“Mad Max” as Criticism of Car Culture
By Ryver H.
Warning: spoilers ahead for pretty much the entire Mad Max series, including Fury Road.
Cinema, as with most forms of media, has a long and storied history of social commentary. This isn’t really all that surprising, if a creator feels strongly about something, it will often come across in their work, whether intentional or not. Those views tend to be reflected throughout the narrative, though they aren’t always apparent at first viewing. This brings me to Mad Max. While, on it’s face, this franchise (now consisting of 4 movies, 2 video games, and a couple of comic tie-ins) seems to be very much steeped in car culture. Both pre and post apocalypse settings in the series seem to revolve around automobiles and car culture, with plenty of chrome, leather and burnt rubber to go around. Despite this, George Miller (the director and writer for all four movies) seems to put a healthy vein of criticism for the same automobile culture that becomes increasingly apparent as the series goes on.
Starting from the beginning, the original Mad Max follows Max Rockatansky, a member of the Main Force Police, an organization specially charged with policing the extremely dangerous highways of a near-future society on the brink of collapse due to oil shortages. The world that Max inhabits is a harsh one, where violent crime is so prevalent as to be almost unenforceable, and road rage can and does escalate to the point of vehicular murder. While definitely comparable with many of the other “car” movies of the 1960’s and ‘70’s in terms of lengthy chase scenes, spectacular stunt work, and a focus on the vehicles almost as much as the characters, the criticism already starts to show. The movies villains (the Acolytes) are shown to steal gas and attack others, putting their own rides and thrill seeking before the lives of others. They are shown as over the top examples of many stereotypes revolving around “petrol heads” of the time, a picture of unchecked violence and fanaticism in a civilization on the decline. It is also hinted at that the Acolytes aren’t the only violent gang in the area and that the increasing scarcity of oil is driving these “mad” gangs into more and more dangerous behavior to get their thrills/ stay on the road.
In the second installment, The Road Warrior, some of the concepts present in the original are cranked up to 11. Taking place five years after the first movie, the world Max lives in has all but come to an end. Wars sparked over resources have ended in nuclear apocalypse, crumbling civilization and leaving the few humans remaining to squabble among themselves over increasingly scarce supplies. After Max is attacked by raiders attempting to steal his car and the “guzzoline” contained within it, he ends up teaming with a group of survivors and defending one of (if not the) last oil pumps left in the wasteland from the warlord Humunngus and his gang of marauders, hoping of fill his own gas tanks and keep his rig rolling. With the stylized design of the bandits and the main conflict of the story revolving around the oil derrick, the criticism feels a lot more apparent in Road Warrior than the original. Much of the design for the bandits seems to be a twisted take on many themes in car culture, with a lot of leather and chrome in their costuming as well as heavily customized cars and motorcycles to better terrorize the wasteland. The central conflict of the story seems to indicate that despite much of the world going to hell over oil, there are many in the wasteland, Max included, that are more comfortable killing and dying to fuel their engines than there are willing help rebuild others survive and rebuild what little they have left. They would rather die trying to get or keep the gas than be left with an empty tank.
Beyond Thunderdome was the next follow up, taking place 15 or so years after Road Warrior. It follows Max once more as he continues to try and survive in a world gone mad. This time he finds himself embroiled in the politics of Bartertown, a city in the middle of the desert that is caught between Auntie Entity (the leader and head of all the above ground commerce in Bartertown) and Master Blaster (who runs the methane processing plant below the city that helps power the place). It’s probably the weakest of the series, honestly, but the commentary is still there. Methane (a gaseous fuel that can be harvested from animal waste, as opposed to crude oil) is the main export of Bartertown and is traded for all manner of supplies and other goods, showing us once more that humans, Max included (who strikes a deal with Auntie to help fuel his car and have it returned to him), haven’t entirely shook the gas habit that ended their world, though many are shown using old cars as wagons drawn now by beasts of burden for lack of fuel.
Fury Road is the newest film in the series coming out after a nearly 30 year hiatus of the film. I takes place after the fall of society but it is unknown when in relation to the other films. Once more we join Max as he teams up with Furiosa, another driver who is trying to save a cadre of women from their captor and take them to the semi-mythical “green place”, a region untouched by the nuclear fallout that turned their world into the arid wasteland they have come to know. While oil consumption is less of a theme here, as an in narrative explanation shows that “guzzoline” is prevalent in the area, the topic of car culture and the society around that is back in force, certainly making up for what Beyond Thunderdome lacked. If Road Warrior cranked things to 11, Fury Road goes to 12. The central villain of the movie hasn’t just embraced car culture, he has made it into a religious experience for his followers, supped up rigs becoming holy relics, chariots for his followers (the War Boys) to ride into battle, promising a chromed out, muscle-carred valhalla to all those who die in his name. The main baddie himself, Immortan Joe, drives an ultra stylized monster of a rig (named The Gigahorse) powered by two “holy” V-8 engines. Joe’s cult is the ultimate conclusion of over-done car culture. His followers scream “Witness me!” before going (usually) to their death trying to perform some insane stunt along the lines of an extreme “He y’all, watch this!” They drive like mad and dance with death because ultimately they want their leader, whom they worship as a god, to find them worthy of his praise. Miller goes so over the top as to almost parody many of the aspects of car culture (fast cars, big engines, cool looking rides, insane stunts) and yet, in a way, some of it almost seems believable. There tends to be a lot of one-upmanship with people and cars, who is the fastest, who can do the craziest stunts, etc. that the war boys almost seem like the ultimate end to that.
While I think that while, on the whole, the Mad Max movies are a bunch of fun and crazy car action films, there is definitely a criticism to be had of car culture and the warning of going too far with something that runs throughout the franchise. In the real world there have been many cases of motorist violence and accidents caused by thrill seekers that, even as outlandish as the characters seems in the Mad Max universe, maybe they aren’t too far off. Things tend to get weird in places where society breaks down even a little. Who’s to say that as we start running lower on oil, and people get more desperate to keep their own ride, or for that matter their way of life going, thing don’t go a little crazy on the roads? Hopefully our attempts as a society to move away from combustion and toward cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy will also steer us away from “The fastest, the biggest, the meanest” cars in favor of more efficient, cleaner, and economic vehicles. Eventually moving us away from a world where Mad Max would be even possible. Because, really, can you see a smart car putting along in a wasteland at the end of the world?