May 8, 2015

A brief history of the future

Mad Max (George Miller, 1979). Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981). Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller and George Ogilvie, 1985).

Will Mad Max: Fury Road  the year’s other much-anticipated sci-fi reboot  be a futuristic story actually set in the past? George Miller’s cheap, brutal original appeared in 1979 and was set “a few years from now”. Which was when? The 1980s or, at most, the 90s? On depopulated roads outside Melbourne, leather-clad road cops driving Ford Falcons battled Droog-ish motorcycle gangs, but nothing about the action or locations actually suggested a futuristic setting. Max Rockatansky seems initially to be the meekest rather than the maddest of the cops and for most of the running time, future star Mel Gibson is the youngest and most innocent-looking grown-up on screen (Joanne Samuel, who plays Max’s wife, was just a year younger but a more experienced actor). The domestic scenes are mostly excruciating and the Ocker humour is not integrated as seamlessly into the Roger Corman-ish action as it would be in Miller’s second and best Mad Max film, but the absurd and daring car scenes were already the selling point and Miller demonstrated that he immediately a rare knack for the choreography of action (before dabbling in cinema, he trained as a doctor which reportedly gave him an insight into how car crash victims look). The creation of Max as a western-style avenging hero late in the second half is also the creation of Mel Gibson as movie star, mirrored perhaps by the creation of George Miller, versatile director. Audaciously, it was a debut film that presented itself as a prequel.

Over time, the films became more cluttered and the back story was extended. The bikers in the relatively minimal first movie were just rough sketches of the bikers in the much more ambitious and sophisticated second, which pushed Max deeper into the desert. A newsreel prologue and voice-over sets out the legend, a long story to do with wars and oil shortages, but when are we? The famous black V8 Interceptor is now dusty and beaten-up, Gibson’s leather outfit is in tatters and there seem to be no other cops left anywhere. Gibson looks more than two years older, but still he barely speaks. In Gibson’s acting, speech has usually revealed an underlying vulnerability or insecurity, or is Max’s near muteness in this film really a symptom of his lasting trauma? But then, what does he need to say? Either way, the film is effective enough, and elemental enough, to communicate almost without dialogue.

In the first two films, Gibson takes a serious beating and stoically goes on, much like the bloodied, enduring heroes of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, which Gibson would eventually direct. People have speculated about a mad masochism. In a neo-western about lawlessness and a threatened, civilised community in the wilderness (made up largely of the plummier-voiced Australian actors), the warriors have Mohawks and the storytelling reveals obvious debts to Ford, Kurosawa and Lucas. All is petrol, speed and fire and the final truck chase is still one of action cinema’s greatest achievements. The good news is that the visual language Miller established in Mad Max 2 is the one adopted in Mad Max: Fury Road, if the trailers are anything to go by. And Tom Hardy’s rebooted or renewed Max is the same character, which puts the new story within the same span of time rather than moving ahead a generation, as Star Wars has. So, when are we up to now, with Fury Road? The 2000s?

I know that seems literal, and that Miller was always more concerned, as the series went on, with creating future legends rather than parallel or possible histories. The story grew bigger still and the scale grander in the third, less fondly remembered Mad Max. With its stunt casting (Tina Turner as matriarch of Bartertown, located even deeper in the desert) Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome risks being remembered as one of those 80s rock star fantasy movies, alongside LabyrinthDune and, if we can stretch the 80s into the early 90s, Freejack. Not the best company. The now carless Gibson has become Max of Arabia, driving camels and wearing Bedouin robes (black ones, naturally). Bartertown looks like the setting of Duran Duran’s pretentious Wild Boys clip. Gibson’s hair is longer, as though he is warming up for Braveheart; the tone is generally softer and less violent, and the story of a tribe of lost children seems to draw heavily from Russell Hoban’s classic Riddley Walker while looking ahead to Spielberg’s much less classic Hook. The man with almost no name has now become nearly messianic, spoken of in stories and myths (is this film the straighter, Ocker El Topo?). While Mad Max 2 still feels timeless, you suspect that topicality has dated the third film: rather than oil shortages, Beyond Thunderdome has a very specific mid-80s mood of nuclear fear, which does give us a spooky sense of a ruined, hazy Sydney lit by fires.

Did any other action trilogy ever drift so far from its initial premise? So maybe it does need a correction or adjustment, back to Max 2.0. Along those lines, some Beyond Thunderdome dialogue leaps out.  Aunty Entity (Tina Turner): “What did you do before this?” Max (Mel Gibson): “I was a cop, a driver.” How long ago all that seemed by 1985.