Those sounds of clashing metal, revved up engines and gusts of choking dust are reminiscent of a familiar world gone mad. A world which George Miller‘s fans have had to wait 30 years to see again. This week’s release of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which the Playlist likened to a “speeding maniac in possession of big and provocative ideas” in our review, has given us an excuse to delve into Miller’s cinematic oeuvre.
Beginning his career as a doctor, Miller was inspired by the violence he saw in the hospital wards and on the highways of his small Queensland hometown. His inclinations as such spawned a beloved franchise, launched Mel Gibson into international superstardom and influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. While Miller is most recognized for his “Mad Max” series, going through all eight of his directorial efforts prior to ‘Fury Road’ uncovers common threads regardless how varied the genres he’s worked in and techniques he’s used may be. After (or, beginning with,) ‘Thunderdome,’ Miller went off in unexpected directions —some of his movies feel more like a fundraising gig in preparation for ‘Fury Road,’ but even in these cases, there’s something to be said about Miller’s dogged determination to explore themes of human (and animal) tenacity, to shine a light on outcasts and expose the absurdity of violence.
Whether you’re new to George Miller’s eclectic oeuvre, or a lifelong fan whose collected every piece of “Mad Max” merch, we hope you enjoy this ranked retrospective of his films.
8. “Happy Feet Two” (2011)
For every peak, there’s a trough. As hard as it may be to justify a sequel for “Babe,” it’s nothing compared to trying to explain the worth of a “Happy Feet” sequel without mentioning the box office success of its predecessor or the growing popularity of 3D. This sequel concentrates on Erik (Ava Acres), Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria’s (Pink) son, who is having a hard time adapting to his penguin nation’s dancing lifestyle. “Happy Feet Two” retains the charm of the first one with regards to its delightful comedy, here mostly concentrated in two adventurous krill called Bill and Will (voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt), whose puns border on overkrill, and the sanctimonious Sven (Hank Azaria), who impresses Erik with his flying ability, much to Mumble’s chagrin. Sadly, a couple of fun new characters can’t cover up the abundance of awkwardness in a narrative that increasingly flatlines as it nears conclusion, nor can the forced subplots or the stifling of the original’s two most entertaining characters, Ramon and Lovelace (Robin Williams‘ last voice work for an animated feature). Ramon’s now given a love interest with zero personality in Carmen (Sophia Vergara), and though he’s the emotional focal point of the story, it’s very difficult to care for Erik, an offspring that’s got none of his parents’ charisma. And, goodness gracious, how awful some of the songs are. Laced with an extra layering of cheese, one shudders when reminded of Gloria’s “Love can build a bridge of light,” or Erik’s maudlin plea to the elephant seals. While the plot is like a fetid pancake (penguins get trapped, penguins need help to escape, penguins get said help), there’s still pleasure to be found in the way Miller’s freewheeling camera looks to present even more thrilling points of view than before, most notably from the plankton-perspective in a glorious sequence that sees Will stuck to various mammals and objects as he’s dragged into Emperor-Land. With the animation more sumptuous than ever, and Miller utilizing the rollercoaster opportunities afforded by 3D, “Happy Feet Two” is undoubtedly an eye-popping visual spectacle. But its heart clearly beats at a slower pace than its predecessor, and it’s little wonder that it failed so monumentally at the box office. It’s Miller’s most impoverished effort to date.
