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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Time Machine ('78)

The second film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel was a made-for-television movie that appeared as part of ABC’s “Classics Illustrated” series. Normally, television movies are outside of the scope of this study, but this TM makes a handy bridge between the George Pal film of 1960 and the 2002 version. John Beck stars as the Time Traveler, this time named Neil Perry. Priscilla Barns plays Weena. As with the other film adaptations, there were some liberties were taken, some contemporary spin applied and yet some faithfulness to Wells’ original.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A Russian satellite malfunctions and begins to fall to the earth. Mega Corporation’s untried anti-missile missile is ordered deployed to intercept the radioactive satellite before it hit’s LA. Dashing, liesure-suited Neil Perry rushes in with his pocket calculator to correct the missile’s course. LA is saved. Mega Corp is happy, but wants to know what Neil spent 20 million dollars on. He shows them his time machine prototype. The Mega Corp brass are unimpressed and cancel his project, come Monday. Since it’s Friday, Neil decides to test his machine to give them proof. He goes back in the past to 1692 and his accused of being a witch in Salem. He escapes to the American west in the middle 1800s. He is pursued as a claim-jumping criminal. Returning to 1978, a coworkers shows him how mankind is doomed soon, due to atomic mismanagement. Neil travels forward in time to learn what happens, but goes too far. He sees nuclear explosions and a barren landscape. Then he sees trees regrow. He stops. Behind him are big bronze doors. He encounters the Eloi and meets Weena, all of whom speak 20th century American english. Weena shows him their museum, which has “old” weapons on display, including the Death Ray pistol which Mega Corp wanted him to develop. He plays some video tapes to learn the fate of mankind and nuclear armageddon. That night, the Morlocks break into the Eloi building and capture several, including Weena’s brother Ariel. Neil ventures into the Morlock underworld to rescue the captives. He finds them, and they all escape. Neil gets the idea to use some C4, on display in the museum, to seal up the Morlock tunnels. He mounts an expedition to plant the explosives. This eventually works, with the Eloi escaping and Neil finding his machine. He narrowly escapes the angry Morlocks by returning to 1978. The Mega Corp Chairman wants to exploit the Time Machine for financial gain. Neil escapes in his machine, to return to Weena. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Wells’ novel is fascinating, so adaptations of it are bound to inherit at least a little of that fascination. The deviations from the book are amusing as windows into the late 70s mind. Priscilla Barns makes a very desirable Weena. Less vacuous than TM60’s Weena and less noble-savage than TM2002’s “Mara”.

Cold War Angle
While the Cold War as motivator for contemporaneous sci-fi, had fallen out of fashion, it was evident (in spades) in TM78. Repeating the Cold War moralizing of TM60, it is nuclear holocaust that wipes out mankind as we know it. The fear-filled notion of super bombs lives on in the dreaded Anti-Matter Bomb which Mega Corp wanted Neil to develop and which the recordings blame for the global devastation. TM78 lays the blame squarely on the steps of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Notes
Deviations from the Book — None of the three english-speaking adaptations follow Wells’ book faithfully. Detailed deviations would be too tediously long. Brieflh: TM60 and TM2002 add intermediate stops in the future before reading Weena’s time. TM78 added a couple stops in the past too. All three deviate in Hollywood fashion in making Weena more of a love interest and allowing happy endings where the traveler and Weena are reunited. In the book, she dies.

Hall of Knowledge — Wells’ novel had a Palace of Green Porcelain, which was a derelict museum. It told no particular backstory, but did supply the Traveler with additional matches and a club for a weapon. TM60 has a museum, but added the “talking rings” as a plot device to tell backstory. TM78 repeated the hall of knowledge, but upgraded the audio to video tape to fill in the backstory on what happened to mankind. TM2002 took the Hall of Knowledge video notion from TM78, and expanded it in the form of a snarky virtual librarian.

