But even more than its depiction of its near-future dystopian landscape, Mad Max established a genuinely nasty worldview, and a politics of absolute nihilism. It depicts a Western society on the brink of collapse, the very first shot in the film unsubtly depicting a dilapidated and falling-apart Halls of Justice sign1 as Max Rockatansky (an implausibly young Mel Gibson) fights an obviously losing battle with irredeemably evil motorcycle gangs. Explicitly identified as the last remaining embodiment of law enforcement, Max initially represents the implacable last vestige of social order, combining his legal status as police officer with his symbolic authority as head of an idealised nuclear family. But of course the gratuitous murder of his wife and infant child transforms Max from stoic cop to vindictive vigilante, hunting down and sadistically killing the individual gang members who conveniently combine societal collapse and Max’s personal loss. Where this first film thus gives a revved-up depiction of the more general sense of fragmentation and social decay so prevalent in 1970s genre cinema, 1. A location for which an abandoned sewage plant stood in with perfectly appropriate symbolism. Promotional poster. Warner Bros. Pictures.
303 Mad Max : between apocalypse and utopia the sequels would move into a more explicitly post-apocalyptic future where the collapse has become total. In this context, the subsequent films repeatedly attempt to reverse the first film’s dynamic. Beginning with Mad Max 2 (Miller Australia 1981),2 the narratives are organised around redemptive arcs, as ‘that broken, hollow shell of a man’ finds ways of reconnecting to various communities as a reluctant but obvious saviour figure. While the second film’s memorable opening montage does combine stock footage of societal collapse with footage from Mad Max (1979) to loosely establish the character’s background, the film functions very well as a self-contained narrative, and contains remarkably few similarities with its predecessor. With a budget over ten times that of the first film, Mad Max 2 fully established the post-apocalyptic wasteland that would swiftly define the brand. Greatly intensifying the first film’s collapse of the social order, the sequel’s wasteland no longer contains any lingering vestiges of civilisation. And if it thereby also comes closer to the tradition of the American Western, it clearly does so as part of an increasingly transnational form of genre cinema that has as much in common with Sergio Leone as it does with John Ford. It is the point where Max as a character graduates from generic cop-turned-vigilante to mythical hero archetype, inspired at least in part by Joseph Campbell’s suddenly fashionable concept of the monomyth. By deliberately playing up supposedly universal narrative tropes, Mad Max 2 moved away from the first 2. The second film was released in North America under the alternative title The Road Warrior because the first film had only played in limited release, and audiences were less likely to recognise it as a sequel.
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- Spring '17
- Mad Max, Mel Gibson, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Mad Max 2