Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Anti-Blockbusters: Mad Max 2 - The Road Warrior

With the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road (the fourth film in the franchise) due out on May 15th, I though it would be worth pulling out this Anti-Blockbuster piece I previous did on The Road Warrior.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

The dystopian film Mad Max came out back in 1979 with a then unknown Mel Gibson in the lead role and garnered some attention for its bleak vision of the future and themes focusing on the breakdown of society. But it was the sequel to this low budget film, Mad Max 2 (known in the states as The Road Warrior) that marked a significant milestone in movie-making when it came out in 1981. And in so doing it managed to achieve that rare feat of producing a follow-up film superior to the original.

The second film gives us a post-apocalyptic, western style movie set after society has collapsed even further than what we saw in Mad Max. We follow the former cop Max (Gibson) as he treks through the desert searching for fuel to keep his car running and avoiding the marauders that want to steal what little petrol he has. He meets up with a man flying a make-shift gyro-copter (played by Bruce Spence) who tells him about a factory nearby that has as much gas as he could want. The two head to the location (with Max having taken the gyro-pilot as his prisoner) but find it under siege from a gang of desert marauders led by their hockey-mask clad leader Humongous. Max helps one of the people from the compound, thus gaining entry to their fort and he asks for fuel in return. He then learns of their plan to flee from the compound with as much fuel as they can take and he tells them of a rig that he knows of that will haul their tanker. He retrieves the rig for them (sustaining some pretty serious injuries in the process) and plans to leave with the fuel that they promised him once he returns. However, he eventually decides to help them in their flight and agrees to drive the rig hauling the tanker as a distraction so that the others in the compound can escape and head to a promised land they believe lies to the north.

The Road Warrior delivers a bare-bones plot with little in the way of character development and much in the way of mayhem and destruction, but it did manages to distinguish itself on two very important points. First and most obvious is its stylized approach that basically established the look for the post-apocalyptic world (much the way that Blade Runner did for the dystopic world) through the 80’s and beyond. The punk-rock / leather-bondage appearance of the characters in the film, that has since been dubbed the Road Warrior-look, immediately set this film apart and set the visual vocabulary for movies of this type that would follow. That along with the chop-shop, throw-together vehicles added much to the visual appeal and legacy of the film.

Road Warrior’s second distinguishing point is the message that can be found within its subtext. This film did not try to make a grand statement or shout any pedantic messages at those watching. It was a bleak action film with a threadbare plot, but it resonated with audiences for a reason. Beneath the carnage and demolition-derby antics lay an austere, ironic message: in this despondent future, life is cheap, fuel is worth much more. And that spoke to the psyche of the audience at that time and still today because if you look back over the last few decades you can see where this has played itself out in world affairs. This movie connected with its viewers on a sub-conscious level in a way that other films like 1956’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1988’s They Live, did by touching on the deeper, hidden anxieties of their times. The visual appeal of the film definitely helped draw the audience in, but that underlying message kept it alive and boiling beneath the surface well after the closing credits rolled.

The Road Warrior was definitely not a big budget production, though it had a healthy amount of funds for an Australian production (4 million Australian dollars, ten times what Mad Max cost). Still, most of that went into the scenes depicting vehicular destruction and the film does have somewhat of a cheesy feel to it. But that does not detract from it, and in fact it actually lends to the overall atmosphere. The same can be said for the sparse character development. We get little to help us understand what motivates the characters in the film beyond their base needs and urges. But the very adept cast fills in the blanks quite often with their performances. For example, we see this in the reactions from Max and the gyro-pilot when they watch the marauders attack a couple fleeing from the compound. Max may have drifted pretty far from the conventions of the civilized world, but we can see from his reactions to the violence he witnesses that he has not completely lost touch with his humanity. Little bits like this are peppered throughout the film, giving it a touch more depth than you might expect.

And while the movie is fueled mostly by machismo and testosterone, it does not fall apart without that. There is more beneath the surface even if it does not try to belabor us with proselytizing or grand-standing. And because it was made outside of the Hollywood machine, it was not bound by the conventions expected from major studios. For that reason, it succeeded in traversing new ground and setting the bar for films similar to it, and ultimately the Hollywood juggernaut would follow the lead set by this small-time, indie outsider.

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