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Long Before Furiosa, Mad Max Established George Miller as a Visionary in the Making

Let's take a look back at the Mad Max franchise's very first entry and why it matters more than ever.

By Matthew Jackson
Max Rockatanksy (Mel Gibson) stands in front of a yellow car in Mad Max (1979).

In Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron's Furiosa thinks back to a Green Place where she was born, where she was meant to keep living if not for the people who took her away, a place where there was food and peace and love to which she longs to return. As she tells this story, we see Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) react with sympathy, with a hint of feeling in his cold, always alert eyes. 

Because, you see, Max also once had a green place, and as the Mad Max franchise gets a new origin story with Furiosa, it's worth remembering how things all began. 

Now streaming on PeacockMad Max marked the feature directorial debut of George Miller when it arrived in 1979, almost exactly 45 years ago, and right away the filmmaker established himself as a powerful presence in the world of action and science fiction. Like other films in the franchise, Mad Max operates from a place of relative simplicity in terms of its plotting, preferring instead to let the characters' emotional journeys chart the course of the story and, of course, to let the fast cars do the talking. Even 45 years ago, though, with a smaller budget, a cast without global action stars, and a more restrained vision of a darkening future, Miller proved to be a visionary in the making, and that means Mad Max still functions as a landmark film.

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The Legacy of Mad Max

Though we tend to associate the franchise with the desert landscapes and wasteland attire of Mad Max 2 and, eventually, Fury Road, the saga actually begins in a much more muted (by Miller's standards) time in Max's life. When we meet him, played by a very young Mel Gibson in just his second feature film, Max's life is much more stable than what it will become in sequels. He has a job with one of the last operational law enforcement agencies in an increasingly chaotic world, he has a nice home, he has a wife (Joanne Samuel), and he even has coworkers whose company he enjoys. It's a real life, one re-emphasized by the landscape surrounding him. Here, there are no wastelands, no full-on deserts devoid of all life save for the riding marauders. The world is still green, still persisting even as humanity works to destroy it, and while there are hints of what the franchise will become, Max and the ones he loves are still able to enjoy the world as it is. 

But Max, of course, can't enjoy that world for long. In terms of plot, Mad Max is a pretty straightforward revenge story, following a gang led by a man called Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne in bone-chilling villain mode) as they try to bring down Max and his partner for their role in killing another member of the gang. It's a scenario that allows for plenty of car chases and action mayhem, and even here there are flashes of the kind of action mastermind Miller would later become. He doesn't have the tools that would arrive with sequels, but it often doesn't matter. All Miller really needs is a car, a camera, and an instinct for pacing that makes him one of the best genre filmmakers alive, and Mad Max moves with the frantic, invigorating energy that would come to define the entire series.

Miller's mastery of the action, and his grasp of the worldbuilding in Mad Max, combine to create a powerful sense of contrast humming through the film, something that echoes down through the entire series and particularly matters in the later films. These are action movies about wasteland car chases and battles, yes, but they're also very human journeys about what's been lost, and what's worth saving. In Mad Max, Miller gives us a harrowing, tragic vision of a man who's set to lose everything, and therefore must find what's worth saving when all seems lost. It's wrapped in the sometimes pulpy, always garish realm of '70s action, but that meaning is still there in this early film, and that makes it a perfect launching pad for one of the most ambitious franchises in sci-fi history.

Mad Max is now streaming on Peacock.