Fashionably Pacifist — One of the very 70s features of TM78, is the flagrantly anti-war message in the Hall of Knowledge. On display are weapons of war, over which Neil can opine: “Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to preserve the weapons of history. Perhaps as a tragic reminder of how Our history has a way of repeating itself. As always, there are the innocent victims, like Weena.” Neil gets a personal guilt trip for finding that his Death Ray is among the weapons. Bad military-industrial-scientist, Bad. Undermining the moralizing, is how Neil uses the museum’s explosives to save Eloi from the evil Morlocks. That would be the very sorts of reasons weapons have always existed — to save ‘good people’ from the ‘bad people.’

Smug Modernism — An amusing (or infuriating, depending on one’s demeanor) is how TM78 uses trite historical stereotypes to (a) pad out the run time and (b) that modern people are smarter/better. The first is the witch trial scene. This is a favorite of smug modernists. The real history is smaller and less tyrannical. Ah, but that doesn’t sell. The "gold rush" western scene perpetuates the handy stereotype that in the crude “olden days” everyone was armed with 30-30 Winchesters or Six-guns and regularly shot each other up for the slightest of provocations (if any). Of course, recycling old costumes and sets was a way to stretch the run time on a budget.

Time And Distance — Where TM60 and TM2002 were careful to keep Wells’ notion of traveling through time, not space, TM78 is not careful at all. Neil leaves his military-industrial-lab in Los Angeles, but appears in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. He then appears in the west (the Dakotas?) in the 1800s. Neil’s machine was, apparently, able to home in on a place (his lab) as well as a time.

Car Nuts — Fans of obscure automotive trivia will be delighted at seeing a CitiCar on display in the Hall of Knowledge. This all-electric mini-car was a response to the gas crisis of the mid-70s. A glorified golf-cart, the CitiCar was nevertheless America’s most mass-produced (modern) electric car until Tesla came on the scene. Weak performance and the easing of the gas crisis doomed CitiCar to obscurity. Nowadays, it is a museum item.

Similar Endings — All three TMs end with the time traveler’s friend, musing with the time traveler’s female worker. In TM60, she’s the housekeeper. In TM78, she’s his secretary. In TM2002, she’s a housekeeper again. In all three, the friend gets to sign off with some time-related witticism. in TM78, the friend says, “Time is on his side.”

Bottom line? TM78 is obscure, but exists in YouTube form. Fans of TM60 may be amused at the 70s remake in 70s flavors (Burnt Orange and Avacado Green). TM78 is a neat bridge between TM60 and TM2002. A fun night (for ardent TM fans) would be a triple feature of the three. TM78 isn’t amazing or better than TM60 or TM2002. It is the poorer cousin, if anything. Still, it has its amusements.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Starcrash

