considered an American actor for obvious commercial reasons, but with actor fees becoming more and more lavish, such a move threatened to eat up his entire budget, and in Gibson he had found a readymade movie star who was as important to the film’s success as the film was to his fledgling career.
The beauty of dystopia is that it often depicts familiar environments that don’t seem too beyond the realms of plausibility, that typically feature a society in dissolution that thrives on barren landscapes and civil recession, and what better landscape to utilise than the vast and unforgiving drylands of the Australian outback? Mad Max has a similarly modest, tried-and-tested formula that taps into our basest instincts. Vengeance is a very powerful emotion, and the movie’s wild west landscape and violent, post-nuclear society proves the perfect backdrop. If isolation inspires fear, then ‘The Bush’ is a cheap and relevant setting. If fictional destitution is a given, then any old ragtag wardrobe will fit the aesthetic bill, and if there was ever an Australian more likely to win over the American public – at least back then – it was swell Mel, an actor who would get the ‘pretty face with a bad attitude’ formula down to a money-spinning tee as the sequels materialised.
A medical doctor who was used to seeing the mangled consequences of car wrecks first-hand (he had also lost three real-life friends to auto accidents), Miller would meet filmmaker and future producer Byron Kennedy at summer film school, the two of them winning several awards for their short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1. Eight years later they would recruit first-time screenwriter James McCausland for a project that tapped into the Australian oil crisis of 1973. The fact that citizens would seemingly do anything to keep themselves in petrol was the perfect jumping-off point for their dystopian vision. It was a very real situation still very much in the public consciousness, one that would remain relevant as global fuel usage continued to sky rocket.
The original Mad Max would smash all expectations, the upstart Kennedy/Miller Productions accumulating a worldwide gross of approximately US $100,000,000 — a quite staggering return given the circumstances. Critically, the movie was lambasted for its countless acts of rape and violence, but for many this was a fictional landscape that was in many ways recognisable. Its simple vigilante/revenge angle, punctuated by arguably the best chase scene ever committed to celluloid at that point, had smashed the American mainstream and then some, introducing millions to a future household name. A sequel was inevitable, but would Miller stay true to his indie heritage with the promise of more funding? He had already turned down various other projects from a newly piqued industry, most notably Sly Stallone smash First Blood, but Miller simply wasn’t interested and would eventually settle on the idea of a Max sequel. For him, the original movie had been something of a difficult experience, and extra funding meant more creative freedom. Since the release of Max it had irked him that a lack of funds had inhibited his conceptual potential, and with distribution rights snapped up by major studio Warner Brothers, Miller felt that he could finally give audiences the movie he felt he was capable of producing.
Perhaps as a reaction to the critical furore surrounding the original Mad Max, though retaining the movie’s savage landscape, the sequel would lean more towards the caricaturistic, with truly larger-than-life characters such as Lord Humungus and his rabid pack of S&M baddies. Refusing to jeopardise its indie edge, it was nonetheless more epic in scope, utilising the Kurosawa wipe transition popularized by Star Wars and allowing ‘Max’ the kind of cinematic appeal that screamed franchise. Max himself, now an uncaring loner ravaged by the ghosts of his past, had also grown into a more marketable figure, appearing like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from the shadows of the outback’s stifling horizon. There was also a nice selection of visual gimmicks as Max’s journey began to more closely resemble a comic book splash panel. Other than those cute embellishments, very little had changed, and why should it? This time Max was portrayed as a reluctant hero, a man without purpose who would come to the aid of a community of desert dwellers for personal gain. This was a shell of a man, a no-good loner who was only ever looking out for himself, but we the audience recognised the goodness that still burnt dully inside. We had known Max in a former life – a loyal friend, husband and father who paid the price for doing what was right. Once bitten, twice shy.
For many, The Road Warrior is the pinnacle of the Mad Max series – The Empire Strikes Back of the franchise. It got the balance of darkness and mainstream appeal just right, giving us a whole host of exaggerated characters that stayed long in the memory, retaining an Aussie cast of largely unknown actors who lent the whole thing a sense of reality that transcended mainstream Hollywood cinema. In fact, along with Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, it’s hard to recall another picture that has had such an influence on dystopian sci-fi as a whole. Some of the simplistic tropes found in the Mad Max pictures can be found throughout the genre, and its colossal influence can often prove as detrimental as it is influential. You only have to look at Kevin Costner’s Waterworld to see that – a big-budget flop that was written off as a Mad Max clone before audiences had even been given the chance to take it in.
If anything, Waterworld’s closest influence is the third entry in the original Mad Max trilogy. Beyond Thunderdome would prove something of a departure tonally, shifting more towards the commercial realms of Hollywood by casting pop star Tina Turner as the movie’s fashionista antagonist, Aunty Entity, a move that doubled up as a cute commercial coup that tapped into MTV’s new marketing avenues with the Grammy and Golden Globe nominated hit title track We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome). In terms of narrative, it also relied heavily on mainstream gimmicks – particularly Thunderdome itself, a Bartertown death cage that wraps entertainment and retribution in a crowd-pleasing package. Characters such as Master Blaster manipulated our emotions in a more micromanaged way, while a lost boys of Peter Pan inspired sub-narrative irritated fans who had fallen in love with Max’s darker persuasion.
