Long live Mad Max, demigod of our post-apocalyptic nowhere

On May 15th, the fourth installment of George Miller’s dystopian Mad Max film series, Fury Road, will land, and from the moment the trailer arrived and ignited a kind of adrenal curiosity in all who viewed it, it was apparent that not much of the Mad Max formula has changed. There will be vehicles with spikes on them. There will be roads, somehow, decades after the discontinuation of road maintenance. There will be desert, endlessly. There will be motion, constantly. And there will be violent, metallic collision served up as the delicious base of a stew that will make J.G. Ballard absolutely coital.

And thank god nothing’s really changed, because in the Mad Max films we’re returned to a kind of propulsive storytelling that is elegant, even for all of its violence; simple, even for the complexity of fears it provokes; and very much in both of those ways like a videogame. Oodles of words have been spilled on the supposed deficiencies in videogame storytelling, or at least the ways in which videogames aren’t like books and movies, but even after all of these decades, watching Mad Max still feels a little bit like playing a videogame, and the story it’s telling seems like something essential spoken in animal tongues. Is it a coincidence that the original trilogy found an audience alongside the introduction of home game consoles, and today’s iteration when the industry now out-earns movies themselves?

The Mad Max films rely heavily on two concepts: peripatetic movement, or a sense of placelessness, and scrounging through perpetual scarcity. In these two concepts we can understand the way modern videogames learn from films like Mad Max because of the way the pacing and flow of these films pings signals of recognition: Max moves through his world with the same dynamics of our navigation through game space, and his world is the blank canvas unto which dynamic movement is projected.

Unlike other cult dystopian films, which rely on our preexisting knowledge of a place against which to contrast the filmmakers’ darker speculations—think Escape from New YorkMad Max takes place in a kind of nation-less, regionally unspecific desert wasteland crisscrossed by highways and loosely policed by the crumbling remnants of a police force. We understand that the movie was shot and takes place in the Australian outback, but those facts are incidental to the aesthetic nullity of sand and sky, which stretch out endlessly.

In the original Mad Max (1979), Max has a tangential relationship with location. It’s understood that there are cities, and Max’s family frequents businesses you might find in our world today, like an ice-cream shop. It’s only after the murder of his family, and his subsequent descent into titular madness, that the movie ends with Max pushing out into the desert landscape—a kind of negation of the identities we forge around places. In the act of self-exile, he becomes like the videogame avatar, container of the player’s thoughts and interests, of the placeless and faceless world and imbued from then on with the impulse to movement. At the end of Mad Max, Max becomes “The Road Warrior,” which would also be the name of the 1981 sequel.

scarcity drives movement, and movement mitigates scarcity

The key dynamic of the series, at least in its earliest iterations, is movement. Bands of marauders are in constant search of prey, and the prey is in constant search of escape, which creates the conditions for a never-ending car chase. Max, untethered from the notions of family, state, and city, becomes the wanderer without destination, for whom movement is the both the means and the end. This is significant in the context of videogames because we rarely find ourselves in a game interested in exploring just one place: one is offered either the journey or dynamic, propulsive, ever-flowing movement, like the push of the side-scrolling game’s invisible wall, or the upward, endless swoop of the top-down shooter over a non-specific scroll of wallpaper buildings. The Mad Max trilogy finds its narrative defined by the energetic confluence of antagonistic forces, as does the player pushing right or up, the enemies, be they spaceships or tiny mushroom men, pushing left or down but always mercilessly forward.

Against this blank canvas what might first be understood as a rote tale of debauched criminality and inevitable vigilante justice just gets plain weird. You might say that weirdness is only possible because of that canvas’ blankness. I think of Francis Ford Coppola saying of Apocalypse Now that his film wasn’t about the Vietnam War, but that it was the Vietnam War, and if we indulge that train of thought and wonder if the jungle is a state of mind, I’m fascinated by the parallels between the jungle and a road cutting straight through desert over the horizon. What kind of mindset is that meant to evoke?

