Every George Miller movie is a Mad Max movie

George Miller’s lavish fantasy movie Three Thousand Years of Longing begins with a warning. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), the film’s protagonist, warns viewers that the story she’s about to tell beggars belief — and yet it nonetheless happened to her. So to better present it to an audience inoculated against wonder, she decides to tell it as a fairy tale: one of the oldest kinds of stories, where the veracity of an account has little bearing on whether it’s true.

Much like Alithea’s story, the career of the director telling that story is difficult to believe, and seemingly unreal. The breadth of George Miller’s filmography is staggering and slim at the same time. You could watch all of his movies in a weekend and find gonzo comedy, seminal action cinema, brutally intimate drama, and landmark children’s movies. Since 1979, the idiosyncratic, soft-spoken director has surfaced roughly a dozen times, in each case to present a uniquely polarizing work. How does the man known for presenting one of the most iconic, violent wastelands in cinema also turn around and make Happy Feet, or Babe: Pig in the City?

Three Thousand Years of Longing is another curveball from a man who doesn’t know how to throw any other kind of pitch. In this phase of his career, Miller has been lionized, his reputation solidified through the wild success of Mad Max: Fury Road. That 2015 film is now widely regarded as the very best of its decade. It’s a thrilling, thoughtful action movie that was received with amazement and enthusiasm — and has since steadily grown in estimation to become regarded as an easy addition to the canon of cinematic greats.

Miller’s latest movie is nothing like Fury Road. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a quiet film, a rumination on stories and storytelling presented the way the very first stories were told: with two people sitting down and talking to each other. It is, after a fashion, a victory lap: Nearly a decade after Fury Road, Miller now has the world’s attention, and he’s cashing that check by making a film to reflect on why he does what he does.

George Miller talks to Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton on the set of Three Thousand Years of Longing
George Miller directing Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba on the set of Three Thousand Years of Longing
Photo: Elise Lockwood/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

“Stories are a question,” Miller tells Polygon. “They’re how we as human beings, with the neurology that we’ve evolved since we’ve become homo sapient, make meaning. We make the world coherent through our stories. And we do that just as certainly as we have a pulse and we breathe and we do all the other things that we do in life.”

Questions are some of the most potent aspects of George Miller’s work. Who killed the world? is written across the scenery in Mad Max: Fury Road. In Babe: Pig in the City, a friendly pig is chased by a vicious pit bull, only to turn around and ask, “Why?” When Alithea discovers a real-life djinn will grant her three wishes, like in the fables of myth, she tries to out-game the rules of storytelling, wondering, Am I in a cautionary tale? Even Happy Feet sends Mumble — a penguin who dances in a culture where everyone sings — out alone into the Antarctic, where he wonders why everyone around him thinks there is only one way to live.

These questions are really just the same question, asked in different ways. That question, married to an aesthetic molded by the language of silent cinema and a fiendish devotion to doing as much as possible in front of the camera, gives Miller’s movies an uncommon urgency. His message makes viewers feel like they must reach the end of the film, like they must also find an answer, even if the question is ultimately familiar.

Over and over, George Miller wants to know: Are we doomed to keep killing each other and killing the Earth at the same time? Is it foolish to dream of a world where we aren’t?

A dreamer in the bush

George Miller is, first and foremost, an Australian. His biography is central to his filmmaking, ever-present in his worldview and methodology. Born in the rural town of Chinchilla (where he says his family was the first to get a toilet that flushed), Miller nursed an early and passionate love of cinema while training to be a doctor.

Miller’s heritage has also been at the forefront of his mind creatively. In the early ’80s, between the wild success of The Road Warrior and his feature-length Hollywood debut with The Witches of Eastwick, Miller co-wrote or directed a number of miniseries about Australian history. The first, 1983’s The Dismissal, chronicles the events of the country’s 1975 constitutional crisis. Another, The Last Bastion, reflects on Australia’s role in World War II.

