Mad Max and the Outback Apocalypse

Nobody does the apocalypse quite like a war party of barbarians racing across a radioactive wasteland, accompanied by a guy with a flamethrowing guitar strapped to a giant loudspeaker. Throw in a dust storm of biblical proportions – seriously, it’s like something out of a John Martin painting – and you’ve got Mad Max: Fury Road, the latest installment of George Miller’s series which redefined the post-holocaust genre and revitalized the Australian film industry. And it’s a beautiful film – the colours of the Outback have never looked so vivid. Tom Hardy brings a desperate gravitas to the role of Max, and Charlize Theron is chilling as Imperator Furiosa. It’s also a hyperkinetic action film, a relentless rampage of violence and car chases. I was exhausted by the end of it. In fact, it’s hard to reconcile this orgy of violence with the knowledge that Miller is perhaps better known today as the director of Happy Feet than the original Mad Max films. But it remains true to the spirit of the original films, and it’s great to finally see Miller’s vision given the budget that it deserves. The supporting cast are almost all Australian, meaning that the broad accent is unashamedly on display. It offers a uniquely Australian interpretation of the apocalypse. The Mad Max series has been around for so long that it’s easy to forget just how influential George Miller’s vision has been for the genre of science fiction, and how it has maintained a consistent engagement with the various apocalyptic anxieties of the last four decades.

Warning: minor spoilers ahead.

Science fiction texts that focus on the apocalypse have often been a broad reflection of the cultural anxieties of their respective eras. It’s fascinating to see how our evolving fears about the end of the world have been translated into literature. One of the first secular post-holocaust narratives, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), was written in response to the various cholera outbreaks that had devastated Europe. Post-holocaust narratives in the late 1940’s and 1950’s usually focused on nuclear war and the dangers of fallout. Similarly, the 1960’s saw an increase in stories about ecological disasters (exemplified in the works of J.G. Ballard) in response to a growing environmental awareness. George Miller has channeled some of our deepest anxieties into the Mad Max series. It is a vision that evolves and matures with each film, keeping its themes relevant to successive generations. The thirty year gap between the last film and Fury Road only highlights the series’ continued pertinence in popular culture.

The series presents a consistent apocalyptic vision – the gradual decay of law and order, followed by a nuclear war and fuel/water shortage – but each film builds on its predecessors, creating a more comprehensive view of Miller’s apocalypse. Mad Max (1979) explores the collapse of civil infrastructure and the decay of morals; Mad Max 2 (1981) focuses on the idea of scarcity through an oil shortage; whereas Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has a much broader (and some would say Americanised) look at the threat of nuclear war. With last week’s release of Mad Max: Fury Road, we are treated to a post-apocalyptic vision which combines all of the elements of the previous films, but also includes the shortage of water as a key concern, something that is incredibly timely in both the Australian and wider global consciousness.

Mad Max poster 1

The first film, with society degenerating into barbarism, precipitated a boom in the post-holocaust genre. Law and order have begun to decay, and motorcycle gangs roam across the Outback. There’s something overwhelmingly Australian about this idea: our nation’s obsession with fast cars and outlaw gangs, all set against the vast red sprawl of the desert. Miller hints that fuel shortages have led us to this point, but it isn’t until the subsequent films that this issue is explored further. Instead, we witness an ineffective police force fighting to maintain order. To describe this vision as post-apocalyptic would be wrong, because the apocalypse is still in progress. It’s the slow collapse of civil infrastructure and the disempowerment of law enforcement services. The gang also represents the threat of moral decay, something that would have resonated with a predominantly conservative Australian audience.

The dystopian vision evolves, in its sequel, to a wholly post-apocalyptic storyline. Mad Max 2 takes place after a war has wiped out most of civilization. The film examines a social hierarchy based on the possession of oil. The outlaw gangs which burn fuel as they race along the highways are flaunting their wealth to those beneath them. The idea of a future without oil echoed public concerns following the 1973 and 1979 oil crises, and also demonstrated a growing environmental awareness. Perhaps more than its predecessor, Mad Max 2 was speaking to the anxieties of its generation. We live in a world of plenty, but the oil will not last forever.

Beyond Thunderdome was made at a time when renewed tensions between the East and West blocs meant that nuclear war was a distinct possibility. The references to a nuclear apocalypse are must more overt than the previous film – Max waves a Geiger counter over a tank of water to see if it’s contaminated by fallout, and we see a mushroom cloud painted on the wall of the children’s cave. The images of a ruined Sydney at the end of the film, consumed by the red dust of the desert, is one of the film’s most potent and enduring images. Beyond Thunderdome been criticized for being more “Hollywood” than its predecessors, but it also spoke to the fears of an American cinema-going public.

Fury Road combines all of the elements from the previous films. There is still an oil shortage, and mutated creatures and barbarian gangs continue to roam the radioactive wasteland. Many of the characters have advanced tumours, and the pale, fanatical War Boys need blood transfusions from slaves used as “blood bags.” But the film adds a new element – the shortage of water, which means that power now rests with those who horde it. Even when the water is available, it’s often undrinkable, made poisonous by nuclear fallout. It’s an element that speaks to the Australian audience, one that has grown accustomed to the idea of drought.

John Martin's 1822 painting "The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum" may as well be a poster for "Fury Road."
John Martin’s 1822 painting “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum” may as well be a poster for “Fury Road.”

Drought is a constant threat in Australia. It seems somewhat coincidental that in the same week as Fury Road was released, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology declared El Niño, a condition that is often associated with drought on the eastern side of the country. The southern and eastern coasts of the country have seen rainfall deficiencies in the last three years (Apr 2012 – Mar 2015). This is backgrounded by significant long-term decline in rainfall, particularly in the south of Western Australia. As the threat of climate change looms larger, and the public consciousness vacillates between concern and apathy, Fury Road is a timely reminder that the world of the future may be defined by scarcity. After exploring oil shortages and nuclear war, Miller has alighted on the threat that is the most relevant to Australians in the early twenty-first century. Although the long-term impact of climate change is only just being felt, forecasts indicate that many parts of the country will become hotter and drier in future decades.

With Miller announcing that more Mad Max films will be released in coming years, I will be interested to see what aspects of the apocalypse he chooses to focus on. The genre of science fiction has woken up to the threat of climate change in the past two decades; most of our stories of the future feel obliged to address it in one way or another. It seems right that Miller has used the Mad Max franchise as a vehicle to join this dialogue – the series has always been engaged with wider eschatological concerns. I only hope that he continues to foreground climate change as something that threatens our future.

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