Welcome, all, to the first installment of the Summer Series here at Reel to Reel Movies! A few months ago, I was lying around with a lot of time to think, and I started to ponder what kind of project I could bring to the blog this summer. After all, summertime really is the best time for me, as a teacher, to watch and comment on a lot of movies. This led me to thinking about my personal (expansive) DVD collection, which includes a lot of boxed sets and a lot of movies I’ve never seen. As I pondered, the idea finally came to me: I could use this as an excuse to watch and rewatch entire series of films, then discuss the way the movies developed over time. There will not be a regular schedule for this – I’ll post a new installment whenever I finish watching a series, but I’m hoping I can pull off a goodly number of these before the siren song of school lures me back in August.
With that said, let’s leap right into the first series of films for this experiment, a series whose newest installment is still in theaters: George Miller’s Mad Max. Although I was, of course, aware of the Mad Max movies, until a week ago neither I nor my wife, Erin, had ever seen any of them. With the latest installment getting rave reviews, though, Erin suggested that we try to track down the first three and then see the new one. We watched the original about a week ago, then the next two and the new one in a 24-hour period this weekend. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on each one. As always, Reel to Reel is a full spoiler zone, so if you haven’t seen these movies, particularly Fury Road, you may want to step back before you read all the way through.
Thoughts: As I said, this is my first time actually watching any of the Mad Max films, so this is a good time to mention just how much public perception of a franchise can be shaped by its legacy. What I knew going in was that Max was a leather-wearing, cool car-driving, desert-dwelling warrior in a post-apocalyptic landscape. What I didn’t know was that in this movie, the first one, the apocalypse hadn’t actually happened yet. Oh, it’s definitely impending. From the early moments of the film we get a sense of a society on the verge of collapse – but that collapse is still in the future. When we meet Max Rockatansky, played by Mel Gibson, he’s still a police officer, still trying to maintain law and order. The streets of the Australian community he’s trying to protect are under siege, however, by a vicious gang that rides around in the aforementioned cool cars. Their leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is something of a cartoon villain, not really wanting anything but chaos for the sake of chaos… that’s pretty much par for the course for the villains in this film, in fact.
Honestly, this is one of the rare occasions where (after having watched them all) the first movie is my least favorite in a series. It’s not bad, not at all, but it’s nothing compared to what the franchise would become as early as the next movie. The plot is fairly thin, showing a lead-up to one of those sci-fi dystopias that the movies promise can happen as early as this time next Thursday, depending on if it catches all the lights. The villains have no arc at all, and the hero’s arc is a fairly common, predictable one. Max is a cop who is driven to incredible acts of violence by crooks who assault, maim, or murder everyone who is close to him, including his partner, his wife, and his child. This obviously leads to one of those roaring rampages of revenge that Quentin Tarentino would grow up wanting to emulate. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done well, and Miller does do it well.
The film was made pretty cheap, but by late 70s standards it doesn’t look stark. There are good chase scenes and plenty of cars and stunts, more than enough for a viewer to believe every dime spent went on the screen. His script works well for what it is, showing pretty clearly that this movie takes place in a world where everything is going downhill. Maybe the best indicator of this is how casually Max’s son, “Sprog” (which is an Austrailian slang term for “baby” – the child’s name is never actually mentioned during the movie) picks up and plays with his father’s gun. I actually had glanced away from the screen at that moment, my attention immediately reclaimed when my wife yelped in terror.
Mad Max works, and it’s an okay movie, but I don’t think it’s anything special. If it weren’t for the fact that the sequels would turn out to be particularly spectacular, I don’t know if people would remember this one very much at all.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Terry Hayes & Brian Hannant
Cast: Mel Gibson, Kjell Nilsson, Emil Minty, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston, Vernon Wells, Virginia Hey, William Zappa
Thoughts: The first Mad Max was so forgettable in America that, when the sequel was released, it was only titled The Road Warrior over here, as the studio figured nobody saw the first one and they didn’t want people to get confused. This is actually a rare case of a studio marketing program doing something smart. Not only is The Road Warrior perfectly accessible whether you’ve seen the first movie or not, it would turn out to be part of a trend… none of the movies in this franchise are strictly beholden to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Erin and I watched all of them, but I’m here to tell ya that you can watch any Mad Max movie regardless of whether you’ve seen any of the others and still get a perfectly reasonable, understandable, and complete moviegoing experience.