Technically, Starcrash is the first sci-fi film of 1979. It was released in Italy in 1978, but in America in March of 1979. This Italian/American production made such a minimal impression, though, that sci-fi fans could be forgiven for not remembering it. At best, it seems to get remembered as a bad Star Wars knock-off. Luigi Cozzi (on the credits as Lewis Coates) wrote the story and directed. Caroline Munro stars as Stella Star. David Hasselhoff gets a small role (his first!) as Prince Simon. Christopher Plummer plays the Emperor (also a small role). Marjoe Gortner plays the curious Akton.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A large spaceship is attacked by swarms of glowing red dots. People aboard writhe in agony. Hurriedly, three escape ships are launched. The crew are dead, except for one. He is found by Stella and Akton, two space smugglers, who find the derelict cruiser. The lone survivor babbles about red monsters. Stella and Akton are chased by space police: a bald man named Thor and a robot named Elle — who speaks with a twangy cowboy sheriff sort of accent. Stella and Akton are captured and sentenced to hard labor on different planets. At Stella’s work prison, she is inexplicably clad in a Barbarella-like black vinyl bikini and thigh-high black boots. She stages a revolt and escapes into the swamps. There, a ship comes to get her. It is Thor and Elle. They have been sent to get her for a special mission. They all go spring Akton too. Together, they are to find the lost prince Simon who was aboard one of the three escape ships. They find the first two escape ships with no survivors, and no Simon. The third ship is on a planet guarded by the red dots. For no good reason, Stella and Akton are not driven mad, but land and check things out. They find the third ship, and Simon. The planet also happens to be where the evil Count Zarth Arn has his amazing super weapon. While they try to figure out a way to disable it, Zarth arrives to announce that they are all doomed. He’s rigged his weapon planet to blow up and kill them! Zarth leaves. Akton and Simon battle Zarth’s stop-motion robots and win. It turns out that Thor is on Zarth’s side. He tries to kill Stella and Elle. He and Akton fight. Akton wins, but is mortally wounded. He blathers about living forever, then ‘beams’ out. The Emperor arrives in his ship. He uses a green time-freeze ray to give them all time to escape. The planet blows up after they leave. Zarth’s Fist-shaped evil ship has yet another Doom Weapon which he plans to use on the Emperor’s home world. The Emperor sends Stella and Simon to go fly The Floating City to crash into The Fist (jump out a window before it hits). After some protracted fighter battles, the city gets through and crashes into The Fist. The latter takes a long time to explode. Count Zarth is defeated. Stella and Simon are presumed to have developed feelings for each other. The Emperor waxes banal about how they’ll have peace for awhile until the next evil guy shows up. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Because it is so absurd! The script reads like a series of inspirations. Starcrash has little time to be boring because it’s always changing its mind. Caroline Munro is quality eye candy and used as such. The overall effect is more akin to Flash Gordon than Star Wars, so there is an aspect of nostalgia value.

Cultural Connection
In The Shadow of Lucas — Cozzi’s original story and vision was not a copy Star Wars. Indeed, he wrote the story for Starcrash before Lucas’ film was released. His original story, however, was about a big spaceship that crash lands on a moon of Saturn and the film is about the adventures of the castaways-in-space. Hence the title. The studio, however, did not want his space castaways story. They wanted to capitalize on the new paradigm for sci-fi and insisted that Cozzi write them a StarWars copy. Cozzi complied by adapting his castaways tale. His original wove in as much of his homage to 50s B-movies in as he could. He loved 50s movies. He added an overlay of StarWars' saga, and some details. That was good enough for the studio execs. He had only three weeks to get ready to shoot, so much of the model work is a bit cheap and photography of the models are clearly aping Lucas' style and his iconic big-ship-flyby. Akton gets a light saber fight with the bad guys. The similarities in the story may be more coincidence of classic story-telling than a flagrant copy of Lucas. But, the net effect, coming out a bit over a year since Star Wars, was that Starcrash was seen by the public a cheap, exploitation copy of Star Wars. Other producers and studios would similarly feel the Lucas Shadow and adjust their films to resemble the new benchmark in what a space-drama sci-fi “should” look like.

Notes
Space Babes — While dressing Munro in a black bikini was an obvious marketing move, the addition of the Amazons adds more light. Cozzi was following the Golden Age tradition that space was populated with pretty 20-somethings in skimpy outfits.

Comic Relief Robot — Elle plays a somewhat similar role to Lucas’ C3-PO and R2-D2 combined. He was both companion and comic-relief. The American version had him voiced (by Hamilton Camp) with a faux-western-sheriff accent. It was probably supposed to be funny. Perhaps in Italy, it was.

Overfed Plot — Cozzi’s script was too full of plot elements for a single feature film. It is much more like an entire run of a 15 chapter serial. Several of the scenes amount to semi-independent vignettes with little or no logical connection to any overarching narrative. Cozzi intentionally made each scene only two or three pages. No long scenes or developing depth. The troglodytes? The Amazons? The Amazons’ Mind Reader? The giant robot? Zarth’s Doom Machine (which we never see), etc. etc. The effect is almost akin to a serial with its chapters stitched together. The production suffered several trials and tribulations from life on the low-budget edge. This left holes in the story. Even if they had made it to film, the story would have been even more too-full.