7. “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998)
Remember when that movie about a pig went on to become a ridiculously successful box office hit and a Best Picture nominee? As unlikely as it may seem, considering his violently action-packed beginnings, Miller wrote and produced the first “Babe,” a whimsically charming and light-hearted story about a magnificent piglet who becomes the greatest sheepdog in all the land. This sequel, not only co-written and produced but also directed by Miller, was met with immediate critical derision and plummeted at the box office during its short theatrical run, mostly due its darker tonal switch which made it decidedly less family-friendly. This fortitude in dipping darker and deeper is ironically enough what makes “Babe: Pig in the City” more than just a forgettable failed sequel and something closer to Miller’s sensibilities than one would initially give credence to. When Babe (voiced by Elizabeth Daily) saves a mean pit bull from drowning after an exhilarating chase around the eponymous City, the dog explains his violent nature by saying “it’s part of my profession to be malicious, it’s in the bloodline…a murderous shadow lies hard across my soul.” Youch. Welcome to George Miller’s version of a children’s film! There’s much to admire in “Babe: Pig in the City” without a shred of sarcasm; Miller’s affinity for long stretches of dialogue-free action, Magda Szubanski‘s wonderfully comedic performance as Esme Hoggett, and the production design of Metropolis —it’s part Venice, part Paris, Hollywood, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, and all-together magical. The main issue with the movie lies with the hardship of justifying its existence beyond obvious capitalistic reasons, but for ardent fans of fantasy films or children’s tales that aren’t afraid of a dash of stark realism (or for the magisterial absurdity of a scene featuring Mickey Rooney in a clown suit alone), “Babe: Pig in the City” is a harmless treat.
6. “Happy Feet” (2006)
Miller got the idea of setting a story in Antartica during the production of “Mad Max: The Road Warrior,” though it’s doubtful he imagined it would be computer-animated and arrive some 20 years later. “Happy Feet” is the story of Mumble (Elijah Wood), an emperor penguin who was dropped as an egg by his father Memphis (Hugh Jackman), and as a result developed a rare “deficiency:” unlike every other emperor penguin, Mumble can’t sing to save his life but has an innate talent for tap-dancing, earning him the nickname Happy Feet. Years later, Mumble is branded an outcast by the wise elder Noah (Hugo Weaving), and ridiculed for being a penguin who will likely never find a mate because he doesn’t have the gift of heartsong, even though he falls hard for the popular Gloria (Brittany Murphy). Were it in anyone else’s hands, “Happy Feet” would’ve probably stayed within the confines of animated Antarctica, focusing on PG-themes about one’s true worth and courage, but under Miller’s guidance, the story dives head first into environmental issues as well, taking Mumble on a journey that finds him washed ashore in Australia and communicating with live action humans (“aliens” in penguin language). Four years in the making, the glory of “Happy Feet’s” animation is most readily felt in the underwater scenes of choreographed jubilance between a rookery of penguins, or the close ups of Mumble’s crystalline-blue eyes, and the pleasure of the entire experience is amplified tenfold thanks to Robin Williams’ greatest voice performance since “Aladdin.” His Ramon and Lovelace, a couple of penguins who embrace Mumble’s weirdness, are the kind of supporting characters who effortlessly steal the spotlight scene after scene. While some songs overstay their welcome, the renditions of Queen‘s “Somebody To Love” and a Spanish version of “My Way,” as sung by Williams’ Ramon, (among others), are contagious highlights that celebrate everything every Miller antagonist (be they human, animal, animated or live-action) fights for and believes in. It’s one of the director’s most profitable directorial efforts to date and sees him at the peak of his PG powers.