More importantly, though, The Road Warrior is where Miller upped his game. He took a character from what had been little more than a mild exploitation movie and turned him into the hero that has largely defined the post-apocalyptic sci-fi subgenre ever since. In this movie, some years have passed since Max took his revenge on Toecutter, and in that time society’s collapse has become complete. With the world in a shambles following what is heavily implied to be a nuclear war (remember, this was 1981, nuclear war was Cinematic Boogeyman Number One), there is no government, no military, no civilization save that what is pieced together by small cliques of survivors. In this movie, Max gets caught up in a struggle between one such group – generally decent people desperately trying to survive by keeping an old gasoline refinery operational – and a \warlord intent on taking their resources for his own.
This would turn out to be part of a pattern for subsequent Max films. Although he’s the title character, he’s no longer strictly the protagonist. Rather, he’s the drifter, the wanderer, the Man With No Name archetype (almost literally – he has very little dialogue in this movie, and I honestly can’t remember if his name was ever actually said out loud) who wanders into a conflict between good villagers and the bullying overlord who threatens them, helps facilitate the real protagonist’s victory, and then wanders away. The only real continuity from one film to the next is Max himself, and Miller is incredibly good with this. The injuries Max suffered in the first film (a kneecap that gets shot, an arm severely wounded) leave their traces in this and subsequent movies, but not in such a way that a first-time viewer will feel like they’re missing part of the story.
The real protagonist in this movie is a little difficult to define, actually, but the role seems to be shared by the “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence) and the “Feral Kid” (Emil Minty). These are the two who interact the most with Max, grow the most from having come into contact with him, and in a small degree help him come back a bit from the cold, remorseless man he was at the end of the first movie. This is also where Miller’s storytelling skills first become apparent. Although it isn’t made explicit to people who are being exposed to the franchise for the first time, if you’ve seen the first movie it’s clear that Max views the Feral Kid as a sort-of substitute for his own long-dead child. In that way, Max’s arc in the movie becomes one of redemption, trying to make up for his failure to protect his own family by saving this new one, even if he can never truly join it.
This is also the film where the antagonists evolve from simple thugs to straight-up supervillains. Lord Humungus, so named because in the post-apocalyptic outback there’s no room for subtlety, is a mask-wearing barbarian, heavily burned and scarred. Although he, like Toecutter, is a brutal creature, it’s somehow more believable in this landscape. Once the apocalypse has happened, it’s easy to accept a warlord of his caliber willrise to power… although since I was four years old when this movie came out, I’m not sure if the entire reason that trope is so acceptable is because of the impact this movie had. At one point, I understand, the plan was for Humungus — played by Kjell Nilsson — to turn out to be Max’s tortured and burned former partner from the first film, but this was dropped for some reason. Honestly, I think that’s probably for the best, as that link would have made it far more difficult for this movie to stand on its own.
Of the three original movies, this is the one I think is the best. While the third installment clearly has a bigger budget and a flashier villain, this one has the strongest story. Miller and Gibson communicate volumes with very few words, but still craft a powerful and entertaining study of the characters and the world they now inhabit, while leaving you with a modicum of hope… even if that hope doesn’t specifically apply to Max Rockatansky.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directors: George Miller & George Ogilvie
Writers: George Miller & Terry Hayes
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Tina Turner, Frank Thring, Angelo Rossitto, Paul Larsson, Helen Buday
Thoughts: The third movie, which by far had the most impressive scenery and design of the original three, begins with Max being robbed by a pilot named Jedediah. The pilot is played by Bruce Spence. This has apparently caused a bit of controversy – many people believe that Spence, who also played the Gyro pilot in The Road Warrior, is playing the same character again. Others say that the voiceover narration at the end of that movie clearly spells out a future for the Gyro pilot that does not include ever encountering Max again. George Miller himself says that Jedediah and the Gyro pilot are not intended to be the same character, so I’ll take his word for it, but damned if he doesn’t make it confusing by having the only two people in this entire franchise who operating flying vehicles played by the same guy.
