The Madness Of Mad Max: Dissecting Dystopia!

By Sayantan Mondal. Posted on May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road is taking the world by storm. The early critical praise has been universal with the rating site Rotten Tomatoes showing nearly 100 percent approval. Fans around the world had been eagerly waiting for the series which has made a comeback after nearly 30 years. And what a comeback it is; with weirder characters, cars blazing, explosions at the tip of the hat and yes the super-crazy action scenes to die for, Mad Max has become even more extreme. It is one of the few worthy reboots in a long long time.

But Mad Max had the humblest of origins. The first movie had a budget of around 400,000 dollars while the latest one has a budget of 150 million dollars. Do the calculation yourself and see the leap that this movie has made But more than this fact, we have to understand that Mad Max is now a cultural force with an influence that will only grow as time passes.

So let us see what makes it one of the greatest movie franchises ever and what inspired George Miller to undertake this journey to create a character that has become a legend.

The Idea Behind Mad Max’s Dystopian Setting

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Mad Max is set in a dystopian future. The idea behind dystopia is to present itself as an allegory of an existing problem or crisis or speculate about the upcoming fate of mankind depending on the political, social, economic or cultural issues. According to director George Miller, Mad Max is placed in a such a setting so that it becomes more believable to the audience. The dystopia in Mad Max is inspired by several real-life incidences like the oil crisis of 1973 and the road accidents that happened in and around Australia that Miller witnessed while serving as a doctor in the emergency room.

One of the earliest examples of dystopian movies is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. During the 50s and 60s several dystopian movies were attempted but it is only in the 70's that these movies got a solid boost with several adaptations like Soylent Green, A Clockwork Orange, Logan’s Run giving the genre much needed oxygen. The chief reason was that science fiction literature started producing bleaker works and directors like Stanley Kubrick were making movies like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. 

A Movie Made On Shoe-String Budget That Achieved International Success

The first movie in the Mad Max series had a budget of 400,000 dollars. The latest one has a budget of 150 million dollars. The original Mad Max is a lesson in low budget filmmaking without compromising on the quality. There are several anecdotes surrounding the first movie and how it was made. Art director Jon Dowding stole signs and hoarding to be used in the movie & George Miller used his blue truck in the movie and sacrificed it for a scene. It was the success of the first movie that got the second and the third movie the budget it needed and with the money at his disposal, George Miller went on to create more elaborate sets around a premise with more high-octane action than before.

The second part of this franchise is considered to be the best while the third part often has fans & critics divided. The Mad Max movies are a tale of courageous filmmaking where a doctor-turned-filmmaker created one of the most original movies ever and should inspire and influence budding filmmakers to go ahead with their ideas.

Here’s a scene from Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max’s Subtle Political Inferences

One of the most prominent issues in Mad Max is to show how the planet slowly crumbles towards a makeshift totalitarian state, as law and order breaks down and humans gets transformed into lawless beings. But more importantly, it shows how humans start adapting to nomadic lifestyles to survive with the little shreds of technology scattered around vast wastelands.

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While Mad Max chooses to show dystopia using stark barren wastelands, Alphaville does just the opposite. Jean Luc Godard shows that even a technological advanced society can be a dystopia. The people are not free even though they live in relative luxury with Alphaville’s master computer Alpha 60 out to catch them for any sign of rebellion. More importantly, the characters of Lemmy Caution and Max have much in common as both of them are lost in their own ‘private dystopias’ desperately seeking a way out.

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The biker gang of Mad, The Marauders from Part 2 and the power struggle between Auntie Entity and Master Blaster in Part 3 are all offshoots of this totalitarian image that partially fails because of Max. If these antagonists create chaos, Mad Max’s presence is to maintain the balance in this already chaotic world. More importantly, Mad Max is the kind of character who can bring the planet to its former glory. Instead he chooses to languish in this bleak landscape, waiting for his death; although time and again he is forced or called upon to help others. These actions, can therefore be seen as an opposition to the idea of totalitarianism.

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Setting The Benchmark In Cinematography!

The entire Mad Max series had three different cinematographers with David Eggby helming the first one and Dean Semler the next two. John Seale has shot Fury Road. The cinematography captures both the urban damnation following the catastrophe that destroys the world and also the barren, unrelenting wasteland, filled with dangers. David Eggby used several innovations to film where he rode as a pillion himself to capture some of the most exhilarating scenes in the movie. David Eggby wanted to make it a topsy-turvy experience for the audience and that’s the reason why he chose such dangerous yet unique techniques to film it capturing it in different angles.

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Both Mad Max: Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome had a cinematography style which was more suitable for the mass-market distribution so that it could satisfy mainstream audiences. But they didn't compromise with the idea of Mad Max. The sequel was even more successful than the original. Mad Max 3 was a bit shaky because it wanted to emulate the regular 'Hollywood blockbuster' but still managed to the original tone.

Here’s an entire clip of Dean Semler discussing the cinematography of part 2 and part 3.

Ecological Catharsis: Not a Mere Mindless Actioner But A Series With A Statement Of Intent

Mad Max makes a strong comment on ecological preservation. The vast wasteland is a constant reminder of the need to preserve nature. Though Max is somewhat fueled by his own need for revenge, Part 2 and Part 3 sees him help (even if grudgingly) in the rebuilding of society, and thus acquiring his legendary status. The conflict in The Road Warrior happens because of oil as two groups fight to get it with Max caught between them and he finally has to choose a side, a side that he believes will utilize the resource properly.

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Beyond Thunderdome too shows him having a conflict with Auntie Entity but there is an uneasy truce  as he knows she wants the old order to comeback and will do her best to keep Bartertown safe. Bartertown can be considered a model colony. Though a brutal place, it tries its best to utilize whatever it has at its disposal. The idea of Bartertown is to present a premise of how humanity will struggle once the non-renewable sources die down and how they will have to improvise. The use of electricity created from pig’s waste is one such innovation.

Here’s a link to the making of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

Violence As A Tool Of Coercion And Subjugation

The action scenes in Mad Max are superbly done treatise on violence that become a tool of demonstration, coercion and subjugation in the entire series. Violence is used by different antagonists throughout the series to assert their right to dominate while being challenged by one lone figure: Max. This particular trait can be observed in Kubrick’s seminal classic A Clockwork Orange that focused on a subculture where violence was the norm. Mad Max too uses this idea to show a conflict between a lawman and lawbreakers and the game becomes personal when Max’s wife and son are murdered by lawbreakers forcing Mad Max to go on a path of vengeance.

But as we see in the sequels, this is what helps him survive in a world that’s long dead.

In Road Warrior, the inspiration was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces that focused on Max’s development into a hero and how he finally gets back a bit of his humanity when he decides to help a band of people. The action scenes here are aesthetically done.

In Beyond Thunderdome Max questions his own actions when he refuses to kill the mentally challenged Blaster. This shows that his humanity is still intact and he is not the killing machine that many think he is. Bartertown has this idea of a gladiatorial fight to ensure that justice is quickly done and the reason Max gets refuge in Bartertown is because he can be utilized as a fighter. But then he questions this system of judgment and gets thrown out as punishment for challenging the rule of town.

These painful, brutal actions, shot with elegance and pepper-sprayed with socio-political commentaries is what makes Mad Max such an important franchise. Those of you who've seen the Fury Road, know what we are talking about. For those who haven't yet seen it, do yourself a favour. Go watch it.


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