It’s here where we find Max marooned in a kind of purgatorial nothingness, as if the game avatar were now stranded in a development environment. The locations involved in The Road Warrior are, basically, a refinery with resources, and everywhere else—which is to say nowhere—without them. At least until the movie’s resolution, which involves migration to an idealized coast and its supposed stability and safety, Max navigates a series of conflicts rather than a series of locations. There is only the conflict in motion, and the underpinning hope that someplace better exists. We see this playing out across post-apocalyptic narratives, from The Last of Us to The Walking Dead. The characters travel endlessly toward a sense of belonging, a place to build and to last, but the point of the story, like the point of a game, is the travel.

Looking at the titular character, the implication is that when left with only the self and its animal impulses, one descends inevitably into madness. This is echoed by the reigning aesthetic of Borderlands, a game in a similar desert, and where everyone is violently mad. “My name is Max,” Tom Hardy intones in that trailer, “and my world is fire and blood,” and far from evoking horror, that world is totally familiar to us. I was reminded as I re-watched the Mad Max trilogy of the various characters and prevailing aesthetic of the Borderlands series, in which characters engage in cyclical conflict for the purpose of collecting weapons so as to better engage in cyclical combat. George Miller seems to understand the prevailing experience of some types of gaming, the visceral experience of conflict and adrenaline, and if that’s true then it seems important to note that he did so decades before any system existed that could simulate this vision.

The last of the original Mad Max trilogy, 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, was, in many ways, a renege on the series’ feeling of recurring violence. It not only was rated PG-13 after the previous two’s R ratings—necessitated, I’m sure, by their various scenes of torture—but also imposed the notion of a finite and understood location in the otherwise placeless desert Outback. The locations in this film—Bartertown, where people, uh, barter, the gladiatorial arena of Thunderdome itself, and a post-apocalyptic Sydney—begin to root the Mad Max mythology in specificity. It’s not that Beyond Thunderdome is a bad movie, per se, but it does feel like it distances itself from the essential admixture of the first two, the stripped-down perfection of violent movement, and even the title—“beyond,” as if we’re meant to get past the location of Thunderdome (or maybe the movie itself), to push back out into the desert—seems like a kind of apology.

The original movies, informed by the 1973 oil crisis, have only become more acute in our political consciousness today. This sense of scarcity pervades modern games, too. Resource management has come to be understood as a fundamental principle of playing videogames, be it conservation of ammo or saving a red shell or nitro-boost for an opportune moment. There’s a scene in The Road Warrior where Max has only a few shotgun shells and has to use them sparingly, a refreshing take on the action hero’s usual spray of machine gun bullets in all direction, and throughout the series he’s talked into doing the right thing with the promise of fuel, though his destination is never outlined. I kept thinking Max might smash a crate or whip a candle and find a turkey sandwich inside to restore his health, or, when killing a marauder, might simply step over his corpse to collect bullets.

marooned in a kind of purgatorial nothingness

The two interdependent forces of movement and scarcity form the grace and perfection of Miller’s immensely watchable vision. This isn’t about how the apocalypse came out, or city-building strategies to return civilization to its former glory. This isn’t about politics or intrigue or gossip or love interests. It’s about how scarcity drives movement, and movement mitigates scarcity. Religions form around the notion of both resources and the movement resources make possible.

The 1990 Mad Max videogame, which was mostly terrible, at least got this much right. As Max you run around monotone labyrinths picking up fuel and keys, then you get in your car to drive to the next location so you can do it all again. It wasn’t able to simulate the frenetic energy of near-collision and sudden vehicular decapitation, but it was a kind of formal distillation of the Mad Max ethos. It was so distilled, in fact, that it was almost meta in the way its gameplay mirrored a huge, huge number of games in the 1990s (get power-ups, avoid or kill enemies, move to the next level) while also being totally, totally true to the spirit of the movie from which it derived its branding. One hopes that the forthcoming Mad Max game, a tie-in to Fury Road, can get as much right by focusing on these bare-bone dynamics.

The Mad Max series seems like it should have less to say over time, not more, but in avoiding the datedness of specificity, be it of location or politics, the movies remain essential watching, and really, really fun. We’re at no loss for dystopian narrative, from our movies to comics to videogames, but there’s something about the purity of Miller’s vision—a smear of red, a blur of speed, like an abstract painting in the hall of Romantics—that speaks a language so guttural we can all understand.