5. “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” (1985)
It’s got its defenders, but the third installment of Miller’s franchise goes the way of so many threequels; it’s glaringly less accomplished than its predecessors and a little too eccentric for its own good. “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” famously features Tina Turner in the role of Aunty, the matriarch ruler of the grotesque Bartertown, and while it’s impossible to think of anyone who could replace her, it’s just as hard to admit she’s got any real acting chops (though she sure knows how to command attention). 15 years after the events of the second film, ‘Thunderdome’ sees Max (Mel Gibson) roaming through the desert and happening upon Bartertown, where he reluctantly agrees to assassinate the muscled half of the two people who make up “MasterBlaster;” a little person who is the brains of the underworld operations (“The Master,” played by Angelo Rossitto) piggy-backing on a mute giant (“The Blaster,” Paul Larsson). The fight between Blaster and Max in the Thunderdome is oddly incoherent; they are placed on giant slingshots and have to fight each other to the death by picking up weapons scattered around different parts of the dome-like structure. As weirdly out of place as it is, the moment Max refuses to finish Blaster off is a great summary of Miller’s philosophy of violence. Nevertheless, the film feels somewhat empty, especially in its second half when a whole subplot featuring a tribe of children is introduced. Miller’s producing partner Byron Kennedy passed away before production started, which explains why he got George Ogilvie to co-direct. Grieving and disinterested, Miller focused mostly on the action (which aside from the Thunderdome fight features an exhilarating train chase at the end) while Ogilvie was left with the rest, which was compromised by a bungled screenplay (“Bust a deal, face the wheel!”). It’s got that 80s B-movie relish which gives it an attractive nostalgic coating, but ‘Thunderdome’ is noticeably more deficient than the first two (and, from the sounds of it, the latest) installments in the series.
4. “Lorenzo’s Oil” (1992)
Ditching the fantasy milieu for his next project, Miller turned his attention to the medical phenomenon of adrenoleukodystrophy (ADL) in the early 90s, a horrendous disease that afflicts boys at a tender age and erodes the brain tissue in relentlessly rapid fashion until death. When Lorenzo Odone (Zach O’Malley Greenburg) is diagnosed with ADL, his parents Michaela (Susan Sarandon in an incredible Oscar-nominated turn) and Augusto (Nick Nolte with an incredulous Italian accent) are told that most ADL boys die within 24 months of diagnosis. “Lorenzo’s Oil” follows the true-life tale of these two headstrong parents on a quest to understand this disease and find a way to circumvent its merciless manifestation as current scientific treatments, like the diet prescribed by an ADL expert Dr. Gus Nikolais (Peter Ustinov), or risky immunosuppression techniques, aren’t helping. Far removed from the comedic fantasies of “The Witches of Eastwick” or the adrenaline-pumping action of the “Mad Max” movies, Miller reveals his most emotional and deeply dramatic side here. The vicious disease itself is Miller’s most dangerous antagonist, and the theme of a seemingly unstoppable force corrupting the innocent, the pure, and the kind is omnipresent. Like Daryl Van Horne or the reprobates who rule the dystopian Australian wastelands in the “Mad Max” movies, ADL consumes and disturbs the peace. Miller’s direction climbs the walls, especially in and around the Odone household; with short circuited conversations, expeditious editing, paranoid panning, tilted angles, and claustrophobically tight close up shots, Miller conveys the urgency and horror superbly. It’s a rare Miller film that doesn’t have much of a rewatch value because of how big of an emotional gut-punch it is, but it’s the most important story of human courage he’s ever told.
3. “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987)
Here’s the most delightful and in many ways the most entertaining of all Miller’s films. Screenwriter Michael Cristofer, who adapts John Updike‘s novel but makes significant changes in the story to make it a vivid example of feminist cinema, deserves as much credit as Miller in helping “The Witches of Eastwick” remain such a devilishly delicious experience after all these years. Then again, everyone involved is firing from all cylinders, most notably Jack Nicholson, who gives a masterfully comedic performance, Veronica Cartwright, delivering a masterfully deranged performance, and John Williams, whose playful score is some of the composer’s greatest under-the-radar work. The story follows three friends, Alex (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon) and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer), who live in the fictional Rhode Island town of Eastwick and can make things happen by simultaneous mental effort; be it a change in weather or the appearance of an enigmatic stranger who will sweep them off their feet. Enter insanely rich and carnivorous socialite Daryl Van Horne (Nicholson), who proceeds to seduce all three women and cause controversy in the conservative little town, most potently felt by Felicia (Cartwright), an eminent member of the community. Cristofer’s script puts emphasis on the power play of the male-female dynamic, brought to fantastic life by Nicholson (the scene in church where he delivers a speech about God’s creation of women is right up there next to every one of his Oscar-winning moments) and the three women (Sarandon especially brings out her comedic chops). The increasingly supernatural turn of events in the third act derails the film slightly and taints some of its Coen-esque charm, but the picture remains Miller’s most raucously fun film and a testament to the director’s feminist sensibilities. At beginning of the film, one of the three women says “men are not the answer to everything,” while another finishes with, “so why do we always end up talking about them?” Confronting this notion head-on, “The Witches of Eastwick” is a satire with an insatiable charm.
