Where to begin with George Miller

As new Mad Max story Furiosa revs into cinemas, we join the dots in the unexpected career of George Miller, from Happy Feet to Fury Road.

Mad Max 2 (1981)

Why this might not be so easy

George Miller takes his time with projects. He’s directed only 12 theatrically released films in 45 years. At a glance, also, the work can look distinctly divided: dominated by an influential franchise (the Mad Max series), the remainder might seem less important.

The Mad Max films – of which Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is the fifth and latest – have earned him a place in the pantheon of modern greats; a maestro of metal-on-metal carnage and a consummate craftsman of spectacle. He is revered by fellow directors because of it, making him a filmmaker’s filmmaker. But what else is there? Movies about a talking pig (Babe: Pig in the City, 1998), singing and dancing penguins (Happy Feet, 2006; Happy Feet Two, 2011), a disease-of-the-week medical melodrama (Lorenzo’s Oil, 1992 and a supernatural battle-of-the-sexes comedy (The Witches of Eastwick, 1987) make things certainly eclectic.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024)

Yet when taken together, thematic threads join up to present a unifying vision. He sees cinema as a form of public dreaming, and films as manifestations of cultures trying to define themselves through the ancient act of storytelling. Believing the medium taps into the Jungian collective unconscious, Miller has increasingly gravitated towards archetypes and archetypal narratives – the hero’s journey being one of popular cinema’s abiding obsessions. This is what connects disparate titles and various Miller characters, be it rogue cop Max Rockatansky, tragic but fierce heroine Furiosa, a devilish trickster romancing then harassing suburban women, Mumble the penguin, Babe the talking pig or a British narratologist engaging in conversation with a djinn. 

With Miller, there’s more than meets the eye. His films display philosophical ambitions delivered in digestible pop cult vehicles.

The best place to start – Mad Max

Appearing at the tail end of the Australian New Wave, 1979’s Mad Max is pulpy material executed with consummate craftsmanship. Set in a slowly collapsing dystopian society, Miller’s debut represents his first stab at the montage-heavy action style which made his name – what he would later call “visual rock’n’roll”.

Mad Max (1979)

Guided by the stunt-heavy silent films of Buster Keaton, and inspired by Aussie car culture, the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, and victims of road accidents Miller saw during his stint as an A&E doctor, Mad Max refashioned American genres – cops-and-robbers, counterculture biker movies and the western – into a giddy Australian affair, complete with colloquial dialogue (“very toey”). Meanwhile, the country’s penchant for anti-authoritarianism was gloriously on show in the virtually non-existent line between amoral lawmen and the gang of miscreants marauding around rural Victoria.

Geometric compositions, gothic landscapes and classy widescreen cinematography using anamorphic lenses combine to give Mad Max a visual punch way above what would be expected from a regionally produced, independently financed, drive-in actioner.

What to watch next

Go directly to Mad Max 2 (1981), also known as The Road Warrior. The film J.G. Ballard referred to as “punk’s Sistine Chapel”, this continues Max’s story: now he’s roaming the feral and deadly wasteland of post-apocalyptic Australia, surviving day by day. Using a stripped back storytelling approach and minimal dialogue, but revising and ramping up the chase sequences and violence, Mad Max 2 is generally considered one of the greatest action movies ever made.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) leans further into the archetypal and monomyth. In Beyond Thunderdome, Max becomes a messiah-like figure to a group of lost children living in the Outback, and, in helping them, he finally finds redemption. The most divisive entry in the series, with its softer edges, grandiose themes and a villainess played by pop star Tina Turner, Beyond Thunderdome is the best of times and the worst of times in 1980s commercial cinema. Love it or loathe it, it sees Miller’s imagination for envisioning incredibly complex set-pieces and cutting them together with pristine visual clarity reach new heights. For now.

After a 30-year break, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) saw Miller reimagine visual rock‘n’roll into visual heavy metal. The story is basically a two-hour chase, but with over 2,500 cuts editor Margaret Sixel produced a barrage of imagery that smashes into your eyeballs like a double bass drum going berserk. Even so, Miller’s simple but effective centre-framing compositions ensure everything registers, down to near subliminal cuts.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Once you’re up to date with the Mad Max saga, check out Miller’s contribution to the anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), which gave him the opportunity to experience Hollywood  filmmaking for the first time and make something a world away from Mad Max. ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ is a wonderfully cartoonish, high-anxiety horror lark, starring John Lithgow as a nervous flyer convinced there’s a gremlin on the wing of his Los Angeles-bound flight.

The Witches of Eastwick, based on John Updike’s 1984 novel, is Miller’s Hollywood debut proper. Highly regarded among genre scholars due to its progressive view of witchcraft (until then usually depicted on screen in a negative light), it boasts a deliciously hammy turn by Jack Nicholson as a horny Satan wooing three bored, smalltown women.

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Next up, although it sounds mawkish on paper, Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) is a riveting tearjerker tied to the director’s background in medicine and proved Miller’s skillset as an artist able to turn his hand to any genre. Miller then took a break from features to direct a BFI-backed television documentary, 40,000 Years of Dreaming (1997), an hour-long history of Australian film. Not only does it offer a whistlestop tour of a national cinema’s past and present, the programme also contains Miller’s own comments, thoughts and theories regarding the cinema itself.

Round things up with Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022), Miller’s love letter to mythology, yarn spinning, fables and tales, starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton. At once intimate and large scale, amusing and sometimes outright bizarre, this modern-day djinn story offers another reminder of his versatility, finding new ways to express his obsessive interests in culture, history and art.

Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

Where not to start

The 1995 farmyard fable Babe (which he produced and co-wrote), its darker, weirder, cult-favourite 1998 sequel Babe: Pig in the City (which he co-wrote and directed) and the CG-animated jukebox musical Happy Feet, which won Miller his first Oscar, are well-regarded kids’ flicks, but would give newcomers a misleading impression of the overall Miller canon.

But these family films shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed. Their embrace of digital effects and CG animation afforded Miller the opportunity to re-establish his credentials as a master storyteller. This period would have a direct impact on his eventual return to all things Mad Max, when the once-photorealistic Wasteland became transformed into a high-res, ochre-coloured hell vision of toxic-fumed impressionism that only CG could create.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 24 May.