Opinion: the first three Mad Max films established a retro-futuristic aesthetic that has been turned up to 11 in the latest iteration, says Justin McGuirk. But could Fury Road have also stumbled on something a bit more more pertinent?
Whenever I see a design project that involves cobbling together one thing out of the discarded remains of another – stools out of plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch, an espresso bar out of washing machines, lamp shades woven out of plastic bottles or anything made from old shipping containers – at the back of my mind I'm thinking of Mad Max.
This is not to criticise such projects or to undermine the idea of recycling, upcycling, creative reuse or any other term du jour – ecological imperatives one and all. It's just that Mad Max pushes them to their logical conclusion, to a world where there is no alternative.
Trailer for Mad Max, 1979
The first three Mad Max films, released from 1979 to 1985, cornered the market in a particular vision of the post-apocalyptic future. And the central tenet of that vision is that the new world will be created out of the detritus of the old one.
In Mad Max, the clock of technical progress has stopped in the 1970s – there are no new technologies, no new energy sources and certainly no Tesla home batteries. Forget computers and software – we're talking hardware, of the greasy variety. In this world, the mechanic is king and the scrap yard is civilisation's laboratory.
What is compelling about Mad Max is the extent to which it has become the default setting of the post-apocalypse. It may be viewed through a 1970s lens – refracting the oil crisis, Cold War nuclear anxiety and the rise of the ecological movement – but it continues to play on contemporary fears.
Despite the fact that in the year the first Mad Max was filmed President Carter was installing solar panels on the White House roof, somehow we still struggle to reach life beyond fossil fuels, we still equate climate change with deserts and we still configure the future through Malthusian scarcity models.
Trailer for Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, 1981
These are the clichés of Mad Max's retro-future. They were present in the first iteration (although not so much desert in that one) but of course they've been turned up to eleven for Mad Max: Fury Road. The low budget, realist feel of the original has evolved into its own fantasy genre.
The villain, once just a camp psychotic biker, has morphed into a cock-rock pharaoh presiding over a death cult of skinhead supplicants. The survivors, scavenging a life for themselves in the desert, guzzle bugs and two-headed lizards with more gusto than Bear Grylls. Things are bad, real bad.
In this three-way duel between man, machine and wilderness, it is the latter, the desert, that most plays up to our morbid fantasies about the future. Global warming equals sand. Except that Fury Road is proof that the opposite is also true.
Originally slated to be filmed in the Australian desert, freak rains associated with changing weather patterns made the dust of New South Wales bloom with wildflowers – not quite the dystopian look director George Miller was looking for. The production was subsequently moved to Namibia, which was suitably barren.
The desert is the perfect tabula rasa on which to reinvent civilisation. One thinks of Reyner Banham's argument that American design was forged in the heat of the western frontier, where the Sears Roebuck catalogue and the gizmos of an emerging consumer culture created the good life ex nihilo. (As readers of Scenes in America Deserta will know, Banham was later captivated by the Californian and Nevadan deserts, finding there a kind of blacktop sublime that Mad Max cranks up to a high-octane fever pitch.)
Trailer for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, 1985
And the Namibian location for Fury Road is truly stripped back – as far as I can remember there are not even any roads in Fury Road, let alone any architecture. Infrastructure is limited to a distant glimpse of Gas Town, built around an oil refinery. This emptiness is fertile ground, if you will, in which to lay down the challenge of design in the Anthropocene.
Except that Fury Road has no such intentions. What purports to be a cautionary tale about the perils of fossil fuel consumption is in fact the exact opposite.
Here in the Australian/Namibian wastes, the motif of recycling is used not to critique auto culture but to celebrate it. How else can one describe the parade of Frankenstein's machines in pursuit across the desert than a motorised carnival. This is a ceremonial procession of classic Americana, but remixed and souped up – carmaggedon on life support.
Here are Depression-era Dodge pick ups turned into monster trucks with Bigfoot wheels, and 1970s muscle cars fitted with tank tracks, as if their inherent machismo needed a steroid booster. In a fitting gesture, the villain's ride is a 1959 Cadillac Coup DeVille (on a truck chassis, naturally) with two trunks welded on top of each other so that Harley Earl's infamous tailfins are repeated in a double dose of Detroit gothic. This freakish convoy is a hymn to high-period General Motors.
Trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015
The war boys who drive these relics love chrome so much they spray their teeth with it before their kamikaze attacks. These petrolheads are the foot soldiers of what McKenzie Wark calls, amusingly, the Carbon Liberation Front, or the capitalists whose profits rely on releasing fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
Fury Road is not really about scarcity of resources. The occasional snatches of dialogue might suggest that petrol is an ever-so-precious resource, but the cast pisses it away like there's no tomorrow, spraying it out of their exhausts, out of their mouths and even out of their guitars. One assumes there was a Texaco behind one of those sand dunes.
In the end, the moral seems to be not "there but for the grace of God" but carpe diem, let's enjoy this party while it lasts. The metaphor of a civilisation trapped in the late industrial revolution, where the internal combustion engine is still the height of technology and the rest is all steampunk cogs and gears, is more hellish now than when the series started – in the late 70s we didn't have to contemplate life without... the internet. Good thing this is only a movie. And, true to form, the good guys prevail.
When Charlize Theron – in her rather fetching engine-grease makeup – and Tom Hardy take back the Citadel for the people, they discover an oasis full of hydroponic planters. It really is a parallel Detroit, not as Motor City but in its second incarnation as the capital of urban farming. Maybe George Miller can see which way the wind is blowing after all.
Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow, and head of the writing and curating programme at Design Academy Eindhoven. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. His book Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture was published by Verso in June 2014.