And in 1997, Miller wrote and directed an hourlong television documentary called 40,000 Years of Dreaming, a survey of Australian film history that uses the Aboriginal concept of the Dreaming — a collective consciousness of story — to make sense of the world and humanity. Inspired by this notion, Miller sketches out the broad themes that he sees as inherent in Australian film, which he argues is a (predominantly and unfortunately) white Dreaming, but one inextricably tied to unignorable truths about the land. The country’s history bleeds into its artists, all telling one story that feeds into the wider story of humanity.

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Miller, soft-spoken and thoughtful, speaks about Australia with painstaking care and awareness. He addresses its colonial roots as a debtor’s colony, its indigenous history and tradition, its beautifully harsh landscape teeming with tough and varied life, and the collision between all this and more. He’s cognizant that he and his art are born of its earth, part of the bush’s great mosaic. His origins have also granted him a tragically close perspective on the climate crisis.

“I, like everyone else, have anxiety about what we’re doing to ourselves, and what we’re doing to this little tiny planet in the immensity of space and time,” Miller tells Polygon. “We’re suffering right now in Australia — we’ve had unprecedented rains and cold, where I think in the Northern Hemisphere, they’re having unprecedented heat and loss of water. There’s definitely something crazy going on. I see it.

“We have a thing called the Great Barrier Reef, which is a great coral reef, which I got to know quite intimately when I worked on a documentary many, many years ago, on an island. Going back there after 40 years and diving in the same spot, I was astonished by the degradation. I’m not a marine biologist, or in the sciences anymore, and yet I was really shocked about that. I was there with younger tourist guides, in their 20s, and they had no idea what it was like 40 years ago. I’m one of those who’s not only concerned, but really worried about the prognosis. Having once been a doctor, it feels like we’re sort of one big patient who is denying that they have a really serious illness, and hoping that somehow there’s a magic pill that can make it go away.”

All of Miller’s films, in one manner or another, confront an oblivion of our own making. From the environmental disaster of the Mad Max films to our ambition to master the world and snuff out its mystery in Three Thousand Years of Longing, human greed fosters narrow-mindedness, and it’s up to the dreamers to expand that vision — and hopefully, put it right.

The world gone mad

“Who killed the world?” is the most widely recognized articulation of Miller’s ethos in one of his most complex films. It’s the first of several lines in Mad Max: Fury Road that have penetrated the culture in the years since, more as mantras than quotes: We are not things. Out here, everything hurts. Witness me.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) kneeling and looking up with pain in a desert in Mad Max: Fury Road Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Fury Road is so propulsive and singular that it’s easy to pore over it endlessly and find rewarding elements to interrogate: its ambitious craft, carefully built yet lean characters, and the way it gestures at more ideas in passing with those spare quotes than most blockbuster franchises get across in their entire storytelling sprawl. In its movie-length chase, Fury Road runs headlong into the evil of patriarchal power systems, the sorrow of a dying planet, and the guilt of those holding the gun — just to name a few of the thematic ideas that can be found in its blue-orange hellscape.

But Fury Road is an extension of what came before, both in Miller’s wider filmography and in the prior Mad Max films he wrote and directed. It’s a franchise tied up in Miller’s biography, as an Australian who began his professional life as a doctor. As he’s discussed over the years, the original 1979 Mad Max partially stemmed from his time working in emergency rooms and seeing the darker side of Australian car culture, as wide-open desert roads with no speed limits naturally resulted in terrible wrecks. Layer in the 1970s’ fuel crises and the budding environmental movement, and you have a potent tinderbox of cultural forces that only became more potent as the years went by.

Viewers who come to Mad Max after seeing Fury Road may find it impossible to conceive that its grounded take of an Australia in socioeconomic free fall would eventually lead to Fury Road’s post-apocalyptic fantasy society. But even as Miller’s exploration of a world gone mad became more extreme in the sequels The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the root cause of the franchise’s despair never went away.

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The second film in the franchise, The Road Warrior, shows what happens when the nihilism of Mad Max overtakes the world. Society quickly loses the few remaining trappings of modern life — nice suburban homes, diners, green fields — and focuses on the easiest form of survival. The world of The Road Warrior is stunning in its brutality as communities constantly live under threat of being snuffed out by would-be strongmen and those who follow them, tribal and warlike. This calcifies into the society of Beyond Thunderdome, where shrewd, cruel people who hold the levers of power force entire communities to bend to their will, and humanity’s dependency on limited resources instead of each other makes slaves of them all.