Anyway, Max makes his way to a place called Bartertown, where he hopes to find Jedediah and get his stuff back. Instead, he winds up in the company of Bartertown’s leader, a wild woman called Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, who Tina Turners the hell out of this movie). She’s been having a bit of a problem with “Master Blaster,” a duo who my wife Erin has found endlessly entertaining since we watched this movie Saturday morning. Master (Angelo Rossitto) is the one responsible for converting the city’s pig crap into methane, which their civilization needs to keep running, and he’s threatening to use his brutal buddy Blaster (Paul Larsson) to take over. Aunty offers to get Max’s stuff back for him if he takes care of Blaster in combat… in Thunderdome. When Max discovers that Blaster is mentally disabled, though, he’s unable to bring himself to kill the man, and winds up in exile. In the desert, he encounters a tribe of wild children, the survivors of a plane crash who believe Max is their long-lost pilot, who went to get help and never returned. Disheartened when he tells them that the world has collapsed, their leader Savannah (Helen Buday) takes a group to set out and find other people. Max knows they’re heading straight into Bartertown, and sets out to save them once again.
Of all the Mad Max films, this one probably has the most convoluted plot. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does require a bit more effort to follow than the pretty straightforward stories of the first two (or even the fourth, but we’ll get to that). It also takes a long time for Max to get to the true heroine of the film, Savannah, and her little civilization that she’s trying to keep intact.
That said, the stuff we see before we get to the kids is pretty great. Thunderdome (which I really thought would play a larger role in the movie than the one scene in which it is featured) makes for an awesome battle sequence. Max and Blaster, inside the metal dome, are tied to elastic bands and told to kill one another by any means necessary, including leaping up and grabbing the weapons placed in various places in the dome. The fight is well-staged and well-acted, but perhaps most importantly, it feels real. Most filmmakers today would use the elastic as an excuse to have Max doing high-flying superhero kicks and kung-fu moves that would be very difficult to believe in this weatherbeaten warrior. Miller, however, has Gibson and Larsson make moves that are impressive and fun to watch, but at the same time, never cross the border into being cartoonish or outlandish.
Aunty Entity is probably the most memorable villain in the franchise, at least at the time this movie came out, but I think that’s largely due to the fact that Tina Turner plays the role. She does a perfectly good job, don’t get me wrong, but if it weren’t such an out-there casting choice, I don’t think she’d overshadow Humungus one bit. Still, her role and the role of Bartertown are both important – they demonstrate that enough time has passed since the apocalypse that people are trying to find alternative societies, different ways of reconstructing civilization. These are important things, things that demonstrate that the world is moving on, and in many ways they set up the landscape for the fourth film. Of course, I don’t think Miller expected that it would be 30 years before he and Max returned to the outback.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whitley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton
Thoughts: After many years of false starts, this year Miller finally brought Max back to screens, this time with Tom Hardy taking over the role. It’s not really clear if this is intended to be a sequel or a total reboot of the franchise, but honestly, it doesn’t matter much. Like I said before, each of the films stands alone very easily.
This time out, Max is captured by a wild group of “War Boys” who discover he has type O blood. As a universal donor, he’s quickly hooked up and used to replenish the blood of one of their own, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as all of the War Boys suffer from radiation sickness. Their Citadel is run by a brutal man called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter way back in Mad Max and is now returning to the franchise). Immortan Joe not only hoards water and supplies, giving his people just enough to keep them alive, but also maintains a brothel full of beautiful wives. One of his lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) sets out on what appears to be a standard supply run, but it is soon discovered that she’s really trying to help the wives escape. Nux takes Max, his “blood bank,” with him as part of the party that’s set to recapture Furiosa, but Max frees himself, helps wreck Nux’s car, and the two of them wind up throwing in their lot with the women in their attempt to escape Joe and get to a “green place.”
This movie is getting all kinds of rave reviews, and I have to say, I think they’re well earned. The past three decades have seen Miller’s skill as a director increase by leaps and bounds, even as effects technology has caught up with his vision. Fury Road includes some of the most spectacular high-speed action sequences I’ve ever seen put to film – crashes, fights on the back of (or side of, or underneath) racing vehicles, and a crazy dude on the front of a car playing a flamethrowing guitar. The design aesthetic has increased as well, with the film still very recognizable as being part of the world of the previous two movies, but at the same time, done with a much higher budget that doesn’t feel wasted at all.
