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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

the best Mad Max film and why you should care

Updated: 4 days ago

Ranking George Miller's Five Mad Max Films from Wonky to Genius

For many film lovers like myself, George Miller represents two things. First, a rogue bootstrapping style of risky small budget filmmaking with a personal signature that is all but lost in the modern franchise film era. Second, a return to action and form (not content) as the primary use of the visual language of cinema.


Miller once said, "With the first Mad Max I basically wanted to make a silent movie, with sound, the kind of movie Hitchcock would say they didn't have to read the subtitles in Japan." Like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Miller's movies succeed by their energetic movement and their lyrical rhythm. They don't have to be explained with logic; the images and editing can be felt emotionally with their pure kinetic force just as one feels the exhilaration of watching a cheetah hunting at top speeds or a spacecraft blasting into orbit. Miller's movies might have sound, but he is a spiritual descendant of silent film.


Moviemaking today, even within the action genre, is dominated by a need to explain and adhere to a rational structure. Dialogue is often expository. Characters are pieces on a narrative chessboard designed to satisfy some inane plot directive. Go from Point A to Point B to satisfy the 2nd Act Arc of the Hero's Journey and get MacGuffin object #3. I believe story is important but cinema can be something else. Something sensory and emotional like a dream.

It is this incessant need to rationalize art which Nietzsche criticized in his 1872 book The Birth of Tragedy. In the book, Nietzsche says this demand for people's actions to be rationally justified, quantified, and reasoned, what he attributed to Socratic Rationalism, came to ruin Greek art after the decline of Greek Tragedy. Nietzsche liked Greek Tragedy because in it the higher order of rational structure (what he called Apollonian elements) and the emotional and primal forces of life (what he called the Dionysian elements) were perfectly balanced. The chorus often represented the Dionysian spirit and the individual actors often represented the Apollonian; this allowed the mode of art to express the harsh realities of suffering and transcend them through something higher. But soon the Apollonian elements and their need to rationalize came to dominate the Dionysian elements. Nietzsche says this sapped the vitality and spiritual essence from Greek art.


I tell this story because I think it is a rough analogy for the way our modern plot-driven, exposition-heavy movies came to dominate an older (and I believe more pure) form of filmmaking which relied on showing the world the way the human eye saw things and then using the techniques of montage and editing to assign a new lyrical meaning to the action. The masters of this were directors like Dziga Vertov and his Kino-Eye approach and Buster Keaton and his tense chase films like The General (1926) where slapstick comedy and nail-biting stunt work shock the senses without a word of dialogue.

Miller's mechanized survival films draw their power from the same source. But they aren't all created equal, and some installments of the saga faltered and lost their way. In the following list I'll rank each from least to best and explain how I believe each film fits into the description of George Miller's work I have laid out above:


5TH PLACE - AN ACHIEVEMENT IN FANTASY WORLD-BUILDING BUT THE WORST IN THE SERIES

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Thunderdome has the most spell-binding world-building of any of the Mad Max films with a Star Wars-esque attention to mysticism and anthropology. In other films we get a shot or two of other tribes and ways of life that have grown out of the toxic soil of the wasteland. But inThunderdome we explore a new civilization with politics, commerce, even an aesthetic culture. Caravans of camels traffic goods into Bartertown run by pig waste and fueled by an entire subterranean realm of oppressive masters and slaves. A system of justice has been established where two offenders must fight to death in a gladiator arena to settle disputes. Unfortunately, despite this promising first act of the film, the second act veers into a Disneyfied adventure movie helmed by annoying kids and scored with kitschy 80s leitmotifs.


On one hand, I love the new fantasy direction Miller takes with this. The opening sequence is inspired by Lean's Lawrence of Arabia with a puddle jumper attacking a line of camels set to an Arabized didgeridoo while the closing sequence is an homage to the chase in Ford's Stagecoach. I wanted to see more of this fascinating and bizarre world, part Old West part alien planet.

On the other hand, I think Miller lost track of (or consciously suppressed) the often disturbing B-movie exploitation sensibility that made this saga so unique. It might have been filtered out of this installment to appeal to a wider 1980s audience and even the final Stagecoach chase gets hamstrung tonally by the quirky kids wielding frying pans. Every time the colony of Peter Pan-esque child survivors is on screen, I felt disengaged by the film. The stakes are lowered, the nasty grit is neutralized, and the tension and violence that made Road Warrior so gripping is traded for what I have to imagine was an appeal to a mass audience of younger fans energized by the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones.


