Cold Steel & Hot Rubber: The Cultural Legacy of Mad Max
- by Leo Stableford, 13 May 2015
I remember opening the Dark Future box from Games Workshop so clearly. The only thing cooler than big guns to a boy in his early teens was strapping those big guns to hot-rod gas guzzling cars. The imagined thrill and excitement of a high-octane car chase was so real I could almost taste it. I pictured a maelstrom of metal and mayhem, where the only thing faster than the cars were the rounds of ammunition expended on bringing the other guy down.
Then the disappointment, that was as tangible hours later, lost in a world of protractors, rulers and many-sided dice. The problem was that simulating a high-octane car chase, and factoring in the gun fire, was a protracted process, about as adrenaline fuelled as filling in a tax return.
Thus we come to what I like to call the Mad Max problem. Often the sound of the basic concept, a post-apocalyptic battle for resources drenched in black leather and punctuated by V8 engines and the rattle of gunfire, sounds awesome. The question becomes, if it sounds so awesome, why is it so hard to get right?
George Miller, the director of all the Mad Max movies, has been on record as answering the question: "Is The Road Warrior/Beyond Thunderdome a sequel or a remake?" with the answer "Yes." Even Mad Max's creator isn't one hundred percent sure what would make the ultimate Mad Max movie, or indeed, the ultimate post-apocalyptic story of survival and fetish wear.
Certainly, the closest Miller has come so far to realizing his vision is 1981's "The Road Warrior" (it was released with just this title in the USA due to concerns that people wouldn't see a sequel to a movie that had received such limited distribution in the States). In this movie the titular rage-filled anti-hero, Max Rockatansky, is on the hunt for fuel when he becomes embroiled in a battle between desert marauders and a group of survivors in charge of a tanker full of fuel.
The prior movie, "Mad Max", had been restricted by budget and also by Miller's primary preoccupation being the delivery of kinetic thrills, with narrative and character development coming in second place. The subsequent movie "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome", presents a richer, stranger vision of post-apocalyptic society but diverts into a twee, almost cringeworthy, episode involving teenagers and has notably less in the way of car chase-based antics.
It is hoped that the upcoming "Mad Max: Fury Road", being a hearty reboot of the concept, will deliver what budget, direction,interference and teenagers speaking a painfully cutsey pidgin have blocked in the past. That is a full-flavoured, no-holds-barred slice of post-apocalyptic, vehicular action.
Not that there's been any lack of attempts to build upon the legacy left behind by Miller's flawed, but brilliant, early ‘80s trilogy. Almost every part of popular culture has looked back to Mad Max to look forward into the dark future.
In Escape From New York it is quite plain that Snake Plissken has no such ideals. He is a mercenary, one who lives by some sort of code, although what that code is can be opaque at the best of times. Plissken does things because he has no option, and he is the very model of an uncaring survivor.
Why this is important is key to the success, or otherwise, of other media attempts to cash in on the Mad Max style post-apocalyptic milieu. It would seem, for example, that comics and video games would have an easy time with the environment.
Famously Jamie Hewlett, creator of Tank Girl, said that one of the reasons he opted to send his eponymous anti-heroine and her ordnance laden vehicle into the outback was so the artist didn't have to draw too many buildings. Such an obvious ploy to make the vehicles and people the centre of the artist's vision does not seem to have caught on, to date Tank Girl is the only well known comic-character to lean on a Mad Max style setting. Add to this the fact that Tank Girl is a vehicle for a stream of bizarre and chaotic adventures and it would seem that a love of guns, punk and the need not to have to draw cities would appear to be all Tank Girl and Mad Max have in common.
I'm pretty certain Volition were not consciously shooting for the Mad Max vibe when they developed the game, which is eerily appropriate as George Miller has always wanted the Max stories to have a universality to them separate from the leather, guns, wild hair cuts, desert and cars.
In "Red Faction: Guerilla" the player is cast as the titular guerilla and drives about the desert surface of a Martian desertscape, blowing up ramshackle buildings and engaging in gun-fights with an oppressive Martian corporate regime. The oppressive regime element is obviously out-of-place in the anarchic atmosphere of Mad Max, but the rest of the game's mechanics and setting are a pretty good approximation of Mad Max's themes.
