New watchers coming to the Mad Max series based on the new installment, Fury Road, might have a hard time including the original in their idea of what "Mad Max" is. The sere, ravaged world of the 2015 film – as well as its frantic, frenetic tone – feels like a far cry from the more tame-seeming, pre-apocalyptic 1979 setting. Mad Max takes place on the edge of the dystopian cliff, is the beginning of the end that most people associate with the franchise.
Much like the newer iteration, Mad Max is first and foremost car chase porn. It's set against a future oil crisis, where cars become somewhat fetishized on account of their dwindling feasibility, an idea sparked by the 1973 crisis. Discussing that trigger for the film, screenwriter James McCausland said,
Yet there were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol—and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence... George and I wrote the [Mad Max] script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.In an undefined future, gangs chip away at the lingering structure of law and order, the Main Force Patrol. With a threatened citizenship unwilling to stand up against the marauders, the courts useless as a result, and the MFP being specifically targeted, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson's second role) emerges as the last one to fight for order in a civilization tipping towards chaos. When his wife and child become disastrously involved, Rockatanksy becomes the titular "mad" one.
When Max goes over the brink, he seems to drag the world along with him. The changes in the landscape and the fuller collapse of civilization featured in the subsequent movies do feel connected to the change in Max, the wilderness of the post-apocalypse a manifestation of the wilderness of his grief.
The world of Mad Max in most watchers minds will probably be the wild desert world of the sequels and the new installment. As a stand-alone, Mad Max exists as a triumph of DIY international cinema that came at the end of the decade in which the big studio "blockbuster" was invented. Made for pennies by mostly novices, Mad Max went on to gross 100 million – making it the most profitable movie ever, as far as cash spent vs cash earned goes, until The Blair Witch Project came along. Most indie movies of the time – especially internationally – leaned more towards the artistic, but Mad Max was then and still is a rare example of indie action. Part of its charm is the gritty aplomb unique to amateurs, but its deft stunts and action mixed with a quiet worry for the future keep people coming back.