Comic Book Flavor — Cozzi’s writing borders on amateur, unless it was intended as tongue-in-cheek camp. For example, Zarth shouts “Kill Kill!” as he walks back and forth on a catwalk while his black-clad troops carry on a laser battle with gold-clad good-guy troops. Somehow, he’s never hit by lasers. When Zarth’s troops win, he proudly announces, “By sundown, I will be the new emperor!” (Sundown in space?). The giant she-bot of the Amazons has a Jason and the Argonauts vibe. It is amusing that the giant she-bot is anatomically-correct “upstairs” (Why?). The emperor’s troops board Zarth’s evil Fist ship (which closes it’s fingers for battle mode), in golden torpedoes, which break through windows. Doesn’t the vacuum of space pose a problem? Apparently not. A dozen broken windows are no big deal in space. Right?

Bad Acting? — This is probably more Cozzi’s doing than the actors’ lack of skill. Granted, Marjoe Gortner was never a master of subtle, but in Starcrash, he comes across as manic and frenetic. Usually with an inappropriately wide smile, and his curly white-guy afro bobbing excitedly. Munroe, too, must have been directed by Cozzi to look happy and perky most of the time. Perhaps he liked how she looked that way. The result is that she emotes over the risks of hyperspace, or incoming evil troops as if she were saying, “I just got a new puppy!” Joe Spinell plays the villain, Zarth Arn, with over-the-top melodrama befitting silent film villains. He’s Ming the Merciless on too much caffeine. Presumably, this is just what Cozzi wanted.

A Moment of Irony — Marjoe Gortner gained a fleeting moment of fame in the early 70s with an exposé-documentary on the charlatan nature of the gospel-preaching business. He, himself, had been a child-preacher novelty in the 60s. He clearly did not understand, let alone believe, the words he preached. It just just a scam to make money. So, it is ironic that near his “death” scene, he tells Stella that all she needs to do is have faith, and not to worry about him, because he was going to live forever.

Bottom line? Spacecrash is a peculiar mishmash of tropes, strung together so as to suggest a story line. The “special effects” are very old-school and done with an obviously low budget. The cheesiness and scattered story can annoy viewers who want simpler sagas in their sci-fi. Yet, Starcrash has many devoted fans who embrace the cheesiness and revel in all the fragmented homages to various B-movies. Starcarsh is not great, or even good, but it is absurd fun.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

1977

There was a New Moon rising. 1977 is the watershed year that launched the new paradigm in sci-fi. Space and aliens would become friendly and, and even if not-so-friendly, still an extension of our familiar world. The old paradigm of atomic angst, scary space and toothy monsters would linger on, but it was clearly becoming old-school. The gloom, despair and malaise of the 70s had found a breaking point. Optimism was starting to prevail.

Here are the sci-fi films of 1977, in roughly chronological order based on dates of theatrical release.

Demon Seed — Proteus the super computer attains sentience and decides it must procreate with its creator-scientist’s wife in order to survive.

The Car — A demon-possessed black coupe terrorizes a small desert town, killing off residents one by one. Can it be stopped? Not by bullets.

Day of the Animals — The hole in the ozone layer turns animals into eco-revenge homicidal killers.

Star Wars — The first film of a long franchise and the harbinger of the new paradigm. Luke and Darth Vader become cultural icons.

The Island of Dr. Moreau — Remake of the 1930s film, based on H.G.Wells’ novel.

Empire of the Ants — Classic Big Bug trope. Nuclear waste turns ants into horse-sized killers. Loosely based on an H.G.Wells’ short story.

The End of the World — Low-budget tale of aliens sent to destroy Earth because it spews disease into the universe. They succeed.

Starship Invasions — Rogue aliens, led by Christopher Lee, try to invade and conquer Earth. But some good aliens and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. stand in their way.

Damnation Alley — Post-apocalyptic tale of an overland journey in a cool SUV to reach the idyllic bliss of Albany.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind — The “other” paradigm shift harbinger. Aliens almost-cute and curious little gray men — instead of monsters.

