The trailers called George Miller a mastermind. They weren’t kidding.
“Who killed the world?”
Mad Max: Fury Road is the stuff of legend, in more ways than one. Max Rocktansky, a man trying to retain the last vestiges of his humanity in a world driven mad by power, thirst and promises of Valhalla, is a myth. He’s a myth who takes center stage in this story that has little to do with him. His only solo action scene is eclipsed by fog before he returns with ammunition, drenched in the blood of his enemies, and by the film’s end, he disappears into a crowd as if he never really existed. He’s a fixed point in a world where nothing makes sense, a decent man just trying to survive and deal with his demons. After the end of all things and in a world where heartlessness is king, there are whispers of this decent man on the wind, but the story is never about him. No, this story, like all his stories since The Road Warrior, uses him as a narrative backdrop to tell the tale of the people around him. The entire film is an insane, operatic fireworks display told through the eyes of the characters he comes into contact with, as he wrestles between self-preservation and selflessness.
But ghis isn’t Max’s story. It’s the story of a lone androgynous warrior with a metal arm, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, stuck in a strictly gender-coded society where women are property meant for milk and breeding, and men are raised to be religious fanatics, following in the footsteps of their dictator, Immortan Joe. It’s also the story of the five young girls she rescues from the dictator’s harem, the tribe of warrior women she teams up with to save them, and Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, a young suicide bomber who rides out with Immortan Joe’s party in the hopes of being welcomed into the afterlife with open arms, until he’s finally forced to accept the fact that his entire worldview is a lie, a lie concocted to control him and everyone like him. Where does Max fit in to all this? For the most part, he’s a blood bank. A universal donor, captured to supply the warriors with the vital energy they lack, and eventually, he’s a narrative catalyst. His failure to protect his now long dead family isn’t so much a driving force as it is a hindrance, and it’s something that he fully accepts as his own problem. The ghosts of his past don’t exist to facilitate his actions. He’s the opposite of a glorified male action hero, whose violence is often justified through “man pain” – instead, his basic function is to support Furiosa’s narrative, and at times he even takes the role of the distressed damsel in need of a saviour. As you can probably tell, Mad Max: Fury Road is a Hollywood action movie turned on its head.
Oh, and it’s absolutely an action movie first, but you probably knew that already. The numerous trailers (1, 2, 3) are both incredible in their own right, and showcase a whole bunch of the film’s high-octane set pieces, but almost everything you see in them is from the first 30 minutes of the movie. That’s right, all the insane, over-the-top explosive effects in the previews, combining the best of practical stunt work and digital trickery amidst some truly dazzling production design, are all just the tip of the iceberg. Actually, the movie is less an iceberg and more liquid nitrogen, but it’s all fueled by the film’s allegorical narrative, and it feels like it’s in a constant state of climax.
Furiosa is Fury Road’s secret weapon, a cinematic atom bomb just waiting to be dropped. She isn’t just one of the best female action heroes in recent memory, ranking amongst the likes of Signourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, she’s one of cinema’s most incredible action heroes, period. Full stop. End of statment. She’s also disabled, substituting her missing arm with a metallic claw that helps her with everything from fighting, to driving a war-ready 18 wheeler. Her sole mission is to get a group of women to safety, and her motivation is to pay for her sins as a member of Immortan Joe’s violent regime, and as an extension of a patriarchal society pushed to its extremes. The Immortan himself is a disgusting creature, a man who hides his deformed skin beneath armour adorned with military medals and muscular definition. He lives in a mountainous castle right on top of what could very well be the world’s last water reservoir, using his control over the supply to subjugate his workers. The elites in charge of the decision-making are his sons, and all the generals and fighters at his disposal are brainwashed young lads painted white. Skeletal young boys who barely have enough to eat, which is fitting since they’ve all been convinced that dying in the name of their masked God is the most honourable fate.
Nux is one of the young men looking to prove himself, a boyish character led stray by a mad monarch. He gets childishly excited when Immortan Joe simply looks in his direction, and he even names his tumors and draws smiley faces on them. There’s a charming innocence to him despite his misinformed bloodlust and his willingness to give up his own life for a man who fancies himself a deity, and that’s what makes it all the more terrifying. Amidst this bizarre cinematic universe of crazy costumes and spiked vehicles lies an honest depiction of young religious fundamentalists, the kind at the very root of global terrorism. The film’s boldest statement about them, however? Like Furiosa, they’re redeemable.
