It’s been forty-two years since Max Rockatansky burst onto screens in the first Mad Max film. Since then, director George Miller’s postapocalyptic vision, explored over the course of four enduringly popular films, has generated a common language to describe a ravaged future.
Miller cobbled together the wasteland setting, post-punk costumes, weapons, and machines from discarded parts of our own world. The phrase “Mad Max” itself has become shorthand for violent social breakdown. There have been innumerable homages and rip-offs, from Tank Girl to The Book of Eli and more highbrow fare like The Road.
In 2015, Miller updated and sealed his saga’s legacy with his masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road, which added a weighty and welcome feminist aspect to his postapocalyptic tableau. Critics named it the best Australian film of the century so far.
Fury Road’s success confirmed how much the postapocalyptic genre has grown in importance as social breakdown accelerates in the real world. When the series kicked off during the Cold War, end-of-world anxieties often focused on the threat of nuclear war. One apocalyptic anxiety has now been replaced by many: economic collapse, the resurgence of fascism, climate emergency — and, most recently, viral pandemic.
This explains the genre’s increasing popularity. Like its close cousin zombie fiction, postapocalyptic fiction is a resonant, even cathartic, experience for fans coping with their own existential dilemmas.
“A few years from now . . .”
It’s easy to forget that Miller didn’t intend the original Mad Max to be a postapocalyptic film. Released in 1979, the ultra-low-budget thriller begins with the enigmatic epigraph “A few years from now . . .” and remains deliberately vague about the setting of its unsettlingly anarchic, almost surreal world.
In classic Ozploitation fashion, Miller focuses almost entirely on action and suspense — and those famously innovative and dangerous stunts — while for the most part excluding niceties like drama and character motivation. Amidst a general sense of lawlessness and dystopia, his characters do jarringly ordinary things, like go to cafés or the beach.
This may seem strange for fans of the bleaker later entries in the series. But rewatching the original Mad Max now, it brilliantly evokes a sense of social breakdown occurring alongside normal life.
Miller took a very different angle in the sequel — the pivotal film in the series. As laid out in the memorable prologue — a powerful montage of real mid-century protests, riots, and war — Mad Max 2 (known as The Road Warrior in the United States) takes place in a postapocalyptic world that is explicitly defined as the shattered remnant of our own.
Interestingly, this imagined future is not postnuclear. Rather, it was an energy crisis that precipitated this doom cycle, followed by a world economic crash and a conventional world war. The film came out just eight years after the 1973 oil crisis, tapping into lingering public angst. It feels even more prescient today, in view of capitalism’s continuing and civilization-threatening dependence on petroleum.
The setting of the next sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, is after a nuclear war. Did nukes come into play between the two stories? Or is Thunderdome a subtle reboot? Miller has always enjoyed leaving these questions unanswered.
Thirty years later, Fury Road rebooted the saga more blatantly, simultaneously updating the social context. This time, the conflict is one raging over access to clean water, reflecting contemporary reality from the Amazon Basin to Flint, Michigan.
Despite their narrative disjointedness, the four films can be read together as a sequence of collapse — beginning with growing disorder and breakdown in the first film, followed by full-scale apocalypse and, finally, by painful and desperate attempts to rebuild society.
“Out here, everything hurts”
Miller did not intend Mad Max 2 to be realistic. It’s an allegorical fantasy, unabashedly influenced by highly stylistic directors like John Ford and Akira Kurosawa. The protagonists, with the exception of the antihero, Max, all wear white and other light colors, while the villains wear black — a tribute to Hollywood westerns. The iconic costumes by Norma Moriceau — the avant-garde and gender nonconforming looks that define Mad Max in pop culture — also defy realism.
But Miller’s humanism counterbalances this emphasis on formal style — especially his commitment to portraying the effects of social collapse on people. Rewatching Mad Max 2 today, it’s striking how believably exhausted and traumatized the characters are. They eat dog food. They don’t get to bathe. They don’t look healthy.
Beneath the spectacle of action, wild costumes, and badass vehicles, there’s a sense that this is what environmental and social breakdown would really feel like. You would forget what it was like to be happy; you would always be on the verge of giving up.
Even the baddies seem hurt and debilitated — as in the scene when archvillain Humungus tries to calm Max’s nemesis, Wez: “We’ve all lost someone we loved.” For Fury Road, Miller went to great lengths to make his characters’ trauma feel real, hiring The Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler to consult with the actors so they better understood sex slavery. As Imperator Furiosa tells one of her refugee charges, “Out here, everything hurts.”