In terms of kinetic action, possibly the best series of video games to look at are the "Burnout" titles from Criterion Games. These racing titles go out of their way to encourage the creation of massive pile ups and dish out high scores for incidents of vehicular carnage. The settings of the games tend to be urban, with neatly maintained roads and functional cities forming the background to this carnival of irresponsibility.
The dichotomy between Red Faction: Guerrilla and Burnout exemplifies one of the other big problems in imitating Max. Guerilla gets the mood, Burnout gets the action but only Mad Max gets the two together.
It doesn't help that the post-apocalyptic setting is so much broader in its potential than the Mad Max trilogy suggests. If you look at a video game series like Interplay/Bethesda/Black Isle's "Fallout" games you can see that all the apocalypse and desert you can eat doesn't necessarily translate into a Mad Max feel. Fallout likes jazz, giant scorpions and other genetic mutants, it's very deeply anchored in a post-nuclear armageddon idea that is only ever a background element in Max.
The nuclear aspect tends to bring creators toward a place of cynical satire, far closer to "Escape From New York" and "Judge Dredd" than Max ever liked to stray. Here we see the final big difference between Max and some of the other artifacts of post-apocalyptic culture. In "Beyond Thunderdome" the satirical aspects are the furthest forward, with Thunderdome played like a reality-TV game show and the twee youngsters viewing history through a bamboo rectangle that may have been intended to mimic a cinema screen but, these days, scarily resembles a big-screen TV for its dimensions.
There's something sad about these invocations, the satire is melancholic rather than biting, it reflects Max's own internal battle to remain somewhat civilised in the face of such terrible ordeals as he must face. Often in post-apocalyptic fiction that borrows from Max, borrowing from Plissken seems like a natural move.
Jack Yeovil's amazing work on the Dark Future novelizations explore notions such as Oliver North being president of the United States and Elvis Presley being a bounty hunter. Yeovil (a pen name of writer Kim Newman) drinks deeply from both of these wells of inspiration. The result is a bit Mad Max-ish and little Escape...-like, but not too terribly close to either.
As a whole, movies that play with post-apocalyptic themes tend to end up in the comfortable area around Carpenter and also, inevitably, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Without cars and guns that's where the post-apocalypse usually ends up.
All the other attempts at something a bit more Max-ish tend to end up being schlocky for one reason or another. The marginally popular "Death Race" franchise (which is, confusingly, based upon Roger Corman's 1975 flick "Death Race 2000") mix cars and guns with heaping spoonfuls of prison-exploitation and laddish testosterone to make a brew that has many enjoyable moments during the car-based action sequences, and many groans during the leaden framing stories.
Perhaps the closest thing to a proper Mad Max imitator in modern culture was Neil Marshall's "Doomsday", released the same year as the first new "Death Race". Doomsday wears its influences very much on its sleeve, having two minor characters namechecked as "Miller" and "Carpenter", it even gets infected with a little Tank Girl weirdness in a piece of highly enjoyable tosh about Scotland getting walled off, leaving behind a bunch of Mad Max punk-cannibals, a number of costumes from a medieval period drama and a "Greatest Hits of the 80s" CD to supply some weird soundtracking opportunities. The car chase to Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Two Tribes" at the end is a joyful tribute to the most exciting moments in the Mad Max trilogy with many directorial nods and winks in the direction of its influences.
I can't leave the article without a special heartfelt mention of the should-have-been-disastrous attempt to meld Mad Max and Star Wars in the early 80s low-budget action-adventure "Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone". Again, this movie succeeds in hitting the right notes for a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic adventure mostly by mistake.
The idea of the movie is that an anti-heroic Han Solo type is paid to rescue some girls from their captor, the cyborg menace "Overdog", on a remote desert planet. Character beats, crazy vehicles and a scenery chewing performance from the ever-wonderful Michael Ironside as Overdog elevate this movie above the humdrum with the human moments between the main characters (Peter Strauss, Molly Ringwald and Ernie Hudson) really making this a cut above a lot of the other post-apocalypse rip offs of the era.
So it would seem that in order to invoke Max you need characters with very personal stories, a post-apocalypse that tries its hardest to veer away from getting too heavy on the satire and, of course, cars and guns... and more cars... and more guns. Let's hope that Fury Road delivers.
Are you excited for "Fury Road"? Do you think it will be a worthy successor to the original movies? Do you know of any other Mad Max-inspired films, comics, games or books? Let us know in the comments!
Tagged: movies & TV.