Of all the famous sci-fi movie trilogies, this is certainly the most... Australian. And I'm not stating that with a snarky intent. Variety's the spice of life and all, so it's still novel to see a big screen, big budget vision of the cursed future coming from imaginations outside of the Northern Hemisphere. Here's the series that's rather important for launching the career of controversial artiste Mel Gibson and inspiring a whole slew of imitators. It also exhibits one of the more intriguing conceptual progressions, so throw your leather on, holster your sawed-off shotgun and pour some precious black fuel into your engine. It's time to look over the Mad Max trilogy...
Mad Max (1979) Dir. George Miller
Here’s another case of the original flick seeming strange to anybody who was introduced to the sequels first. If this is really supposed to be post-Apocalyptic Australia, it’s got to be the cleanest and most suburban wasteland ever depicted on film. Seriously, if you didn’t know what the setting was intended to be, you'd have to just assume that the crew put colorful costumes and outrageous scenarios into this because they wanted it to be more interesting than your average revenge movie. Really, it feels like it’s maybe only a feather or two away from Death Wish Down Under.
It’s analogous to the Evil Dead in some ways in the sense that you can see Miller working out ideas (high-speed demolitions, society disintegrating after an oil crisis, sexually-ambiguous biker gangs) he’d be able to explore more fully in the second go-round. Indeed, this was made on a super-tight budget which yielded an absurdly-huge return of investment (it was actually the most profitable film ever until Blair Witch Project came out.)
It’s not quite the classic that Road Warrior is, but it’s still a solid grindhouse flick and the “saw your own leg off or die” mercy game Max plays with the last goon is one of the meaner and more memorable acts of payback on film. That part alone has inspired scenes in stories as diverse Saw and Watchmen.
The Road Warrior (1982) Dir. George Miller
All hail the monomyth! Next to Star Wars, this is probably the most cited example of a director employing Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with 1000 Faces” theories to gainful benefit. Most times, I role my eyes about that--too often, it encourages cliché--but it was definitely needed here to give some guiding focus and direction to the rather messy revenge plot of the first. Obviously, it worked, because this is one of those few individual movies that unquestionably defined the iconography of an entire film genre (and, more importantly, several pro-wrestlers' gimmicks.) Name any post-Apocalyptic flick produced in the past 30 years and the real question will be over which of its elements weren’t fashioned in homage to this.
There’s no sense in trying to argue the merits of a classic that’s got 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, so instead I’ll say that this stands as further proof of why “sequel” isn't a bad word. Imagine if Miller and Gibson had decided not to make this because they “didn’t want to repeat themselves.” Like I mentioned, the crew finally had the dollars to realize the dreams and not only is this is a more legitimate visualization of a post-Apocalypse, the opening recap actually makes the first flick's feel more substantial and, well, mythic.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Dir. George Miller
You have to admire how utterly random George Miller’s filmography is. Here’s a director who started out making violent exploitation flicks, went on to make quirky animated family movies and is now angling to return to his intense superhero franchise. On a smaller scale, it’s a totally out-of-left-field, but totally fitting, choice to have Tina Turner play the antagonist (and perform a power anthem for the soundtrack) of what ended up being the trilogy-capper.
Again, here’s a sequel to emulate; something that explored more corners of a world, deepened its mythos and delivered on the goods of what you’d come to expect from the series without being a formulaic retread. If the Rambo series ratcheted up the kill count with each installment, then the Max movies got progressively more peculiar. Mad Max might’ve been close to Death Wish, but Aunt Entity’s pig power, the lost tribe’s “talk” religion, the hideously dualistic Master/Blaster and his bungy cage match with Max pushes this toward something like el Topo.
My only knock on it would be that it doesn’t feel like a proper conclusion to the series. When the credits roll, you can’t escape wondering why this didn’t lead to a few more movies. It feels like there was a lot more of the world to explore and I guess the only consolation lies in considering spiritual successors like Doomsday, Cyborg and Waterworld, et al, to be the follow-ups.
You know what? There's no sense in not including the music video for "We Don't Need Another Hero..."