Whatever the reasons, Beyond Thunderdome felt somewhat different, like they had taken the concept a step in the wrong direction. When the original Max was in production, Miller chose a dystopian backdrop because he thought audiences would be more willing to accept the violence, but Beyond Thunderdome represented something else entirely. Part of this shift can surely be attributed to the death of long-time partner Kennedy, who would tragically succumb to a helicopter crash while out scouting for locations for the movie. With this and other projects causing a distraction, Miller would recruit novice George Ogilvie as co-writer. Miller and Kennedy had poured every drop of collective blood and sweat into the first two movies, but that was no longer the case.
Perhaps the third instalment was unfairly criticised to some degree, but its differences were enough to halt the franchise dead in its tracks for almost two decades. Of all the franchises to be given the reboot treatment, Mad Max was both the best and the worst – a universe with unlimited potential for growth, but one that had to be handled with the utmost care. Luckily, Miller had reacquired the rights to the Mad Max franchise in 1995, a full ten years after Mel Gibson had vanished over the desolate horizon, and ideas for a fourth movie had begun as early as 1998. After years of developmental purgatory and tank-sized road blocks, such as the Iraq War and the September 11th terrorist attacks, a fourth instalment would finally begin production with a budget in excess of $150,000,000 – a daunting sum for a series that had thrived on low-budget aspirations, but as soon as I laid eyes on Miller’s 21st century incarnation all concerns evaporated in a haze of carbon monoxide. This was spectacular visuals on a truly epic scale, but the movie was wise enough to retain those essential elements, the film’s reluctance to saturate us with CGI and maintain an emphasis on the kind of physical stunts that made the series what it was refreshing to say the least.
This was the punk-Western franchise we all knew and loved updated for a new generation. We still had all the stunts and craziness and larger-than-life characters. In fact, those elements had been supercharged to dizzyingly hyperbolic levels, and there was an added grace to proceedings visually, some of Mad Max: Fury Road’s cinematography as mind-bending as Salvador Dali in his surrealist pomp. Gibson was always going to be notable by his absence for those loyal fans of the franchise, but for those post-millennials who were new to the psychotic realms of Max, Mel was an afterthought, and Fury Road’s most notable hero was now of the female variety.
In Fury Road’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, the true rebel came in the form of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, who would lead a group of female prisoners to freedom in search of their homeland. A matriarchal society challenging male-led oppression was a welcome thematic update for the series, and original themes of energy wars had evolved naturally in an era of global warming acceptance. Fury Road delivers the kind of relentless, breakneck action that leaves you gasping for air, and the fact that it can incorporate modern themes so effortlessly is a testament to its qualities. Rarely has a modern reboot benefited from such care, attention and good judgement.
If Beyond Thunderdome dipped its toe in the Hollywood machine, then Fury Road rewired it. Yes, it had its fair share of headline faces, and yes the budget was there for all to see, but none of this detracted from the Max formula of old. There have been other reboots worthy of their roots – Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 perhaps the most notable – but Fury Road was the first to really wow me, the first that was welcome and even felt necessary. Rare is the franchise that displays such levels of consistency and even rarer is the reboot that does that franchise justice. In that regard, Mad Max is arguably the most rewarding example of an extended franchise we have ever seen – and with Star Wars and Marvel dominating theatres with sequels, prequels, spin-offs and all manner of crossovers and tie-ins, the possibilities for Miller’s universally revered vision are endless.
A half-decade has passed since Max’s triumphant return to the silver screen, and finally there is a sequel in the works. Since Fury Road was such a commercial and creative smash, it’s hardly surprising. What is surprising is the fact that Miller and Warner Brothers have taken so long to capitalise on the reboot’s success, but once again certain obstacles have arisen that have left the franchise languishing, and this time they’re of the legal variety. The series has long been the subject of a lawsuit involving Warner and Miller’s own production company, Kennedy Miller Mitchell, who claim they are entitled to payments of $9,000,000 for delivering Fury Road within its $157,000,000 budget. Warner Brothers have countered with claims that Kennedy Miller Mitchell broke the terms of their contract by producing a 120-minute R-rated movie instead of the 100-minute PG-13 film originally promised.
Fury Road suffered from a notoriously difficult production, one that seems to have taken its toll on the relationship between the two parties. Court documents reveal that there are grievances on both sides which have put the two at loggerheads. Miller’s company claims that Warner brothers were in fact responsible for increasing costs and labour due to “substantial changes and delays”, approving the shooting of additional scenes that were excluded from the net cost of the production. Warner have countered with claims that Fury Road “significantly exceeded the approved budget”, a result of action taken by Kennedy Miller Mitchell without the studio’s written approval. Tensions seem to have simmered in recent months, Miller’s plans to expand on his most famous creation finally nearing fruition, but like Max’s long and furious road the journey could potentially prove a tricky one.
Miller has two Fury Road sequels planned, as well as a spin-off centred on Charlize Theron’s Furosia, a mooted prequel featuring Vuvalini (The Many Mothers), the tribe from which Furiosa descends. Very little is known about the first sequel, Mad Max: The Wasteland, though production is edging ever nearer. Miller has previously claimed that he is excited at the prospect of a movie with a much smaller scale made on a lower budget with less stunts – perhaps something akin to the original Mad Max – though fans will be pleased to hear that the film is set to feature Max’s iconic V8 Interceptor. Concept artist Mark Sexton has also hinted at the fact that the next instalment will be incredibly bleak, perhaps a reflection of an era when the threat of nuclear war and global warming catastrophe loom large. From what Miller has so far revealed, the movie is not a direct sequel to Fury Road, which suggests that Theron’s Furiosa won’t be involved, but with so much money at stake, it’s only inevitable that the Mad Max franchise will live on in one form or another. Bring it on, I say.