Miller has produced three decades of Mad Max films, but the world they’re made in remains the same. It’s one where people in power would rather accelerate toward destruction than abandon their thirst for gasoline, one that still must obey the dictates of social entropy, where fascism will assert itself unless humanity consciously turns away from it.

It’s all there right at the start of the series. Max Rockatansky drives away at the end of Mad Max, hollowed out by his confrontation with the horror of what humans will do to each other when they’re reduced to survival without hope. Across three more movies and 36 years, Miller labored to show the tremendous effort it takes for a man like Max to turn away from that madness. It is difficult, and he never fully does it — every film ends with Max on the road again, searching for something — but he never settles. And in getting involved and connecting with other people, no matter how reluctantly, he leaves the world a little better than he found it.

‘Why?’

In a manner of speaking, every filmmaker is born to tell stories. From script to screen, the process of making a movie is laborious, demanding years of focus and effort from countless artists and craftspeople. Sustaining focus throughout that labor would be nigh-impossible without some kind of primal drive to see a story through. The miracle of filmmaking is in the magic that happens when a story feels effortless. The miracle of art is when a singular, personal sense of urgency also emerges at the other end of the filmmaking process.

babe and goose in babe pig in the city Image: Universal Pictures

This is the question Miller speaks about, the insistent, insatiable drive to try and answer a question that may be unanswerable. In Miller’s work, the cause for this self-made destruction is clear: greed, which, when succumbed to, smothers community. But what within us causes us to choose greed? That’s a more difficult question. “Why?” is a powerful question, but ask it enough, plumb deeply enough, and you’re eventually met with silence. Like a good doctor, Miller works in the service of life. Unfortunately, this means he must confront death, especially the senseless sort: the relentless snuffing out of beauty.

The examination of the compulsion to choose destruction is even present in his less acclaimed or less characteristic works. According to Kyle Buchanan’s expansive book Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick was an awful experience that drove Miller away from filmmaking for five years. Its darkly comedic story was adapted from a John Updike novel, with a screenplay by Michael Cristofer — the only film Miller has directed that he did not also write. But it’s a familiar Miller story. The struggle between uplift and domination is there, this time in an examination of patriarchy, another theme Miller revisited in Fury Road.

Three women (played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon) are disillusioned and unappreciated in Eastwick, Rhode Island, straining against the narrow confines of suburban femininity. Release comes in the form of Jack Nicholson’s Daryl Van Horne, who may be the literal devil. He seduces them with attention that unlocks their powers, which could make their secret wishes come true. But like most men who rule the prim and proper patriarchy of the suburbs, Van Horne isn’t as altruistic as he appears. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong about what ails the film’s heroines.

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Like most seduction done with selfish intent, Van Horne’s efficacy springs from a kernel of truth. “Men are such cocksuckers, aren’t they?” he says during a monologue midway through the film. “You don’t have to answer that. It’s true. They’re scared. Their dicks get limp when confronted by a woman of obvious power. And what do they do about it? Call them witches, burn them, torture them, until every woman is afraid. Afraid of herself… afraid of men… and all for what? Fear of losing their hard-on.”

Similarly, Miller’s return to feature filmmaking in 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil doesn’t initially seem in step with the interrogation of destruction best signified by his Mad Max films. Based on true events, the film follows parents Augusto Odone (Nick Nolte) and Michaela Odone (Susan Sarandon) as they seek a cure for their son Lorenzo, diagnosed with what was then a newly discovered condition: adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD.

As a story about normal people struggling against a force of nature, Lorenzo’s Oil has an antagonistic energy focused toward institutions and egos. Augusto and Michaela want to save their son, but first they have to subvert a system that would otherwise let him die. At the same time, they’re combating the true villain of the story Miller is telling: their own despair.

