Filmmaker Retrospective: The Diverse Cinema of George Miller
George Miller is a madman. There is no way around this. He is certifiably insane and he would most likely be conducting illegal experiments on small rabbits or infant children if he handn’t been given the opportunity to make the few (but overwhelmingly influential) series of films he has written, directed, and/or produced (more times than not, all three) in nearly the last four decades.
While the above statements are (hopefully) absurd exaggerations, fans of the underrated and under-known director would like to believe George Miller is not a dangerous madman, but rather a curious scientist. He is not sadistic or cruel, he simply takes a clinical approach towards each of his subjects, puts you as closely into their shoes as he possibly can with a movie camera, and lets you take off right there with them. It’s an often-nauseating experience to say the least.
A former emergency room doctor, there is no perspective or style that can match Miller’s intensity and up-close hyper-realism (though he’s certainly had his followers in many of the best directors out there today: Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez, John Woo, and Edgar Wright just to name a few).
Make no mistake, Miller is absolutely crazy for doing what he has done to his audiences with the movies he’s made. His films are intense and new. Everything you see in them is examined so closely under his own personal brand of microscope that you quite often feel like your eyes are going to explode while watching them.
And let’s never ever forget the craziest thing Miller could ever be known for: he’s the same man who helped bring the adorable talking pig Babe to the screen as he is who gave us the chaotic, rape-filled, ultra-bloody, and sadomasochistic thrill kill joy ride that is the (newly added to) Mad Max quadrilogy.
It should also be noted that Miller has made some other movies along the way: some have dancing Penguins, others have Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon trying to cure a rare brain disease in their son, and others even have Jack Nicholson playing a very horny and fertile devil vomiting cherry seeds all over a shocked church crowd.
David Gordon Green has nothing on eclecticism when it comes to George Miller, whose style can only be nailed down to an insane, audacious, and obsessive attention to detail. There is no other working director out there today (other than perhaps Terry Gilliam) who seems so hell bent on shoving the events of their films so fully into their audience’s faces and yet still so confidently expect them to keep coming back for more.
What sets George Miller apart from other directors is the fact that his (very few) films probably vary more than any other major director’s work in recent history. Did I mention the guy who directed The Road Warrior also directed Babe: Pig In The City? Enough said.
1, 2, and 3. Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1979, 1981, 1985)
George Miller, like Mel Gibson, owes his entire career and legacy in film to Mad Max. The difference between the two, however, is that (as Fury Road recently proved to us) Mad Max can survive without Mel Gibson. He is sorely missed, but not irreplaceable. George Miller, on the other hand, is the true magician who brings this insane world to fruition.
1979’s Mad Max was a worthwhile low budget success. Gibson, Miller, and everyone else involved showed a great deal of raw talent, but the film only occasionally rises above b-level success. The production, while rawly effective and disturbing, lacks discipline and purpose.
Gibson’s presence and commitment, however, is one of the film’s major saving graces. It is his performance and his character arc from being a loving family man to a sadistic killer with nothing to lose that turns the film into something truly special and memorable. Miller’s filmmaking didn’t hurt and had some brilliant flourishes, but it did have some catching up to do with Gibson’s natural and raw onscreen intensity.
Catch up it did two years later in 1981 with the masterpiece of apocalyptic action chaos that was Mad Max 2 (retitled The Road Warrior so American audiences could experience it without seeing the more- at the time- obscure original). Miller’s more finessed and refined filmmaking is on full display in Mad Max 2.
It is unrelenting, thrilling, repulsive, nightmarish, and takes no room to let itself (or it’s audience) breathe. Gibson’s tortured presence fills the reluctantly heroic character perfectly, and it’s quite easy to understand why the role made him into the international star he became.
Having just lost his longtime co-producer Byron Kennedy at an extremely young age, a disheartened Miller decided only to handle the action scenes of Beyond Thunderdome, and handed the rest to co-director George Ogilive. Though not quite as tonally intense or violent (it’s PG-13 rating was designed to bring in larger audiences)), it’s massive scale and level of bizarreness are unparalleled and, in its own way, even more extreme than it’s two predecessors.
Being seeped in the eighties, however, (Tina Turner plays the lead villain and lends some pretty out of place cheese to the soundtrack, for example), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome does its best to find a hopeful conclusion (at the time, at least) to a fairly bleak character and world.
This may not have been the correct final chapter for the Mad Max franchise at the time, but, that being said, it’s still a highly creative, utterly ambitious ride that gave many films to come a lot to live up to the quality of its previous installments, but Beyond Thunderdome somehow manages to be an effective (though somewhat flawed) masterpiece in its own right.
4. The Twilight Zone: The Movie/ Nightmare at 20,000 Feet Segment (1983)
The troubled and tragic production of the feature film anthology of the Twilight Zone television series had one major and almost-universally acclaimed highlight to it: George Miller’s remake of the Richard Donner-directed and William Shatner- starring classic episode of the series, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
John Lithgow takes over the starring duties from Shatner as at terrified airplane passenger who is positive that a gremlin hanging out on the wing is trying to crash the plane and kill everyone on board. Passengers, nurses, and crew all try to sedate him and convince him otherwise, but he just can’t stop seeing the evil creature wreaking havoc through the window of the plane he’s sitting by.
Made between The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, what ensues is an intense and throttling twenty minutes of intensity and paranoia that the (still classic and expertly made) Donner episode never even touched. The film, like Lithgow’s performance within it, reaches heights of insanity and chaos that Miller has a true gift for losing his audiences within.
Like the best of the best, Miller can throw the most ridiculous, heightened, and terrifying moments at his audiences and always, just for a moment, make them forget they’re watching a movie. Miller succeeds at this expertly with his segment of the Twilight Zone, and the result is truly unforgettable and terrifying.
5. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Apparently always wanting to keep Hollywood producers on their toes, Miller decided to follow up Beyond Thunderdome with this strange adaptation of the John Updike novel about a trio of New England women (Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pheiffer, and Cher) who discover they have special powers and accidentally conjure up a very charming, flamboyant, and just about perfect man in the form of Jack Nicholson… Who could also happen to very literally be the devil himself.
The production was a troubled one, with cast and producer egos flaring on set, and with Miller coming very close to being fired on several different occasions during production (Jack Nicholson, to his credit, refused to continue the project without Miller’s involvement, however). It’s a good thing the film survived because there truly isn’t anything else out there that is quite like it.
Magical, enchanting, charming, passionate, horrifying, disgusting (really, really disgusting at times), The Witches of Eastwick is a crazy cinematic ride that takes its audience through a number of different emotions, experiences, styles, and genres. Part romance, part horror film, part revenge fantasy, and part feminist examination of female sexuality, The Witches of Eastwick is one of those rare, indefinable films that, while we don’t quite know what it is, we are certainly grateful for it existing.
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