I grew up with the George Miller post-apocalyptic tales of Max Rockatansky, former pursuit specialist cop-turned dystopian Road Warrior. Through a series of Mad Max movies, the character survived one perilous descent after another into a world gone mad. The series, often imitated and never quite matched in tone or “pure” brutality, Miller’s Mad Max series is being given new life with a future film starring Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson as the leather clad anti-hero.
With the new Mad Max trailer (embedded below) the imagery is a color saturated maelstrom of automotive mayhem splashed across an Australian desert. A single shot among the chaos of metal and dust caught my eye. A group of painted, gaunt figures in ecstatic gesticulations with skull adorned steering wheels hoisted above their heads.
This image of society in full collapse, breeding in a contaminated wasteland, but finding a faith amid hell is intriguing.
In Mad Max, society is on the precipice of total collapse. Their are functionaries left, like police and public safety, even small towns clinging to free market normalcy. But stalking these institutions and people, are outlaw gangs of unmatched brutality. In Mad Max we learn the roads are the battlefields for humanity. One by one, men and women fall prey to savage biker gang leader Toecutter. This is the fall, where normalcy and hopes die on the outback asphalt. It’s also the least theologically laced film. Seems God or gods have walked away from humanity in Mad Max, leaving a highway anti-Christ to pick away the souls too weak or too slow to flee.
By the sequel, The Road Warrior humanity has been blow torched away by war, left to rot in the deserts. In this film Max finds group salvation embodied in two forms: Humongous and gasoline. The former is a scarred, deformed hulk in a hockey mask and little else. He commands his berserker minions to carry out unspeakable acts in the name of fuel to power their machines. Humongous is the next degeneration of Toecutter, irradiated and muscle bound, capable of savagery in the name of survival. His gang encircles and pursues a small enclave of survivors who have turned to gasoline as their savior. This is striking as on the face of it the tanker is guarded with fury and determination reserved for an otherworldly preciousness.Gasoline takes on a supernatural quality, becoming manna, capable of guiding and sustaining these souls lost in an infernal desert. It is a subtle idea, as basic survival of marauding hordes dominates the narrative, but the gasoline feeds hope, lust or greed in every player in The Road Warrior.
By the third installment, Beyond Thunderdome, pockets of humanity can be found in towns powered by pig excrement methane and run by gangs, like the cage-match-coliseum centered Bartertown. This is not the world of hope, it is merely a place to eat, drink and survive, just for a while longer. No, hope is hidden in a desert gully oasis where the child survivors of a plane crash have adapted a complex mythology for their survival and salvation. Led by a strong female character, acting as a form of shaman, we understand their history through cave paintings, highlighted by a bird feather and stick rectangle designed to echo a television screen. The cult of hope, seeking a savior who will return and guide them to paradise is heart breaking in simplicity and naivety. They await the Messianic “Captain Walker” to bring them home, echo strong elements of South Pacific “cargo cults” after World War II.To the children, Captain Walker is Max, deliverer to a new land out of the wasteland.The tribe’s leader performs a shamanistic ritual “Tell” of the collapse of mankind and their survival is a highly ritualized process and is sanctified by use of a children’s toy, View Master, to see a Shangri-La of past and future hopes. Max bucks these idealistic children with a cynicism born from years of blood and violence. There was no divine intervention for Rockatansky when his wife and child were killed on the highway by the Toecutter gang. Why should there be one for the kids? Here, twists and turns rewrite their juvenile understanding of their faith and along the way write a new reluctant savior into their evolving pantheon: Mad Max.
We finally arrive at Fury Road. While the plot remains roughly outlined, the trailer provides some ritualistic glimpses of a society rebuilding without a clear memory of what came before. A striking image of the War Boy cult dancing about an altar of car parts and steering wheels adorned with skulls. The steering wheel echoes an automotive mandala cluing into a possible a warrior monk caste born on the move, perpetually on the hunt. Could these gaunt marauders be custodians of a new faith where offerings of food and water to the god of gears are be rewarded with propulsion and power. These machines take on divine qualities after simple but potent tribute, gasoline. Will the Machine come to life and roar with monstrous power? These are not the qualities of idle machines, but rather gods and demons bound beneath shells of metal and rubber.
The Mad Max series shows society and culture devolve with each installment. It is about the worship of the machine and the mechanized destruction it can visit upon humanity. As the series evolves we see the bleakness change, becoming a strange reverence for the machine as savior. While the machine age led to the destruction of humanity, in the wasteland it has been mythologized, taking an inanimate object that can be roused to life with tribute and sacrifice.