A Very Australian Apocalypse:

Mad Max: Fury Road

This is the way the world ends:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Luckily for cinema audiences, George Miller does not agree with T.S. Eliot. Mad Max Fury Road is very, very loud. It bangs, it shrieks, it bellows. It is set on a desert landscape that breeds madness. In Mad Max the world is dying and it is angry.

Now, when I say an Australian Apocalypse, it’s worth noting Miller’s capstone to his Mad Max trilogy was filmed outside his home country. Fury Road is Broken Hill by way of the deserts of Namibia, where the shoot relocated. A distraught then-New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees in 2011 protested the move, revealing himself quite the fan of the films, following the unsought environmental recovery.

Translation – it actually rained in Broken Hill.
Then, horror of horrors, true blue Aussie Mel Gibson was replaced in the lead role of Max by Englishman Tom Hardy.

What a betrayal of an Australian classic!

Thankfully, Miller has delivered a visually stunning, action-packed piece of entertainment that is not only faithful to the original trilogy – it throws down the gauntlet to film-makers in Hollywood to match its success. He even balances the international stars, Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult, with recognizable Australian performers and character actors such as John Howard, Megan Gale, Angus Sampson and Gillian Jones.

The film itself is not only an action movie masterpiece, leaving the CGI-driven blockbusters of today gasping in its dust with the insane stunt work, but a reaffirmation: in genre terms, Australia owns the post-apocalypse.

Australian science fiction novel On the Beach is a codifier for many of the genre tropes – the title is taken from Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men quoted above – in literature. The plot features worldwide nuclear fallout, state-facilitated suicide for citizens dying from radiation poisoning and a by now familiar weary fatalism. A line of descent can easily be drawn from Nevil Shute’s writing to the shocking nihilism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Cinematically Miller’s one, two, three punch of increasingly barren wastelands occupied by revved up cars and heavy vehicles further solidified that association.

The Mad Max trilogy spawned imitations from the director’s Australian exploitation cinema peers, and then onwards to the likes of Patrick Swayze’s Steel Dawn or Luc Besson’s Le Dernier Combat. In comics the influence of Mad Max is indelible, from Britain’s 2000AD and Milligan/McCarthy’s Freakwave (like a salmon returning to its spawning grounds, Brendan McCarthy is credited as a writer on Fury Road), to local books in Oz such as Gestalt’s Broken Line and Ben Michael Byrne’s Kranburn.

Even Crossed, that violent reaction against post-apocalypse survivalist fiction, has a storyline set in Australia. Simon Spurrier’s 2013 Special has a vehicle criss-crossing the Outback with a precious cargo on board. The story’s setting hints at Mad Max 2’s influence, whereas the plot element of women being used as sexual chattel anticipates Fury Road.

Mad Max therefore has been in the DNA of every twisted, black and hopeless vision of our future on a resource-depleted Earth in pop culture since 1979.

Miller’s films are not only impressive for how succinctly they captured that sense of futurist anxiety, but also in their Australian-ness, specifically in how they treat concepts of class and authority.

Whether haunted by the spectre of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, or the post 9/11 fears of terrorism at home and abroad, the mid-Atlantic treatise of genre fiction between US and UK creators is to explore what authority means at the end of the world. The hero of The Walking Dead claims authority as a lawman when the very concept of law is obsolete; in 28 Days Later Alex Garland made explicit the compromise Britain has struck with its military forces, turning a blind eye to atrocities and rape in the name of the greater good.

Australian fiction resonates with these American and British concepts, but has a local inflection all of its own. In part this can be traced back to the colony’s status as one of the Dominion nations. Despite the unique development of Australian metropolitan centres – see Eleri Harris’ great comic The Utopian City That Wasn’t for a quick summary – innovative solutions to problems of infrastructure in harsh environments, and diverse voices in the arts and sciences, Australians would continue to be dismissed as a nation of former criminals.

The defining national moment for Australia was her involvement in the First World War. Britain called on the country to supply soldiers to fight in Europe and in the Gallipoli campaign. This was intended to be the country’s entry to the world stage, with much political hay being made from wartime rhetoric and appeals to Empire. Instead the disastrous and poorly planned Gallipoli landing came to symbolise the under-dog status of the Australian soldier, referred to as Diggers. The clear condescension of British commanders fed into a rich anti-authoritarianism within the Australian military mindset.

Having set up the fight overseas as a defining moment in the country’s development – journalist and official historian of the conflict Charles Bean is quoted as saying “it was on the 25th of April 1915 that the consciousness of nationhood was born” – the anti-authoritarian, egalitarian and gallows-humoured Digger became the centre of the Australian sense of itself.

Not a loyal soldier of the Empire, but a man with his mates in a hopeless situation. The Australian wartime concept of ‘mateship’ is both egalitarian and fatalistic to its core.

Tom Hardy dispenses with his own Rick Grimes claim to authority in the opening narration of Fury Road. He used to be a cop, he tells us, but now he is the one who runs from the living and the dead. He is haunted by guilt over his deceased loved ones and does not trust in any possibility of settlement. The tragedy of Max is that he has learned fighting the end of the world is hopeless. Recall this conversation from the first film between our ‘hero’ and his colleague Fifi –

-They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!

-Ah, Fif. Do you really expect me to go for that crap?

-You gotta admit I sounded good there for a minute, huh?

In that short exchange Miller gives us an echo of the hard lesson learned by Aussies in Gallipoli about what it means to die for a cause.

The Australian national sense of self runs through in 1979’s Mad Max, with its comical cops in fetish gear and violent biker gangs that are also shown to be childlike in their sadism and cruelty. The Australian post-apocalypse of Mad Max 2 and Beyond Thunderdome is one of hand-to-mouth survival and hastily assembled community (“Bartertown”). Max Rockatansky is also a name that elides any Anglo-Saxon influence from Britain.

Somehow Miller has delivered a fully realized world of characters in Fury Road with only the occasional hint of exposition – and that is largely due to Max’s own singular identity as the one who runs throwing every other character on screen into relief.  Costuming and invented slang largely stand in for world building, with refreshing results. Fury Road is very much a film that exists in the moment. It is a self-contained world of madness and violence, with culture and religion present only as ad hoc reactions to the harsh sun-baked environment.

The film begins and ends with blood been drawn from Max. In one instance he is a ‘blood bag’, being drained for a sickly ‘warboy’; the other has him choose to provide his own blood to save someone. The pragmatism of the sadistic warboy cult ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bryne), who controls access to blood, water and breast-milk, is contrasted with Max’s decision to save a life instead of moving on. In Fury Road the ability to survive at all costs trumps authority, but it also affords Max the ability to choose. His is a pragmatism of one man alone.

Max has no interest in saving the world, or even saving a small part of it for himself. His sole instinct is to run. “Hope is a mistake” he mutters to Charlize Theron’s fascinatingly complex Imperator Furiosa, a woman who is a victim of Immortan’s regime, but has risen to the rank of his most trusted lieutenant. He grudgingly accompanies her on her quest to find a safe haven for the rescued brides, but their last moment together hints at the temporariness of any reprieve. Nothing can last in the wasteland and Max will never stop running.

It is that scepticism of a promised better tomorrow, invention and sense of ‘mateship’ when under attack from the enemy that informs the spare and lean plot of Mad Max Fury Road and locates it within the rich cultural canon of Miller’s homeland. The desert sands on screen may be from Namibia, but the soul of this film is truly Australian.

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Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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