Although the series would define what so many viewers now think of as “post-apocalyptic,” the first Mad Max was not really a sci-fi film at all. Rather, it was a low-budget gearhead thriller about a loose-cannon Aussie cop who takes on some violent motorcycle gangs. Its director, George Miller, a doctor, had been inspired to make it after spending a little too much time around the emergency room – hence all the random cutaways to eyeballs and the film’s almost clinical fascination with realistic violence.
It was with this second film, known to most of the world simply as Mad Max 2, that director Miller and star Mel Gibson took Max (who lost his wife and child in the earlier film’s shattering finale) and projected him into a post-WWIII future. Now, society had fully crumbled and small, ragged bands of ruthless warriors fought desperately for oil across a bleak desertscape. It was an epic gesture, to be sure, but it wasn’t a particularly grandiose one. I don’t know what kind of budget he was actually working with, but Miller craftily used the natural terrain of Australia to create his science-fiction wasteland. In effect, he did with The Road Warrior what Jean-Luc Godard did with Alphaville, creating a faux-futuristic prism through which to see the present.
It’s odd to think that, at the time, The Road Warrior must have seemed like a crazed fever dream brought on by the geo-political and cultural neuroses of the late 1970s: Gas shortages, Cold War proxy battles, the punk revolution, the rise of nihilistic hedonism, etc. It’s also odd that, given all that topicality, the film did not eventually become a time capsule – its fears and touchstones growing quaint as they receded into the past. (Think of Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, a lovely movie with a lot to say that has totally dated over the years.)
No, the filmmaking in The Road Warrior is so powerful that the movie basically created its own reality. If anything, Miller’s vision of the world has become the unstated source material for so many other films. Maybe that’s because this director, for all his box office success with this and other films, always had an offbeat sensibility that never quite meshed with his times. (My near-religious fondness for his insanely stylized and strange medical drama Lorenzo’s Oil is well-documented.) He’s not a matter-of-fact action director, but rather a forceful mannerist fond of grand, almost baroque stylistic gestures. How else can one explain Lord Humungus and his murderous BDSM biker gang – still among the weirdest and most disturbing set of action movie villains ever put onscreen? These are not the kinds of figures you’d find in an ordinary action movie, even an ordinary sci-fi movie.
And so, The Road Warrior is a relentless action opera – with movement, emotion, and music building and building to crashing crescendos of violence and catharsis, with little time for the niceties of plot (which would be a problem -- if the film had much of a plot). Years before Coppola and Scorsese went to town with such techniques in films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Age of Innocence, Miller uses a wide range of quaint cinematic trickery -- from silent-movie-style montages to lap dissolves to, at one point, a rabbit’s-eye-view of the action -- to create a world that has almost no real outside referent. Over the years, The Road Warrior has become canonized as a sci-fi wonder, one of the early F/X blockbusters – acclaimed for its stunts, its action, its appropriately terse heroics. All that may be correct, but I don’t think we’ve given George Miller enough credit for how deliriously strange and stylized – how borderline-experimental -- it is.