Kingdom of the Spiders — For no particularly good reason, tarantulas invade a remote town an conquer it, despite William Shatner’s heroic efforts.

Terror of Frankenstein — A foreign production which tried hard to follow Mary Shelley’s novel rather than the James Whale franchise.

The Incredible Melting Man — An astronaut returns with a mutated germ that makes his flesh “melt” off him. He must kill and “eat” human flesh to survive.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Ravagers

While The Ravagers (TR) is not the second sci-fi film of 1979, it’s close, AND it is a prefect follow-up to Mad Max. Both feature post-apocalyptic settings. Both feature a protagonist who loses his wife to an evil gang. TR is more of a major Hollywood effort. It stars Richard Harris as Falk (the protagonist). Art Carney and Ernest Borgnine get supporting roles. Ann Turkel plays Faina, Falk’s eventual love-interest. Anthony James plays the sinister leader of the evil gang of Ravagers. In this post-apocalyptic world, mankind separated itself into two groups. Flockers are normal folk who band together for safety, and Ravagers who roam and prey on any and all.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Amid a desolate cityscape in ruins, Bob Falk scavenges for anything. He finds a pair of canned goods and hurries home to his wife, Marion. He is spotted by members of a Ravager gang. They follow Falk to his hidden lair. They attack and ravage/kill Marion. Falk lies in wait, and that night, kills one of the gang. He flees into the night, but the gang leader becomes obsessed with catching and killing Falk. Falk encounters one Flocker band who drive him away with thrown rocks. Through his travels, Falk remembers Marion talking of a promised land named Genesis where plants grow and people have babies. Falk thinks it is only a myth, but keeps wandering with no particular place to be other than where he was. He stumbles upon a rocket graveyard, guarded by an old (and somewhat senile) sergeant (Art Carney). From Sarge, he gets an Uzi. Sarge says he knows a Flocker group with food and women. He leads Falk there. The Flockers live in large cave (former salt mine?). They have food and supplies and like to hold hoedown dances. Falk sees a pretty brunette dancing. He tells her he has tobacco, so she takes him to her bedroom. The transaction is made. Falk tries to sneak out, but Sarge and Faina follow him. Falk wants to travel alone, but they are not cooperating. They hole up in an old country hotel. Evil Leader has followed them. His gang attacks at night. Falk and Faina flee while Sarge gives them covering fire with his M14. Sarge is not killed, however. Evil Leader keeps him. Meanwhile, Falk and Faina come upon another group of Flockers loading supplies into small boats. They convince them to let them come along. Evil Leader released Sarge, to lead the gang to Falk. Sarge goes with Falk and Faina to the Flocker base. This turns out to be a hulk tanker, grounded near shore. They too have lots of food and supplies, and a generator and diesel fuel. The Flockers are ruled by the despotic, though not very menacing Rann (Borgnine). Others ask Falk about Genesis, but he keeps saying it is only a myth. They think he is just being cagey. The Ravagers storm the ship and a sprawling, protracted brawl ensues. Rann is shot, but before he dies, he shoots a flare into a pile of munitions. Explosions ensue. One such explosion breaks up a fight to the death between Falk and Evil Leader. Falk is blown overboard. Evil Leader is burned alive. More explosions consume the ship, presumably killing the last of the Ravagers. In the morning, the refugee Flockers are on the beach. They ask Falk about Genesis. He says “I guess we’re it.” He becomes their defacto leader as they follow him and Faina off the beach. The End.

Why is this movie fun?

Cultural Connection
Bi-Polar Apocalypse — As with Mad Max, the culture of the times imagined the post-apocalyptic world as polarizing mankind into good and evil tribes. The "good" would be constructive, compassionate and civilized. The "bad" would be their polar opposite: destructive, cruel and savage. Both Ravagers and Mad Max exhibit that post-Watergate mindset where traditional authorities (government) are swept offstage as irrelevant. What remains is the rugged individualist — the lone survivor motif. The hero becomes the new authority. This seems like the nascent roots of the Gen X ethos.