“Their world crumbled”
With this humanism as an emotional anchor, it can be disquieting to rewatch the Mad Max films in the light of today’s crises. With a sort of slow-burn scientific panic, the UN’s October 2018 IPCC report — which triggered student climate strikes worldwide — warned about the collapse of civilization as soon as the end of this century. Just one year later, Australia was burning, with entire towns huddled under bloodred skies, their food supplies cut off.
Soon after, COVID-19 hit and the world economy crumpled. It’s increasingly hard to shake the feeling that we’re seeing fiction become reality. The apocalypse doesn’t have to look like a Hollywood dystopia — it looks like what’s going on around us.
As professor Jem Bendell put it in his harrowing 2018 paper on the climate emergency: “When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war, I mean in your own life.”
But the collapse won’t be some great leveler, as often envisaged in postapocalyptic fiction, including Mad Max 2. Even in the midst of breakdown, capitalism’s social structures will persist — most likely in a more brutal, authoritarian form.
States, not individuals, will compete for dwindling resources, leading to mass displacement of refugees, especially from the Global South. Naomi Klein calls it “climate barbarism,” while Jeff Sparrow talks about “eco-authoritarianism” — “a politics centered on the state making ‘our way of life’ sustainable as the environment disintegrates.”
In other words, the future will probably resemble Children of Men more than Mad Max or The Road. It’s hardly a comforting thought.
The Political Economy of Mad Max
The best thing about Mad Max is not what it predicts, but what it says about the world today. This is especially due to its materialist focus.
Starting with Mad Max 2, resources — whether that means “guzzoline,” methane, iron ore, or water — are crucial to society and the main source of conflict. Compare this to The Book of Eli, in which different factions fight each other in a postapocalyptic world for a copy of the Bible — a purely idealistic struggle.
While the first two Mad Max films favor typically conservative tropes about crime and anarchy, the last two feature more complex portrayals of social hierarchy based on production or accumulation of resources — in other words, they start to reflect social classes and class conflict.
In Thunderdome, Aunty Entity controls Bartertown from an airy, elevated dwelling, while workers and convict slaves (a nod to Australia’s colonial history) refine methane from pig shit in the gloomy Underworld. In Fury Road, warlord Immortan Joe and a small aristocracy, served clean water and fresh food by slaves, rule a desert oasis from a great height. Meanwhile, a class of miserable peasants are limited to meager rations. It’s a nightmare fantasy of eco-feudalism.
Yet the commentary on modern capitalism is inescapable, as the satirical brand names and slogans make clear. Bartertown is “Helping to Build a Better Tomorrow,” while Immortan Joe brands his water “Aqua Cola.” In this world, the baddies are those who exploit and oppress, while the protagonists — Thunderdome’s Lost Tribe of children and Fury Road’s matriarchal Vuvalini — are egalitarian collectives.
Indeed, Fury Road, rightly celebrated for its feminism, very clearly identifies an economic basis for the oppression of women. In the Citadel, women are wholly subordinated to production. “That’s my child! My property!” Joe yells at pregnant runaway slave Splendid Angharad.
Sounding like a low-key Marxist, Miller says he wanted to make captive human beings the object of the film’s epic chase “because to some extent we are all commodities in [this] world.”
Superficially, the Mad Max films are all about individualism. The iconic image of Max Rockatansky depicts him striding with his loyal Blue Heeler along an outback road, shotgun in hand. It’s a postapocalyptic reworking of the myth of the lone cowboy hero.
But there’s a curiously decentered aspect to Max’s role as hero that undercuts the myth’s individualism. As critic Adrian Martin points out in The Mad Max Movies, Max is far less decisive than the typical action hero — he “almost never hits or shoots anyone directly.” Max’s plans usually go awry: his shotgun misfires, his car is wrecked, he is tricked into being a decoy.
As critic Almos Maksay writes:
Instead of being a great hero, Max can more correctly be characterized as the unexceptional individual caught at the center of conflicting forces . . . but who exercises no actual control over them.
This is most fully realized in Fury Road. Max’s heroism is overtly subverted, deflating the masculine archetype in favor of women.
This displacement of the individual creates space to emphasize collective action — and this is the greatest value of the series, politically speaking. Max’s efforts to strike out on his own always end in defeat or capture before he eventually joins a collective in order to help them fight oppression and build a new world — a beautiful representation of real-life revolution.
Max’s own redemption always lies in solidarity. By helping the collective, “in this blighted place, he learned to live again.”