Furiosa’s contribution is to a society where women are subjugated under the guise of the common good. They exist only to produce and satisfy, and even the one woman who’s been allowed to break out of that mold is forced to take on a masculine appearance and perpetrate death and destruction. She’s even pedestalized for it. She’s “not like other girls” because she partakes in the same masculine violence that these men use to conquer and enslave, the same kind that makes characters like Nux feel worthless if they don’t excel at it. Eventually, Nux’s turn towards better understanding his situation comes not through violence or pain, but through compassion from one of the former slave girls who has every reason to hate him. Immortan Joe’s kingdom is one where hatred is almost virtuous (much of Immortan Joe’s motivation seems to stem from fear of being supplanted) and the first instance of kindness that Furiosa comes across that isn’t incidental or mutually beneficial is when she reaches an important check-point in the film, and meets up with a band of middle-aged and older women (one of whom plants seeds in the skulls of dead animals, trying to find life in even the most hopeless of places).
The warrior women are initially fearful of Max and Nux because of the destruction they’ve seen men bring, and rightly so, but all it takes for them to trust the two of them is Furiosa and the brides saying they’re decent men who’ve helped them on their journey. In a world where trust is in short supply and men give themselves excuses to be monsters, a woman’s word on this is gold. Like the film’s approach to religious fundamentalism, its approach to misogyny stems from the real world as well. Old, grey-haired men in positions of power trying to control women’s bodies, reducing them to their ability to reproduce and treating them like property. Up until this point, even in a film about women being enslaved, there’s no sexual violence depicted on screen, and the only instance of nudity is a woman using her vulnerability as a weapon. The exclamation of “We are not things!” begins as a desperate appeal to rationality when one of the girls is tempted to return to Immortan Joe because of the harsh road that is the alternative, but it soon becomes akin to a war cry.
Eventually, it’s simple notions of kindness and teamwork that drive the heroes in their stand against the heartless men who want to enslave them. The film itself begins to take on the form of an appeal to empathy and innate goodness, and it does all this in the form of massive chase sequences involving cars equipped with crazy weaponry, mounted by men who spray-paint their mouths for a momentary religious high before descending on Olympic vaulting poles and throwing explosive spears at their targets. The entirety of the film’s jaw-dropping action stems from their intent to destroy, and the heroes’ attempts to fix and to save.
Were I to describe the action, you simply would not believe me. There’s a blindfolded general who rolls up in a car outfitted with tank wheels, firing dual machine guns into the night as he yells “I AM THE SCALES OF JUSTICE” and that doesn’t even qualify as one of the top 20 craziest in the movie. Immortan Joe and his men ride out into the desert aided by a fucking ROCK BAND, comprising a quartet of tribal drums on the back of a massive truck, and a make-shift moving stage for a guy with an electric guitar…. On fire.
Miller swoops in from above and photographs this hundred mile stretch of desert as if it’s on the scale of Middle Earth. There’s weight and tension to every action beat, and every character is at constant risk of severe injury or worse. There’s a moment where twelve women, each with speaking parts and distinct personalities, ride out together to face hundreds of men, aided by Max, a man who’s experienced the same subjugation they have, and Nux, a boy trying to make amends by fighting his own patriarchal religion, and it’s just the beginning of some of the most fist-pumping moments in all of action cinema.
The film is dripping with internal mythology, from the overt ideas drawn from humanity’s worst misuses of religion, here embodied by Norse iconography and masculine car-worship, to the women’s small gestures of prayer and respect drawn from Eastern mythology, and if you needed any more reasons to dive into this mad, mad, mad, mad world, just look at the list of character names: Max Rocktansky! Imperator Furiosa! Immortan Joe! Nux! Rictus Erectus! Toast The Knowing! THE DOOF WARRIOR! The Splendid Angharad! The Bullet Warrior! The People Eater! Corpus Colossus! The Organic Mechanic! Capable! The Dag! Miss Giddy! Keeper of the Seeds! THE VALKYRIE! Each of these characters could have their own original graphic novel or spin-off movie, and they’re all thrown together in a chaotic whirlwind of justifiable anger and awe-inspiring spectacle.
There’s nothing left to be said. Action is a genre unique to the art of cinema, a pure expression of chaos relying on combinations of image and sound that turn storytelling into a sensory experience, and this is the absolute apex of that phenomenon. If you only watch one movie in theatres this year, make sure this is that one movie. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find, and believe every word of hyperbole from critics and fans alike. Mad Max: Fury Road is one for the history books.
“Oh what a day, what a lovely day!”