Tina Turner stardom and a hokey Disney “let’s go on a journey kids!” tone have taken the wheel and we lose on out on Miller being a freaky Aussie auteur crashing cars together in the desert with guys named Humungus.

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4TH PLACE - A NEW AESTHETIC DIRECTION FOR THE SAGA FALLS FLAT

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024)

One's opinion of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga will depend on the question: do you believe the enjoyment of Max Mad movies are in their sense of grounded realism? If so, I think you'll prefer films like Fury Road and Road Warrior, due to practical FX set pieces and weighty tangible violence from in-camera stunt work and choreography. If not, I think one can enjoy the more digital, uncanny valley quality of Furiosa for its own strengths. It is more abstract, at times almost verging on animation or a video game model. Some have said this is Miller taking his art in a new direction, with almost painterly expressionistic imagery. And I think the "imagery" of Furiosa is very strong: the visual metaphors and the places he puts the cameras. It is the "images" themselves and their artificial quality that I found lacking.


Much of the action can accurately be described as having a physically lighter quality and digital gloss. If the two ends of the spectrum are Road Warrior (one of the best practical FX movies of all time) where you can feel the weight and impact of every object on screen and Marvel superhero CGI sludge shot entirely inside on green screened studio lots, Furiosa is decidedly further away from Road Warrior than I would have liked. Fury Road hid its use of CGI cleverly, further delivering the illusion that these were real warriors in a chase to the death. Furiosa often draws attention to its own CGI, especially when Furiosa's character is a young girl and she is shot, lit, and staged like some kind of anime character from a Studio Ghibli film. This new visual direction is not for me but that doesn't mean others won't like it.

In addition to the images, I also had some reservations about the story. George Miller once said, “Action is the purest use of the film language. All the syntax of cinema is best revealed in action sequences." There's a 12 minute action sequence where Octoboss and his raiders attack the War Wig that is stunning and extremely satisfying because it tells any entire story between two characters using no dialogue. I appreciated how Miller shows the resourcefulness needed to survive in the apocalypse in small character moments like when Furiosa’s Mother changes a tire or when one of Dementus’ gang members saves moisture. But outside of this 12 minute action sequence I mentioned (and the Bullet Farm sequence), Furiosa is less rockem sockem non-stop kinetic collision and a more character-based film.


This is partly because Furiosa is the first film in the series to cover 15 years, to attempt a sweeping epic that reveals a character’s whole life and all the decisions that defined them. Past Mad Max films took place in the timetable of days, showing only slices of character’s lives, hinting at the periphery with flashbacks. We didn't have to be fully involved in Max's life in Road Warrior; we just had to get in the car, shut up, and watch him drive. Furiosa's timetable changes this as we are now required to be deeply invested in her personal arc to stay engaged, in her emotional traumas, in her odyssey to return to a homeland we barely see. And this for me is a weakness in a film that has fundamentally nothing profound to say about revenge, or about post-apocalyptic life, or about a woman's trauma. Older Mad Max films weren't "profound," they were something better, visually arresting and entertaining. By placing this burden of character and story on Anya Taylor-Joy's Furiosa, the film runs itself into a dead end.


The more digital, simulated images and this requirement to invest oneself in Furiosa's "journey" when she's not written as an especially fascinating protagonist all combine to make Furiosa's 2-and-half hour runtime become all to noticeable. There are great action sequences in here, and Miller has never lost his touch for an almost theatrical choreography and staging, but I prefer the older more grounded installments that relied less on character and more on kinetic action.

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3RD PLACE - THE MIDDLE OF THE PACK, A MIXED BAG OF WONKY AND GENIUS

Mad Max (1979) - 3rd Place

The original Mad Max is very messy but the brilliant seeds of the saga can be seen just below the surface; a student film version of Road Warrior with less kinetic confidence but that same Ozploitation camp sensibility of thespian hot rodders, disturbing yet electrifying violence, and the western genre ethos of a man bent on revenge, stealing out for the desert horizon.


But the film is beleaguered by stop-and-go pacing and a terribly wonky scoring which ruins much of the emotion for me and took away from the more heartfelt scenes with Max and his girlfriend. Sometimes it seems the composer was watching an entirely different movie, or maybe a cheesy soap opera, while scoring it. In tune with Miller's philosophy, I think the film would be much stronger as a silent film, where the action could speak for itself without this tonal reinterpretation. There is a powerful sense of dread in the picture. It makes sense that Miller got the idea for Max's story from his time as a physician treating car-crash victims when a policeman attended his own son’s fatal accident.

