Mad Max: Fury Road is an amazing piece of high-popcorn cinema and give-no-quarter visual storytelling. Within the first five minutes we're told everything we need to know about the world; It's post-apocalypse, first gas was important, then water became more important. We quickly see the bad-guys, the tortured anti-hero Max (Tom Hardy), and the protagonist Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Actually, we're not told much of anything, we're shown it all. Legions of War Boys, their skin chalk white, grabbing steering wheels with religious fervor; thousands of the poor being treated to a taste of water, crawling all over each other to get just that taste; the hulking mutant general, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), looming over all, calling all the shots; Max being used as a living blood bag to fuel the bodies of the terminally ill War Boys; Imperator Furiosa, dark headed, sober, bright eyed, manning the supply convoy ready to head out for gas and bullets, suddenly gone rogue. We understand what's going on without anyone stopping the movie to deliver a monologue.
Being familiar with the previous films in the Mad Max series prepared me for the show-don't-tell aesthetic of Fury Road. Director George Miller excels at this type of storytelling and world-building, and I was hoping that given a bigger budget and the benefit of time (Fury Road was in development for fifteen years!), that Miller would push his talents as far as they could go. I wasn't disappointed. No one directs a car chase like Miller, he always makes sure the viewer has a sense of place in the film, so that even when the images blur out in a staccato flash of carnage, flames and twisting metal, you're always able to orient yourself and know where you are and who you're with in seconds. Fury road, with its grand staging and heightened sense of realism is more akin to an opera than a film, except instead of cadenzas we get car chases and instead arias we get howls of rage, fear, pain and triumph.
All of this makes Mad Max an action movie worthy of praise, a single fire tornado amongst the paint-by-numbers offerings the big studios shovel out each year; safe, bland CGI video-game action sequences and gauze-thin plots with zero message. Fury Road is an oasis in the wasteland.
There's been a bit of a furor about the titular character's role in the film, but just like in the other films in the series--except for the original Mad Max, Max is more an agent of change than a protagonist in the usual sense. He doesn't have an arc; his motivation is survival, and if he can survive while aiding a worthy cause, then that's what he'll do. The real protagonist of the film is Imperator Furiosa. She has a mission, she has a point of view, she's holding the moral high-ground and she's willing to fight and die for it. For redemption and for freedom. Immortan Joe and his War Boys are also willing to fight and die for their beliefs, but there's no doubt that Immortan Joe is the antagonist. From his vacuum sealed clear body armor to his horse-faced re-breather, he's a wild and organic Darth Vader-like figure who wields absolute and god-like influence over his army.
There are a number of scenes, right from the start, where we see that the War Boys will gladly die for Immortan Joe. Joe's goals, however, appear to start and end with domination. He controls the water, so he controls life--except that he doesn't. His children are either still-born or deformed, his War Boys are all sick and will die without blood transfusions. In vaults underneath his mountain stronghold he keeps his "wives", women bound to sexual slavery as he attempts to breed healthy boys. It's never explicitly stated, but I assume that Joe is attempting to cultivate a legacy of dominion over the wastes, and in order to do that he believes that he must have healthy sons.
Why does he specifically need healthy sons, when he's got what seems like a pretty healthy crew of women under his command? I mean, seriously, he's got five young and healthy "wives", a cadre of nursemaids, a matron and an Imperator/road warrior. Instead of seeing these women as assets, he sees them as commodities, and that's the scariest thing about Immortan Joe. He's scary not just because his looks, his bloodthirstiness, or his two-dimensional arch-typical villainy, but the fact that his point of view is one that's shared by people right here in pre-apocalyptic first world America and beyond. There are real-life, flesh and blood people who hold the same opinions about women as this cartoonishly evil cipher. In fact, there was a bit of a hub-bub in these troglodytic circles regarding Fury Road because there were rumors circulating that it was a feminist film. There were actually adult men cautioning other men not to see it because it depicted women in positions of power and not of submission. It's refreshing to see this line of antiquated thought equated with out and out villainy. It's also refreshing to see that not only do Joe's wives break away from him, asserting that they are not "things", that they're not breed mares, but that they don't just fall into the arms of another man at the end. There's no good guy to catch them, they fall into the arms of one another, and into the arms of a community that needs them. Their lives are their own.
Another parallel to today's world that I found interesting was how the powerful use religious extremism to control people and resources. Believing that Immortan Joe is a god-on-earth, the War Boys want nothing more than to make him proud of them. If they fight hard, and have a glorious death he will meet them in the afterlife and let them into Valhalla. They are a war-cult that revels in the thought of dying in battle. There a definite echos of the real world embedded here, where fear of extremist religious or nationalistic radicals can motivate many intelligent people into giving up freedom in order to gain a sense of security.
Mad Max: Fury Road has grossed over $45 million at the box office, Tom Hardy is already contracted for two more films, and with the buzz surrounding this film you can bet that a raft of high energy but low substance post-apocalyptic movies are being green-lit right this second.
If you enjoyed Fury Road, and are looking for similar experiences of substance, check out some of the films below:
Mad Max: The Road Warrior
Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome
The Blood of Heroes
Conan the Barbarian