2. “Mad Max” (1979)
It’s crystal clear, only minutes into “Mad Max”: Miller is going to make a special mark on cinema. The Halls of Justice, shot as if in the twilight of civilization itself, and disconcerting dissolves going through titled cards that warn, “A Few Years From Now…,” amount to perfect examples of how thick the layer of sleaze in this dystopian future really is. Once the Nightrider (Vincent Gil) invades the screen, you feel as if the rails of cinematic convention have become unhinged. It’s a narrative that starts in the middle, with a randomly violent incident, edited with a ferociously kinetic energy that just doesn’t let up, and aptly introduces how the Main Force Police officer Max Rockatansky (a baby-faced Mel Gibson) will one day roam through as the Road Warrior and mercenary-for-hire. As the series’ origin story, “Mad Max” does a spectacularly efficient job on a shoestring budget (reports of the budget range from $350,000 to $600,000 Australian Dollars) and heralds Miller as a director with a natural talent for instilling discomfort into atmosphere, pumping adrenaline into action, and finding just the right balance between on-screen and off-screen violence. The camera slithers, the framing is ever-so-slightly off, and the characters are forever etched into the memory banks: Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Toecutter, an intellectual of the psychotic persuasion; Tim Burns’ Johnny the Boy, who is left with that infamous fate at the end; Roger Ward’s mustachioed and domineering captain Fifi; and of course Max’s wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their boy Sprog (Brendan Heath). For a debut feature, Miller does a whole lot more right than wrong and the quotable script never gets in the way of a strict show-don’t-tell visual approach to storytelling. This is how stars are born, both behind and in front of the camera.
1. “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981)
The second installment of a film series typically uses the phenomenal success of its predecessor as creative fuel, and somehow finds a way to one-up it. Like with a few rare examples (“Godfather Part. 2,” possibly “The Empire Strikes Back,” and maybe a couple of others), “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” is a sequel that elevates the series onto another level. There’s an immediate sense of a wondrous fable about to unfold, with the voice of Harold Baigent as the narrator and his opening lines; “My life fades, the vision dims. All that remains are memories.” This man chooses his final moments to tell the story of the Road Warrior Max (Mel Gibson), and how this wandering stranger helped his community escape the maniacal clutches of the Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his posse of demented men on machines, led by his number-one lap dog Wez (Vernon Wells). In ‘The Road Warrior,’ Miller finds the perfect balance of compassion and nonchalant indifference in Max. With Gibson multiplying the swagger factor and adding subtle hints of emotion into a hardened badass, Miller successfully sculpts one of cinema’s most recognizable iconic antiheroes. His presence emits a legendary aura as soon as the opening mist clears to reveal the injured warrior, his left eye half closed, in an iconic pose. Dean Semler‘s cinematography projects the Australian outback as something extra-terrestrial (one recalls the magnificent wide shot of Humungus’ gang leaving the refinery, and the cosmic scale of their dust trails), and Norma Moriceau‘s gloriously imaginative costumes put the ‘freak’ in freak-show, but it’s Miller’s action that reigns supreme; fluid, operatic and unfathomably unforgiving in its wayward pursuit to represent the psychological consumption of violence. The climactic chase in the final act is one of the greatest pieces of action ever directed, and cements “Mad Max 2” as a gloriously fucked up masterpiece of organic filmmaking.