One thing I really appreciate about the film is how it drops us in media res of societal collapse, not fully apocalyptic like Fury Road but definitely not in a functioning state. It never explains this, instead leaving the viewer to infer what has gone wrong in the world to lead to this vigilante gang regime. I later learned the dystopian future setting was chosen due to budgetary constraints.


Miller said, "we realized we couldn’t afford to block off streets, we couldn’t afford extras, we couldn’t afford to go into buildings. It was very low budget. Just to solve it, we put ‘A few years from now’ and went into a dystopian world so we could shoot in empty backstreets on the edges of town, we could go into buildings that were basically dilapidated. They gave it to us for nothing. And that inadvertently took the film from a probably unlikely story of contemporary Melbourne at the time into allegory.” It's the film that started it all, but I think the idea was improved in later installments.

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2ND PLACE - PERFECT ACTION IN A FALLEN WORLD

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Much has been written about the epic stunt work and action set pieces which set new standards for the industry, bringing the dystopian Buster Keaton analogy to new heights. But in addition to the genius of its visual language, I'm also interested in the social aspect of Miller's auteur vision, namely how Miller sees Fury Road as an "anthropological documentary" on the culture of a post-apocalyptic tribe.


What is the story of the villain Immortan Joe? Scarcity has turned back the clock to the Dark Ages and returned man to a cult-like obsession with God. Rising from the ashes, Immortan has shaped men into tools for destruction by erasing their individual identities. Like the kamikaze of Imperial Japan, this ability allows Joe to rule a collectivized society where any one of his subjects would sacrifice their lives in an instant. This isn't Humungus' gang in Road Warrior, a few mohawked raiders brought together by a common goal to plunder. Immortan Joe's influence on his people injects a Biblical quality to Fury Road: it is battle between ontological good and evil. Out of all the influences and archetypes, T. S. Eliot’s words from 1948 speak to the spirit of the story: “[we are] destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans."

This film has the best set pieces of any Mad Max film and it’s not even close. During scenes like the sandstorm tornado, you can feel Miller kick his brilliant choreography into overdrive; it is still one of the most visually stunning sequences I've ever seen. If there was any doubt before this movie that action can be the best use of the visual language of cinema, I think this put it to rest.

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1ST PLACE - MILLER'S MAGNUM OPUS

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

This movie is like getting punched in the face by pure sandy gas-powered kinetic force yet the camerawork is so elegant and resourceful it’s somehow shot like both a Sergio Leone post-apocalyptic western epic and a splattery grindhouse drive-in B movie.


While I agree Miller’s set pieces reach even more brilliant levels of choreography and in-camera affects in Fury Road, the sensibility of that film feels decidedly more polished and safe for “Hollywood” consumption. I much prefer the raw aesthetic of this exploitation chase film where many character moments feel like they’ve been borrowed from a John Waters or Roger Corman shoot and establishing wides look like some dime store fantasy novel about feudal desert lords brought to life.


This wonderful grit enlivens the world of the movie with a greater sense of authentic possibility; I never knew what I was going to see or grapple with in the next frame from disturbing acts of violence to wacky Outback vagabonds like the Gyro pilot.


This isn’t just brilliant set design; it’s Miller’s hectic and schizophrenic camerawork which whips us from flamethrower explosions to bloody punches to little feral children with machete boomerangs all while maintaining a sense of the spatial relationships between the camera’s subjects. This is Miller’s gift he brings to cinema: like De Palma, his mind’s eye knows exactly where to put the camera to maximize the kinetic impact AND to orient the subjects in the viewer’s mind with highly legible, expertly blocked and framed action.

There’s a split second shot where a car rips a tent off two bikers from Humungus’ gang who are having sex and the camera shows them both naked and confused for a second before centering back on the chase. It’s these kinds of zany visual jokes and weird character moments that give Mad Max 2 its unique flavor. As a kid who grew up loving Fallout: New Vegas, I can tell that game’s darkly comic sensibility and patchwork post-apocalypse aesthetic borrowed heavily from this film and I’m glad it did.


A double-barreled, chaotic fantasy action masterpiece with some of the strongest car chases in movie history (rivaled only by Friedkin and Frankenheimer) and a uniquely funky world dreamed up from the mind of Miller’s childhood in rural Queensland and the 1973 oil shortage that sparked the question: how long until civilization collapses when the gas runs out?

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Thank you for reading. What do you think? Disagree with my ranking? Think Furiosa is the best one yet? Let me know: milesvstephenson@gmail.com

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