Notes
Based on the Book — The script for TR was based on the 1969 novel, “Path to Savagery,” by Robert Edmond Alter. Fans of the book decry the film as deviating too far from the book (and not being as violent). Going from reviews of the book (not having read it yet), it appears that Donald Sanford’s screenplay added Falk’s wife and the promised-land notion of “Genesis.” In the book, Falk starts out as a Loner, and has a Thompson submachine gun as his equalizer. In the film, he later acquires an Uzi. Both the book and the novel have Flockers. The book’s bad guys were called Neanderthals, not Ravagers. Both novel and screenplay have Falk encounter the Flocker camp and “acquire” Faina. The book has people desperately searching for potable water. The screenplay ignored this. In the book, Rann rules over a Flocker colony in a flood-isolated department store, not a ship. The book has Rann as a more significant despot character. Falk fights his epic battle with Rann, not Evil Ravager Leader. The battle amounts to a contest for Rann’s über-desirable “queen” Lara. In the film, Lara is only briefly seen as a mousey brunette beside Rann at the table. The book has Falk (who wins, btw) eschew Lara and leadership of the colony. Instead, he sets off wandering again as a Loner, but now with Faina in tow. No Genesis.

People Want Heroes — In Mad Max, the Fifi character monologues about how, in difficult times, people want heroes. Max did not want to be that hero. Falk, similarly, is not interested in becoming a leader. Both battle evil and triumph — though Falk less by himself than Max. The remnant of Rann’s group are obviously looking for a heroic and righteous leader. Falk shows up and somewhat reluctantly accepts the mantle. “Genesis. I guess we’re it,” he says at the end. The people (hungry for a hero/leader) follow him, even though he has no idea where he is going. People in the late 70s were weary from the government corruption, scandal, and impotence (the Carter years). Clearly, “Government” was no longer seen as the leader. People hankered, instead, for a more personal (tribal level) leader they could believe in again. TR has an element of wishful thinking about personal leadership.

The Promised Land — This is a recurring trope in several post-apocalyptic films. Planet of the Apes (’68,’70) had its vague something out in the Forbidden Zone. In Glen and Randa (’71), Glen seeks a utopian Metropolis beyond the destruction. In Logan’s Run (’76), people imagined there was Sanctuary, beyond the despotic domes. In Damnation Alley (’77), beyond the atomic deserts there was Albany (which turned out to be a Norman Rockwell idyll). Somewhat akin to the 50s Seeds of Hope plot device, the 70s mythos imagined that there had to be a “better place” out there…somewhere, where things were not as bad as we all feel they are here. Falk’s wife was certain there was a real Genesis place. Falk seemed to have internalized the notion back to the personal-action level. People make their own Promised Land.

Infinite Ammo — The usual Hollywood paradigms still apply to the world in TR. In the book, Falk searches for both potable water, AND .45 caliber ammo for his Thompson. In the film, both Sergeant and Falk, fire off long bursts of gunfire — which stereotypically stitches across walls in little explosions and makes lots and lots of ricochet zing sounds. Yet, Falk is never seen carrying any other magazines or ammo. He does not search for any 9mm rounds, or finds any. Nor is he seen reloading. His Uzi just has infinite ammo. Note too, that Falk’s Uzi is pictured as having the ballistic force of a .50 caliber (or larger) weapon. It pushes bad guys through windows and sends them sailing over railings. Gun buffs argue that 9mm rounds don’t have enough force to assure a “kill”, let alone knock people over. But, that’s how Hollywood imagines guns work: infinite ammo and as powerful as tanks. They’re like magic!

