Much has been said about the visual aesthetics of Mad Max: Fury Road, its orange and blue saturated landscapes, and its spectacular special effects.
But one theme came up in the discussions about the movie, and at least we'll be clear about it: Mad Max is not related to the Steampunk genre. It's easy to understand why casual viewers might think it is. Brass, cogs, and goggles are all familiar elements of a steampunk visual aesthetic.
But these are only minor pieces of the depicted universe. Mad Max: Fury Road is not Steampunk. It is Dieselpunk.
You might think this distinction doesn't matter. After all, the movements are easily confused. Both involve fantastic cosplays and a fascination with alternative historical views of the world. But Dieselpunk differs from Steampunk in several crucial ways in this saga.
Steampunk focuses on the aesthetics of the mid to late 19th century. It imagines that the technology of the time has advanced into the future, but the aesthetic and cultural markers have remained more or less the same. The core of the steampunk concept is that the world still runs on steam: steamboats, airships, vehicles, and trains. It is a sustainable resource, and it gives the steampunk world the freedom to experiment with other technologies (or magical technologies, if you are into that). The steampunk world is an expanding, growing, exciting world full of cogs and clocks, light, and electricity.
On the other hand, Dieselpunk is set in the early 20th century, specifically the 1920s-1940s. Dieselpunk is powered entirely by diesel. In the dieselpunk world, technology can produce energy, but it comes at a cost.
In Dieselpunk, the energy of pre-war art deco and its emerging technology collide with the tired cynicism of a world darkened by World War II. Dieselpunk emphasizes war and weaponry, while Steampunk emphasizes peace and technological invention. Dieselpunk is abrasive and dirty, where Steampunk is "clean". Dieselpunk emphasizes artillery, steel, and iron. Essentially, Steampunk is gold and brass; Dieselpunk is silver and chrome.
A dieselpunk society is a dying society.
The world of Mad Max shows that technology is a sign of decay and enslavement. The basic resources that fuel their culture also kill them: Max has an iron mask, and women wear steel belts.
What was once a society of art-deco has become a wasteland where everything shines, but nothing is gold. Their vision of paradise as a glittering "shiny" metropolis is less Valhalla and more a 1920s Manhattan.
And so deep is the Warboys' devotion to Immortan Joe's Dieselpunk aesthetic that before they die, they spray their mouths with chrome.
Only when the fugitives escape into the desert, where the last unrefined oil is hidden, does the mask come off, the steel trap come off, the metaphorical gloves come off. Once rid of the iron and steel, they can slowly strip away the other markers of their oil-dependent society: aggression and internalized violence.
Mad max's environmental message is clear: the world's focus on diesel fuel has sunk it into the ground. Some film critics have accused the excess as implausible, but excess fueled by nihilism is an essential part of the dieselpunk aesthetic. That's precisely the whole point of the film: Immortan Joe's patriarchy is so attached to its excess and wastes that it can't stop even when it poisons and disgusts itself.
What is the point of this Dieselpunk movie?
Dieselpunk relies on depictions of a futuristic world still clinging to a nebulous 1940s mystique. In addition to elevating the 20th century to the wartime era, Dieselpunk has often been criticized for fetishizing and embracing fascism and fascist ideals. Fascination with Nazi regimentation is a recurring theme in some dieselpunk subcommunities.
In Mad Max, director George Miller doesn't just recreate this aesthetic; he eviscerates it. He demonizes the fascist tactics of aggression and conquest. He draws on all the cultural elements upon which Dieselpunk is based - over-industrialization and militarization, imperialism - but instead of portraying them as beautiful, he shows them as utterly unsustainable, both as technology and culture.
Steampunk is about a world people could dream of. Dieselpunk is about a world that is about to destroy itself.
That's the crucial difference, and that's why Mad Max deserves to be known for what it is - an essential and subversive Dieselpunk film.