The most successful Australian film ever at the Oscars may not have won Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, but 'Mad Max: Fury Road' had already achieved something that, in cultural terms, is far more momentous and enduring.
Quite simply, George Miller's dark creation is the only Australian popular myth of truly global significance. Love it or loathe it, the world of Mad Max is the most widely recognised cultural expression of what makes Australia distinctive in the eyes of the world.
The hugely successful revival of the franchise -- in both commercial and critical terms -- means that Max Rokatansky firmly takes his place alongside the likes of Batman, Superman, James Bond and Harry Potter as a hero (or anti-hero) figure who appeals to a vast international audience whilst being unmistakably the product of a particular national milieu.
The Mad Max film franchise is the supreme expression of what I call the bogan aesthetic. It is a vision that combines elements drawn from the European horror of harsh, desolate Australian landscape, the 1970s Ozploitation movement in filmmaking and the distinctive hoon culture of car worship, modification and destruction.
It is an uncomfortable, and for some viewers even repellent, dystopian vision, but for better or worse it is the image of Australia that resonates most deeply with a mass entertainment audience.
In Mad Max, the Australian underground has become a mainstream phenomenon referenced and imitated all over the world. Countless homages and parodies exist, and Mad Max cosplay is a thing. There are Mad Max fans the same way there are devotees of Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who and Harry Potter.
The original Mad Max film was made on a shoestring budget, mostly using locations situated on the urban fringes surrounding Melbourne, yet quickly achieved worldwide success -- becoming what at the time was the most profitable feature film ever made. Astonishingly, a film that cost $350,000 to produce brought in something like $100 million at the box office.
Mad Max was one of the last major films made during the classic Ozploitation era in film, inaugurated a decade or so beforehand by Wake in Fright. Like Wake in Fright, Mad Max shows an Australia in a state of decadence and disintegration, oppressed by a hopelessness born of alienation and despair in a wide, empty and unforgiving land. In Wake in Fright, the so-called tyranny of distance is ameliorated through alcohol, while in Mad Max it can only be coped with via speed.
Paradoxically, given the sense of extreme isolation, it is somehow appropriate that when the end of the world has come, Australia should be the last place left where some kind of wretched existence can be eked out by the few remaining survivors. This post-apocalyptic theme was dramatised in Nevil Shute's post-nuclear war novel On the Beach, which was filmed in 1959 starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardiner. In a quote that, though falsely attributed, has been often repeated, Gardner is supposed to have described Melbourne as "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world."
The first Mad Max film, made 30 years after 'On the Beach', seems to confirm that premise. The endless roads outside Melbourne have become a battleground, a war zone of rape and pillage traversed by crazed gangs at insanely high speed in a desperate search for fuel, and, increasingly, water.
Miller knows from personal experience about the horrors of the highway -- he trained as a doctor, and as a young medico worked in ER with road trauma patients that had been scraped up off the tarmac.
The heavily modified vehicles that have become characters in their own right in the Mad Max films are also a lurid recreation of the hoon culture -- ritualised in the annual Bathurst 1000 car race and Summernats drag meet -- that forms part of Miller's dark vision. The Australian talent for mechanical improvisation -- a skill celebrated in the wonderful TV series 'Bush Mechanics' -- is turned by Miller into the ability to make monsters on wheels.
The character of Max himself is stereotypically Anglo-Australian in his bushman-like self-reliance, as well as his inarticulateness. A kind of leather-clad, noble bushranger with a sawn-off, Max may do good things to help other people but is cagey and unsociable. Usually, he has to decide how his own self-interest will be served before agreeing to participate in some kind of common cause.
Max does not want leadership or responsibility -- he has avenged the death of his wife and child and former police partner and now just wants to be left alone. In Fury Road, it is left to the brave and strong female warrior Imperator Furiosa to take the initiative and try to make a positive difference for herself and others.
Thanks to the creative genius and persistence of George Miller and his colleagues and collaborators, Mad Max is our universal haunted loner, the most influential Australian character so far to enter world culture.