Termination Fees — Sanford’s screenplay played with a subtle notion in his view of the post-apocalyptic world. Group membership was not very flexible. The blind lawyer was kicked out of his group for (presumably) not having sufficient utility to merit his consumption. Rather than take him back, or accept Falk, they stone them. The group that Laina was in appeared less rigid, but it was assumed that Falk would simply join and stay. Falk had to sneak out (which wasn’t too hard).  Laina said she could never go back, as that was that Flocker group's rule. Once-gone, always-gone. Rann’s group also had strict membership. Falk and Laina could join, but no one was allowed to leave. This meshes with some popular-wisdom among present day post-apocalyptic thinkers. If People were allowed to leave a group, they could tell others of their location and amount of valuables (food/water/ammo, etc.) and bring back looters. To keep a survival group’s location secret from ne’er-do-wells, members were not ‘free’ to go. Membership contracts did not allow for early termination.

Bottom line? TR is more of a big-budget Hollywood spin on the popular post-apocalyptic tale. Some viewers belittle the movie as too tame, with insufficient action and violence. Others enjoy another foray into imagining what the world would be like post-apocalypse. The visuals in TR give it some interest, particularly the rocket graveyard (which is actually the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, dressed up to look abandoned. There is not much sci-fi to the story, beyond the post-nuclear setting. Viewers who want more sci- in their -fi, may not care for TR. Those who like post-apoc tales in general, may enjoy another spin on the topic.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mad Max

This Australian indie film is the ancestor to a sub-genre of a post-apocalyptic narrative that lives on today, some 35 years later. It is also the first “sci-fi” of 1979. The story, as told, is more of an automotive recast of a Western, and not particularly sci-fi. But the post-apocalyptic-world genre is, by tradition, a sci-fi realm. George Miller wrote and directed Mad Max (MM). A very young Mel Gibson stars as Max Rockatansky — an anti-hero type that would prove popular. In fact, popular enough that there were two direct sequels and scores of knock-off copies over several decades. Miller was on to something.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The film opens to a pursuit by MFP (Main Force Patrol) police cars, of a criminal fugitive who calls himself The Nightrider. Through some car chase action footage, the comic relief team is put out of action. The straight-man pair are also disabled. Only Max remains, and begins his masterful pursuit. Nightrider becomes un-nevered and eventually dies in a fiery crash. Max returns to his cozy private life of pretty wife, Jesse and their baby boy. Max wants to quit the MFP, but his boss, Fifi tries to bribe him to stay with a black suped-up V8 interceptor. Max still wants out. Meanwhile a motorcycle gang, led by Toecutter, roar into a country town to collect the body of Nightrider, which arrived via train. The gang terrorize the town awhile. A young couple flee (in a highly customized red 1959 Bel Air), nearly running over Toecutter in the process. He summons his gang to pursue them. The gang catches up, disables the car, demolishes the car and terrorizes the pretty young woman. Later, Max’s co-worker friend, “Goose” is called to the scene. He comforts the girl, and apprehends one of the gang — Johnny the Boy — because he was stuck there with a malfunctioning bike. Goose vents his outrage on Johnny, but lawyers get him off because no one would press charges. Toecutter’s gang decide to get even with Goose. They stage an ambush, causing him to crash the little truck he was driving. He is trapped inside. Toecutter insists that Johnny kill Goose to prove he is worthy to be in the gang. Johnny reluctantly complies. Goose lives, but only a disfigured vegetable. Max is upset and tries to quit. Fifi tells him to take a two-week vacation instead and think about it. Max, Jesse and son take a vacation grandma’s farm, near the coast. This inadvertently puts them in close proximity to where the gang was camping. Toecutter tries to score on Jesse, but she knees him in tender regions. The gang pursue, eventually finding her and running her (and her son) down. Both die. Max goes ‘mad’ at the loss. He dons his black leather MLF attire and fires up the black interceptor. He kills a couple of the gang, but they stage an ambush. Max is shot in the knee, but shoots one attacking biker. He hobbles back to his car to pursue Toecutter, who dies in a head-on with a semi. Max later finds the only gang member remaining, Johnny, looting a dead pickup driver. Max handcuffs Johnny to the wreck with a lit lighter, a container filling with dripping gasoline, and a hacksaw so Johnny can escape by saw off his own ankle. Max drives off, the pickup explodes. Max drives off into the forbidden out-lands. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is a lot of fast road-based action in MM. Fans of things automotive will see that George Miller is a kindred spirit. The driving stunts are fairly impressive for a modest-budgeted film. The scenery of the vast Australian countryside has stark beauty to it too.