All that’s great, but it would be meaningless if it weren’t for the story and the performances. Tom Hardy’s Max isn’t quite the same as Mel Gibson’s. He’s not as hard-edged or crazy-eyed, but the different feel he brings to it works just as well. If there’s any word I would use to describe Hardy’s Max, it’s “tired.” He comes across very much as a man who has seen everything already, he’s sick of it, and he can’t believe he’s got to fight for his life and the lives of a bunch of strangers yet again. Hmm. When you look at it that way, it’s almost undeniably a sequel, isn’t it?
Charlize Theron’s status as a talented actress is already well-established, but she’s also a fearless one. She proved in Monster that she’s not afraid to get dirty for a movie, and here she does it again, shaving her head and making herself into a battle-hardened warrior woman, believable in every respect. Nicholas Hoult is an up-and-comer, doing good action work as the young Beast in the X-Men movies and a nice turn in the zombie romcom Warm Bodies, but here he’s got a totally different thing happening. He’s a crazy creature – all of the War Boys are – but he’s got sadness and a sense of loss as well. He’s like any person raised in a cult-like atmosphere who is shocked when he sees the larger world he’s been missing out on, and he gets that across remarkably well.
Speaking of the world, Miller has gone out of his way this time to prove that this is a world that has “moved on.” Despite the fact that a nuclear war occurred some time between the first two movies, this is the first time that any sort of radioactive fallout has had a significant presence in the movie. The War Boys are all ill – Nux has even named his tumors – and early on we see Max munch on a two-headed lizard. The death of this world isn’t over yet. What’s more, the backstory we get on Furiosa implies that this world was shattered while she was still a child, at least twenty years ago, maybe more. Even if we accept this as a reboot instead of a sequel, this makes Max — who explicitly says at the beginning of the movie that he was a cop pre-apocalypse — a lot older than he looks. (Hardy himself is two years younger than Theron, for what it’s worth.)
At any rate, the fact that this world has moved on is what allows the main theme of the story to come through. In the last two movies, the struggle for resources was at the core of the plot. Here we’ve got a world where enough time has passed that resources – while still scarce – are at least stable. This makes Immortan Joe’s brothel work as a storytelling element. After all, once food is secure, what is the second most imperative instinct of any animal life? Reproduction, of course. Immortan Joe chooses to pursue that instinct in the most brutal, horrific way imaginable, but this is exactly what makes the story compelling. We can understand what the villain wants, even though we’re repelled by how he’s going about getting it, and we immediately buy into Furiosa (this movie’s stealth protagonist) and her quest to save these women and get them someplace else.
This movie is simply spectacular, easily the best film in the franchise, and I can’t wait to see what Miller has planned for the next installment, which Warner Bros has already tentatively approved.
Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
Plot: In the far future, the mining ship Nostromo is making a run to Earth, hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of ore for a Corporation. The ship’s computer awakens the crew from its cryogenic sleep, and they expect they’re approaching hope. Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) informs the crew they’re only halfway to Earth, but the ship has intercepted a strange transmission that may be of intelligent origin. The ship is damaged upon landing on the planetoid, and Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go off to search for the source of the transmission while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) remain behind to monitor them and make repairs to the ship. Kane’s team discovers an alien ship in ruins. The body of the creature inside the alien craft is enormous, and was apparently destroyed from the inside-out. Kane discovers an alien egg, which bursts open, allowing a tiny creature to affix itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert return him to the ship, but Ripley initially refuses to allow him to enter the ship, citing quarantine regulations. Ash defies her and allows them inside, where he tries to examine the creature. Dallas and Ash try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acidic blood. The creature dies and Kane wakes up, seemingly in good health. As the crew sits down to dinner, though, he begins going through horrible convulsions. He falls over on the table and his chest explodes, setting free a tiny creature that escapes into the ship.
Hunting for the beast, Brett and Dallas are killed in short order. Ripley investigates the ship’s computer, only to discover that Ash is acting under special orders of the Corporation that sent them into space in the first place. They were deliberately sent to the derelict to find an alien organism and return it for study, and the crew is considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, displaying extraordinary strength and leaking a strange white fluid when wounded instead of blood – he is an android. Parker and Lambert save Ripley and destroy the mechanical man. Parker and Lambert go off to retrieve coolant while Ripley preps the escape shuttle, planning to blow up the ship. The alien kills Parker and Lambert and Ripley rushes to activate the ship’s self-destruct mechanism herself. She manages to fight her way to the shuttle and escape the Nostromo before it is destroyed, unaware the alien has boarded the escape craft with her. She comes across the creature sleeping, puts on an atmosphere suit and opens the hatch, blasting the creature into space. As the film ends she records a message to anyone who finds the ship and climbs into suspended animation, hoping she is found sooner rather than later.
