Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller; written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris
R (for intense sequences of violence and for disturbing images)
Mad Max: Fury Road returns Australian writer-director George Miller to the helm of his late 1970’s and early 1980’s franchise–Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)–which propelled Mel Gibson to international stardom. English actor Tom Hardy replaces Gibson as “Mad” Max Rockatansky, playing with grunting stolidity the same lone reluctant hero who wanders the post-apocalyptic wasteland, this time reluctantly helping several women (the “Five Wives”) attempting to escape a wicked overlord.
In watching George Miller’s re-cast sequel to the Mad Max trilogy, I pondered what would drive a man to create such a story, such characters, such a landscape of the imagination. I thought about Australia, a former prison colony, where convicted citizens of Great Britain were sent. So, take the descendants from a land with such a legendarily mild and beautiful environment, with a culture that was arguably the most law-oriented in Europe and put them, via the long brutal arm of Empire, in Australia, a land of astonishing beauty but also of incredible natural danger. Imagine how their colonial existence might take on a post-lapsarian nostalgia. Then, make them prisoners, shackled by a harsh imperialistic power.
Roughly two-hundred years later, provoked by post-modern malaise and the threat of nuclear holocaust, the medical doctor Miller (who often treated patients hurt in car accidents) came up with the mythology of Mad Max. A fascination with the role of energy and infrastructure also played a role. James McCausland, who co-wrote the screenplay of the first Mad Max film, said years later: “George and I wrote the [Mad Max] script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.”
There are hints of big themes, with the more sane and sympathetic characters referencing their longing for “home” and “hope” and “redemption”. But this is an action flick, with a frenetic avalanche of pursuits and fights and explosions, almost all taken place on, under, and above a dizzying array of cars, trucks, and motorcycles. To that end, countless hours of endeavor went into making this film, from artists at the top of their fields. So it’s interesting to see what makers of culture view as worthy of portrayal, and what ideas strike them as compelling. The main thing provoking Miller and his collaborators is the terror that proceeds from the abuse of power: the escape of several young and beautiful women who were sexually enslaved to a masked overlord, Immortan Joe, is the spine of Mad Max: Fury Road’s story. The subjugation of the poor to to the same overlord is a related, secondary theme in the film; Immortan Joe controls the water supply in a scorched, harsh land, using a kind of manic messianism to keep the people unquestioning and subjected to him.
“Mad” Max Rockatansky, is the reluctant and troubled aid to these fleeing women. Kidnapped by Immortan Joe’s thugs and identified as having blood type “O,” he is thus a universal donor and highly valued amongst the albino-esque minions of the Citadel, an oasis of green amid the post-apocalyptic desert waste. He is pushed towards this selfless service by jarring and eerie hallucinations (or visits) of his dead daughter who both pleads and shames him into helping the helpless. Charlize Theron, with a brooding severity equal to Hardy’s, plays “Furiosa”. She drives a tanker filled not with gas but with Joe’s five enslaved and pregnant wives, who’ve decided they don’t want their children to be warlords and so have hatched a plan to flee. While on a convoy, Furiosa simply veers off the path to begin an escape to her childhood home across the desert wilds, and the adventure begins.
With the original Mad Max over 35 years old, it’s easy to forget how fresh and groundbreaking the original trilogy was, and just how far-out and bizarre the films were for their time. This new installment lacks the mythical lyricism which made 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome so fascinating (and, alas, there’s also no Tina Turner song haunting the soundtrack.) Fury Road, in its story, does seem to allege that religion can serve to subjugate the feeble-minded and the weak. Yet there are hints at belief in something beyond: one of five wives begins praying and when questioned, says she is praying “to whoever will listen”; Furiosa speaks of “redemption” but without elaboration. Where Beyond Thunderdome seemed to have a decently developed idea of the roots of myth and the persistence of belief as a way of adding meaning to a troubling existence, Fury Road offers more questions than answers, perhaps with an eye toward the already complete fifth installment, Mad Max: Furiosa.
Fury Road offers a sort of gonzo critique of patriarchy that is, in places, so over the top that it could be straw man satire of the sort of radical feminism that has run roughshod through the ivory tower in recent decades. A group of older female characters are introduced in the last third of the film that—due to integrity, kindness, and strength combined with nurturing instincts—stand in stark contrast to the sexually perverse and physically grotesque men which rule and populate Joe’s Citadel. Max and a converted albino named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) from the Citadel are the only sympathetic male characters, true; the other men are simply threats, monsters, perverts and freaks. Apparently nuclear war has not aided feminist goals in the least; there is still a need for the strong, silent hero–albeit a bit on the crazy end of the spectrum.
Deeper themes and questions aside, the real reason people will see Fury Road is quite simple: the spectacle. This movie is an amazing visual affair. The locations in the Namibian desert beg for a David Lean epic; the cars are enough to make a gearhead drool; the production design is astonishing, otherworldly, and evocative; and the action, stunts, and pyrotechnics constantly amaze. The film continues the rock and roll aesthetic of the trilogy, owning up to it with a mutant albino who bounces around one of the baddies’ trucks playing a flame-throwing guitar. The trailers to Fury Road promise a symphony of explosions in the wasteland, with bodies flying through the air, cars exploding (and then flying through the air as well), people bleating out pure pathos in post-injury screams. This is a two-hour-long train wreck, perfectly choreographed and filmed. A chase scene through the sandstorm with the bad guys getting swept away by a sand-tornado is quite astounding, and the final chase scene (try to count them all!) is a pure rush of sound and fury.
The characters, however, often fail to resonate as flesh-and-blood people, and are predominantly archetypes. Several scenes are, as a result, somewhat flat and uncompelling because the humanity of the characters hasn’t been established. This deficit diminishes what is, at times, a compelling movie into a loud and clever spectacle. Perhaps the fifth installment will dig deeper into the human element while racing across the desolate landscapes of an arid dystopia.
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