How the Mad Max movies tapped into the politics of the 1980s across the original trilogy – and looking ahead at where they’ll go next.
Spoilers for the Mad Max films lie ahead.
They say nothing is made in a vacuum, and that couldn’t be more true for George Miller’s Mad Max films. The Australian director — who funnily enough also made Happy Feet — broke new ground with the post-apocalyptic wasteland seen in 1979’s Mad Max, crafting a world so eerily close to ours, on the brink of utter desolation. This was taken even further with 1981’s The Road Warrior, where all-out annihilation had rendered the Australian landscape a cesspit of violence, suffering and dystopia.
The third entry, 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, may have focused on the campiness of the time period more than its predecessors, but the thematic line through all three originals, and 2015’s Fury Road, remain clear: that this is a story about hierarchical structures utterly obliterating society, and leaving those at the bottom of the ladder scrambling just to survive. Invisible higher powers seem to be getting by, while the rest of society is left pining after the coveted ‘guzzoline’, willing to fight and even kill for it – an allegory that very knowingly plays on the characteristics of addiction.
And since no art is made without consideration of the world around it, it’s not hard to look at 1980s society and see some eerie and important similarities.
It was around this time where crack cocaine flooded into low-income American communities, leading to surges in crime and suffering as Ronald Reagan’s government clamped down on narcotics users with the full force of the law. It was a period where racial minorities, particularly Black people who lived in these areas, were acutely and disproportionately affected, with harsher prison sentences for possession than powder cocaine, more commonly used by upper-class white businessmen. It’s with this lens that the Mad Max series seems an awful lot more than just an action franchise.
This is best seen in the opening of 1981’s The Road Warrior, which built on the ‘soft dystopia’ aesthetics of the original and went full-throttle post-apocalyptic, presenting the Australian outback as a place ravaged by destruction and war.
In the introductory monologue spoken by the aged Feral Child character, we’re told that ‘two mighty tribes went to war,’ that ‘without fuel they were nothing,’ and that ‘their leaders talked, and talked, and talked, but nothing could stem the avalanche’ of war. Knowingly or not, it plays on the hierarchies present: that the ruling classes sat in offices and made decisions while the working-class were left to feel the painful consequences.
We see shots of packed boardrooms, bustling with debate and furore, juxtaposed by the desolate barren Outback, devoid of life and personality. It’s an almost perfect fit for how the crack epidemic manifested in America: U.S. Congressmen cooped in offices, making decisions over the criminality of crack possession that would have no impact on them, but destroyed less affluent communities.
It’s this invisible leadership, the omnipresent rulers whose decisions produced this dystopia, that feels particularly resonant in The Road Warrior. The Feral Child refers to a metaphorical ‘avalanche’ as a result of this nuclear war, stemming from ‘reasons long forgotten,’ which can easily be equated to the continuous incarceration following the crack epidemic, with the ‘war on crack’ campaign leading to disproportionately high amounts of Black people placed behind bars. Impacts that are still felt today, four decades on.
During this campaign, 88% of those imprisoned in relation to crack cocaine were Black, a telling statistic that highlights the inherent inequality that underpinned the campaign. Mad Max plays on this wonderfully too, with the script — penned by George Miller, Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant — using ideas of addiction in relation to the coveted ‘guzzoline’, painting a world where those at the bottom are the ones who truly suffer.
Take the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) as an example – from his skeletal appearance to the fervent panic with which he approaches strangers, it’s clear that the apocalypse has left him in a scenario very different from what he had before. His mental state is one of sheer desperation: he’s willing to kill Max the second he approaches his copter, clearly threatened by any outsiders, and his near-nonchalance when faced with a shotgun pointed to his head suggests violence and the looming spectre of death are never far away.
This is how the world of Mad Max chews up and spits out those at the bottom of the ladder, leaving them tepid, hysterical and hardly able to live from day to day. The endless quest for ‘guzzoline’ — the franchise’s Australianised equivalent to gasoline — effortlessly mirrors that of the addict searching for their next hit, willing to steal, injure, or even kill to get what they need to keep going. It’s a world where there’s no end in sight: Max never seeks salvation, a return to normal life, or even happiness per sé, instead just focusing on having enough guzzoline to keep moving – a state of perpetual stasis, where normality is always distant on the horizon, and ultimately unobtainable.
This neat allegory makes the Wasteland of Mad Max much more than just cars crashing, flamethrowers billowing and guns firing, instead creating the impression that inequality and greed on any level always breeds doom.
In the same way that Reagan’s sharp criminalisation of crack cocaine deeply affected Black communities, the invisible leaders of Mad Max’s world condemned their citizens to an eternity of tragedy, violence, and pain. Behind the veneer of action is proof that the human condition always hangs in the balance: That none of us are truly safe, that groups much more powerful than us could sweep away our idea of normality in an instant.
If Mad Max teaches us anything, it’s not to blame the addict — after all, characters like the Gyro Captain are fundamental to the film’s plot, and well-loved by fans — but instead to interrogate the higher-ups whose blatant disregard for the life below them means anybody can become the next victim.
With the upcoming Furiosa spin-off due for release in 2023, it’ll be interesting to see whether Miller and co preserve this important line of argument in future entries. The Mad Max series didn’t only bring a rustic, homemade aesthetic to action cinema, but it charts the stories of powerless people in a world ravaged by greed, with a timeliness so acute and touching when looking at the period in which they were produced.
As Tina Turner croons on ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’, playing at the opening of Beyond Thunderdome, ‘the living would envy the dead’ in the Wasteland of Mad Max – and it’s the living who, deep down, both in our world and theirs, who are the victims.
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