Thoughts: I’ve largely avoided science fiction movies in this list, mainly because I hope this “story structure” experiment will be something I can do again and again, and science fiction most certainly deserves its own category (if not several). However, out of all the movies that straddle the fence between science fiction and horror, there are a few that keep to the horror side so firmly that to not include them in this project would be a disgrace. Hence, Ridley Scott’s Alien.
In essence, Alien is a haunted house movie in outer space. It meets the tropes of that genre very nicely – you’ve got a small cast in a confined area from which they cannot easily escape or summon outside help. (How many good Haunted House movies take place in a remote location, during a power outage, or in some sort of horrible weather? There’s always a reason the people trapped in the house can’t just leave, otherwise they look like idiots.) As they run around the “house” (or in this case, spaceship) they make their way through enormous labyrinthine hallways, find evidence of a creature that is beyond human that appears with greater, more violent, and more alarming frequency, and are picked off a few at a time until a single or small group of survivors finally manages to escape. You see parts of the monster, or shadows of its inhuman shape, long before you see the creature in all its glory, building the tension and the fear as you go along. This is why Alien had to go in this list – not only does it fit every Haunted House trope other than the ghost itself, but it does so brilliantly.
Aside from Ridley Scott getting great performances from his actors, much of the credit for this film’s success has to go to creature creator H.R. Giger. Giger’s artwork helped inspire screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and thus he really was the logical choice to design not only the alien creature itself, but also the environments found on the alien spacecraft. There are scenes, admittedly, where you can tell you’re looking at a matte painting, but it’s an H.R. Giger matte painting, and that automatically makes it 99 percent more awesome than any other matte painting you’ve ever seen, including the one you helped color on your 11th grade production of Oklahoma.
Even certain things that could have looked terrible under other circumstances really work in this film. When Dallas is attacked in the air vent, the beast thrusts its arms at him. If you do a freeze-frame on the image, it’s kind of goofy… the creature throws out jazz hands like it wants to give Tom Skeritt a big, motherly hug. When you only get a glimpse of it, though, it’s scary as hell. And like all good scary movies, you get caught up in it enough that you forget some of the logical holes, like why the ship’s self-destruct mechanism is so damn far away from the escape shuttle. (Seriously, The Corporation? Talk about a design flaw.) Or the fact that we can hear the big ol’ Nostromo explosion in the vacuum of outer space, which is impossible… and this from the film that uses that little nugget of science in its own tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
The English teacher in me also has to give O’Bannon credit for abandoning the film’s original title, Star Beast. This was 1979, both Star Wars and Star Trek were heavily on the public consciousness and going with the “Star” title probably would have made the film successful. But Alien is just flat-out a superior title. It works both as a noun – describing the creature that hunts the crew of the Nostromo – and as an adjective, describing the fact that the thing they’ve found is utterly unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that I think helps the movie just a tad.
When the time came, inevitably, to make a sequel to this film, the filmmakers realized it would be nearly impossible to replicate the terror of the original. After all, much of what makes Alien so scary is the fact that you don’t really see the adult creature in full until the near end of the film, allowing the deadly power of the human imagination to do its work. By the time Aliens went into production, the creature was already pretty much public knowledge, so James Cameron took the film in another direction: instead of making an awesome sci-fi/horror movie, Aliens was an awesome sci-fi/action movie. This, of course, was followed by Alien3, a film that was a hybrid of science fiction and “a movie so poorly conceived and directed I got disgusted with the whole franchise and, to this day, haven’t seen the fourth one.” There are also, of course, the two Alien Vs. Predator movies, of which there isn’t much to say. I am looking forward to Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus, though, which is apparently going to be connected to Alien, although how tightly or in what way is something he’s still playing very close to the vest.
Tomorrow we return to Earth, Stephen King, and the more traditional haunted house idea with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.