Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is visceral, unrelenting filmmaking, a purely cinematic experience as much as it is a story in the conventional sense of having a beginning, middle, and end. This isn’t to say that it is narratively weak. If anything, with Fury Road, 70 year old Australian director George Miller reminds us that cinema is primarily a visual medium and manages to convey one of the most satisfying experiences of genre narrative in ages by emphasizing the motion in “motion pictures.”

Nominally the third sequel to Miller’s own Mad Max films (1979-1985), it extends and repeats the themes and concerns of those films while also operating as essentially its own thing. So, while familiarity with the original films might deepen one’s appreciation of what Miller is doing here, it’s not necessary to have seen the original films to appreciate or understand the latest entry. If anything the effort to square all of what came before with the world that we are plunged into head first in Mad Max: Fury Road is going to prove to be an impossible task. Each entry in the Mad Max films not only moves us further away from a recognizable world, and a tight continuity but deeper and deeper into the realm of myth and legend.

While 30 years have passed since Beyond Thunderdome graced theatres, enough time has passed in the film’s world that entire civilizations have begun to arise. Gone are the small vying camps of survivors and gangs, replaced with a mass of humanity stripped to, as Max intones in his opening voice over, “a single instinct: survive.” Simple gangs have given way to warlords with intricate societies they keep in thrall. The desert seems to have gotten bigger, more immense, and in this immensity Max roams, seeming unaged as the world around him falls apart. This Max is also both reduced and broadened at the same time. Mel Gibson’s broken, hurt Max replaced by Tom Hardy playing Max as a truly mad, not just angry, shell of a man who must remember there is something more than mere survival.

But survival is going to be hard earned in this world. The film opens with Max being caught by a roaming war party of the monstrous Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played “Toecutter” in the original film). They return Max to Joe’s Citadel, where Joe has leveraged his control of water to create a sick society of humans reduced to chattel. His ghoulish war boys serve as his army, while women in Joe’s world are used to provide milk for his children or provide the children themselves. These later women are Joe’s “wives,” five women reduced to his private breeding stock. Upon his capture Max is also used as human property, a “blood bag” for a weakened war boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-armed “stolen-child” who acts as Joe’s lieutenant, decides to help Joe’s “wives” escape in a stolen war-rig, the film is set in motion and all the pieces begin to move into position. As Furiosa tears east across the desert with her escapees in search of the “green place” where she was born, Joe sends his war party after her. Max finds himself strapped to the front of Nux’s combat vehicle, his “blood bag” a kind of cruciform hood ornament helpless in the middle of a massive manhunt, as multiple parties converge on Furiosa.

And what a chase it is. The above information is established with a maximum of economy, moving the film quickly to its first action sequence which then runs a good 40 minutes or more. It’s almost difficult to imagine that the film could escalate from this point as in the opening sequence Miller gives what is probably one of the most amazing sustained action sequences in cinema history. The film grabs you and makes you immediately feel the stakes, providing an emotional rush that makes the first moment that the characters actually rest feel cathartic.

Miller proves with the action in this film that it’s not a matter of just giving enough backstory that we care about the characters: we come to care about them through their actions themselves. Furiosa’s righteousness is clear in the midst of the action, not in spite of it. Likewise when Max is thrown in with Furiosa’s crew, we hope that he will make the right decisions, not merely learn the right things. In this sense, for all its status as one of the grandest action films in recent memory, it is also a supremely ethical film, concerned with right action. I don’t want to suggest that Fury Road is a deep philosophical treatise, in fact, in many respects it’s the opposite. The sense of right action is confidently communicated through this most populist of forms, the science fiction spectacle.

And spectacle is the right word here. Every frame of this film is jam packed with detail and a sense of the weight of a real world. I’m not saying it’s realistic, but it’s fleshed out in all its insanity, which sadly doesn’t seem so far removed from human behaviour. Take for instance Immortan Joe’s “Doof Warrior,” as he is called in the credits: this red jumpsuit clad figure, perches on the front of a speaker loaded truck and plays his flame-throwing double-guitar as a kind of call to battle for Joe’s war boys. This is never explained. There is no exposition that justifies or makes the Doof Warrior’s role clear. In this sense it reminds of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, in that the world it shows us has a depth and history to it that the filmmakers feel no need to dwell on. The action scenes have a free-wheeling sense that they don’t need to dwell on each moment, or linger on the elaborate sets or detailed world, even though many other films would pause and let us savour one of the titanic crashes that punctuate the action scenes. Miller uses undercranking to speed up the action at certain moments and slow motion at others to control the pace of the action and propel us to the next event. The action cuts fairly rapidly between the various participants of the battle, in order to maintain a sense of position, not to create chaos.

The world of Fury Road is mythic in the sense of how it repeats the same beats of the second and third Mad Max films—the lone figure drawn into helping the righteous—myth being the repetition of a tale in sequence though not necessarily in details. This repetition of themes is given even greater resonance in this film, contrasting the communal, human values of Furiosa and her companions against the hegemonic, mechanistic values of Immortan Joe and his machines of war. In Joe’s world, life is sustained through dehumanization. Critics are astute who have connected the imagery in Joe’s Citadel to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, as the theme of the “Moloch machine,” humans serving mechanistic roles is deeply part of Joe’s world of sacrifice. By comparison, much has been made of the film’s feminist stance, and it does have one, though it is sad that simply giving women roles that challenge the status quo of Hollywood constitutes some kind of radical act. More specifically, the film links the women to hope, and the perpetuation of life, both human and other.

For all it’s grotesquery and intense violence, Mad Max: Fury Road suggests that action can be used to imagine a new, better world. The action in this film is as good as it gets on a technical level, but it works all the better because in its great vision of what an action film can be it never condescends. Fury Road doesn’t transcend its genre origins, but it shows the very possibilities—both technically and thematically—of them.

9 out of 10

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)

Directed by George Miller; written by George Miller and Brenden McCarthy and Nico Lathouris; starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Riley Keough, Megan Gale, Nathan Jones.