Lorenzo’s Oil is designed to make viewers feel the oppression of parents struggling to persevere against fate, disease, and the structure of the medical establishment. It’s a difficult, unpleasant movie, but every step of the way, it challenges viewers to hold on like the Odones and continue to dream, and not just for selfish reasons. In the film, the Odones’ plight reaches a turning point in the third, act when they realize that the cure they helped discover might not cure their son, but it may help future sufferers. The way forward, then, is to labor for others as well as ourselves: to put a dream into action, and share it in community.

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Through this lens, Miller’s animated children’s movie Happy Feet is much less of an anomaly than it might seem at first glance. What seems like a tried-and-true cartoon fable about being yourself soon intersects with the dire state of the world at large, as penguin protagonist Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) is blamed for his colony’s food shortage, because his tap dancing puts him at odds with his singing community. In exile, Mumble discovers the true cause of the shortage: Human overfishing and pollution has devastated the colony’s food supply. He ends up getting captured and trapped in a Sea World exhibit, but his gift of dance encourages humans to reconsider their impact on his colony and release him back into the wild. Making the world bigger is the only way to avoid destruction.

Back to that scene from Babe: Pig in the City, when Babe, naive and out of place in a towering metropolis, is conned by a trio of chimps into being bait for guard dogs. Chased through the streets in terror by a truly frightening pit bull and Doberman pinscher pair, Babe flees until he reaches a bridge where, in what New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis calls “one of the great moments in movie history,” Babe turns around and quietly asks: “Why?”

The dog plows into Babe, who falls into the water below. But he swims to the surface, and soldiers on. The world made him and the dog into what they are, but he can still ask why and whether that needs to be true, and dream of a better world for both of them.

Dreaming of a green place

Late in Three Thousand Years of Longing, Alithea is shown in her London home, surrounded by the harsh sounds of modernity that the quiet of her flat can’t quite keep outside. It’s hard for her to hear stories in London. The technology around her invites interruption. Her neighbors are noisy, nosy bigots. Magic is difficult to believe in. Her work as a narratologist, a scholar who engages with the cultural anthropology of stories and their role in our history, seems fanciful and frivolous in London. Like the city in Babe: Pig in the City, her hometown is an effective machine for shutting out our collective humanity. Such machines are designed this way on purpose, cultivated by those who run them to foster ownership and profit over community, separating the haves from the have-nots. It’s a useful tool for those who wish to kill the world.

In Three Thousand Years of Longing, Alithea wants more. She wants to feel known, connected to the cosmic fabric of the universe like the stories she’s devoted her life to studying. But from her London flat, the distance between that world and the one she inhabits seems too great, and maybe she’s past the point of her life where she feels capable of changing her world. This, of course, is nonsense. All she has to do is ask the question, tell the story, ask why. As Furiosa, Mumble, and Babe discover before her, that’s the first necessary step to making the world different. It might not be a difference she will see, but if enough people make that choice, perhaps there will be a cure for our suffering.

Alithea holds the Djinn’s face in Three Thousand Years of Longing Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

In George Miller’s body of work, all suffering is a tragedy: a child’s, an animal’s, a planet’s. In his films, the camera’s power lies in its function as an unblinking eye, and the only real crime is looking away. This is the common thread in his work: His characters look frankly at the grim truth of their bitter, damaged worlds. Then they allow themselves the dignity of dreaming, and the power those dreams give us to move forward and try to make them real.

In the Western world — the one largely canonized by white people in power, the one that thinks it’s the cultural center of the planet — there are no new fairy tales, or at least, none like our original shared stories: fables passed down from person to person, taking new shape in different cultures, communities, and eras. Perhaps Miller is on to something when he has Alithea decide to tell her story as a fairy tale. Because without shared fantasies, what connects us to each other? If stories are questions that lead to understanding each other and the world around us, we must tell stories. We must dream. Then we must wake up, and try and realize that dream — for ourselves, but more importantly, for others. Even if success seems impossible.

George Miller’s movies demand — urgently, creatively, and in a dozen different modes and voices — that we confront the reality of the world around us, and acknowledge how we’ve helped shape it. Then he asks: Why does it have to be this way? Will you dream about fixing this problem with me? Even if we fumble, even if we fail, even if we dismiss it all as a fairy tale, Miller still finds it beautiful to try.