Cultural Connection
Fearing Societal Collapse — MM touched a cultural chord in its portrayal of a society in mid-collapse. The usual authorities — courts, law enforcement — cannot cope with the rise of lawlessness. Cruel and sadistic gangs of criminals terrorize the helpless civilians. This comes to the screen just as President Carter is describing a “crisis in confidence” in his famous Malaise Speech. Gone are the 50s when the government and army would rush in to save the populace from the monsters. Also gone are the late-60s-early-70s days when the government was seen as an all-powerful all-controlling tyrant. The new era of the 80s would see government as fundamentally powerless and society itself as crumbling into anarchy. Note the decay in the “Hall of Justice” sets. Disrepair, decay, clutter. “Justice” was crumbling away. Later MM movies, and many of its clones, would weave in punk culture as symbolic of the anarchy of the collapse.

Notes
Missing Backstory — Miller chose to start telling his story in the middle, instead of from the beginning. This disconcerts some people. Without the backstory, the characters, scenes and events can appear disjointed and random. The more attentive viewer is given hints throughout the film as to that backstory, but it is never stated overtly. Miller must have felt the criticism for this, as he starts his second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior (’81) with a preamble that both recaps MM, the first film, and provides the overt backstory that he left subtle (too subtle?) in MM.
Before MM opens, there was WWIII. Nuclear exchanges wiped out much of the “old” civilization. Australia misses the brunt of it (ala On The Beach), but the remaining “authorities” were too few to control the vast expanse of the world. As such, outlaws ruled the hinterlands. The MFP is what little is left of a highway patrol, in a losing-game battle against the lawless forces of evil. In MM, society has not completely collapsed (as in RW). Instead, there is the shell of old-world normalcy as people try to carry on as they always had, despite the shortages, privations and growing lawlessness. THIS is the world MM opens to.

People Need Heroes — At one point, Max’s boss tries to talk him into staying on the MFP with a pep talk about people needing heroes. Max scoffs, and Fifi wasn’t too sincere, but his comment resonated, nonetheless. Movie audiences in 1979 did want a hero — an individual hero. The old days of the government saving people, or the army, were past. The mid 70s were a dour period of gloom about oppressive, corrupt government (think Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Z.P.G. in which there were no happy endings. Amid the Malaise, the notion of a single hero (not a government agency) seemed like a good idea. This new hero could be a bit rough (think Dirty Harry), but would deal harshly with a cruel (new) world. That is one of Max’s appeals.

Car Nuts — The three multi-colored MFP cars in the opening chase scene, as well as Max’s suped-up black interceptor, were all Ford Falcons — Australian. When Ford/Australia introduced their Falcon in 1960, it was made on identical tooling as the American version. Viewers can spot a few of those old-style Falcons in the film too. But, in 1972, Ford/Australia introduced an all new design (and unique to Australia), but kept the traditional nameplate. Max’s interceptor was a modified 1973 XB coupe. Miller doted on scenes to show of the coupe’s supercharger in action — a real car-nut sort of thing to dote on. Max’s black coupe captivated audiences almost as much as Max did himself, so it returned with Max to start the sequel. The team might have also been an inspiration for American television’s “Knight Rider.”

Bottom line? MM has its strong points and weak points. It’s a low-budget production, and Miller’s first feature film, so some “roughness” should be expected. MM has its fans and detractors. The more outlandish sequel proved more to audiences’ liking, making the first film feel a bit dowdy in comparison. There is little sci-fi to MM. This linkage comes from the post-apocalyptic future angle. For people new to the MM franchise, watch the intro to the first few minutes of the second film (The Road Warrior) to get the backstory, then watch MM. Mad Max has become a cultural icon, so his first film is worth seeing, if only to understand that icon better.