Film

Chaos Reigns in 'Mad Max - Fury Road'

George Miller’s magnificently crazed half-sequel, half-do-over reimagines the original post-apocalyptic action saga as an even more savage, but yet strangely thoughtful, battle for survival in the wreckage.


Mad Max: Fury Road

Rated: R
Writer: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
Director: George Miller
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-05-15
Website

A demolition derby of a chase scene occasionally interrupted by scraps of crackpot wit and Aussie slang-strangled dialogue, Mad Max: Fury Road burns through ammunition and fuel with abandon. You would think that the characters were video-game avatars possessed of endlessly replenishable digital supplies, not the starving and sickly remnants of humanity barely surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Unlike many action films, though, where such profligacy is determined by need for trailer-ready action beats, here it’s central to the film’s story and message.

“Message?” you say. Yes, we are talking about the fourth film in George Miller’s pedal-to-the-medal post-apocalyptic series that started back in 1979 with Mad Max. A swift and effective revenge flick about a cop who goes rogue after a biker gang kills his family and disappears into the Outback after taking revenge, it was also a subtle piece of dystopian fiction. Miller never identified exactly why society was collapsing, but made clear that it all went back to a gas shortage; a more savage version of the one from earlier in the 1970s that reportedly saw law and order break down in remote parts of Australia.

The irony of the series was that as gas became harder to get, the more obsessive the characters became about their vehicles. In a world of limited options, the roar and thunder of a turbo-charged car takes on greater appeal. In 1981’s The Road Warrior, Miller was more explicit: “The precious juice” ran out, nations went to war, civilization blinked out, the savages took over. Everything that happens in these films can be traced back to mismanagement of resources. It shouldn’t be a surprise, as Miller focused even his children’s films around crucial problems, whether it was vegetarianism in Babe or climate change in Happy Feet.

There isn’t much left for Max (Tom Hardy, thankfully taking the reins from Mel Gibson) at the start of Mad Max: Fury Road, or anybody else for that matter. First seen scanning the desert landscape and chomping down on a two-headed lizard, Max is in short order captured by another band of lunatic desperados and put to use as a “blood bag.” His prison is in The Citadel, a Monument Valley-like cluster of rock towers ruled over by a skull-masked and pustule-covered warlord called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who controls access to a rare well of fresh water and doles it out at strategic moments to the parched masses below.

Joe’s Grand Guignol behavior seems inspired by the hellish behavior of some recent African warlords, with his mixture of savage punishment and promises of spiritual redemption in “Valhalla,” not to mention his legion of child soldiers. The “War Boys” are chalk-white car-mad starvlings who worship Joe as a god and leap shrieking into action like drug-addled cannon fodder. There’s plenty of opportunities for them to prove how right they are for Joe’s Valhalla, as much of the film toggles between different variations on the tanker-truck chase scene from the climax of The Road Warrior. Each of these furious but sharply composed sequences are balletic beauties, with vehicles and men flying through the air with Cirque du Soleil precision masked as abandon.

Initially, Max is sent out with a battalion of War Boys, strapped to the front of one of their jerry-rigged turbo-jalopies because his IV is still piping blood into the sickly but eager-to-prove-himself War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). They’re chasing down Joe’s “War Rig” tanker truck, which his onetime lieutenant Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has hijacked to escape from The Citadel with Joe’s harem of wives sick of being used like breeding stock. Because Max is Max, he’s able to free himself from the rig in the middle of a high-speed battle unlike anything else you’ll see on screen this year (vehicles and men flying through the air with Cirque de Soleil abandon), align himself with the one-armed, bullet-eyed Furioisa and her seemingly vulnerable but ultimately capable catwalk-ready beauties. They must fight first to get away from Joe’s War Boys and a Tatooine-level host of other nomadic scourges and then bludgeon their way back through them.

In this iteration of the saga, Hardy’s Max is even less verbal than Gibson’s. He spends the first third of the film silent behind an iron face mask. Even once the mask comes off, he communicates more by looks, a twitch of a gun, than words. “He’s a feral,” one of the War Boys says correctly. Hardy is as physical a performer as ever, scampering around the speeding vehicles with a nimble animalistic ferocity. He burrows himself so deep into a pre-verbal fugue state, akin to the gruff patriarch role he inhabited in Lawless, parceling out the words like gold coins, that all he has to do is give a reluctant thumbs-up to get a round of applause.

Hardy isn’t the most significant change that Fury Road brings to the series. Miller has scrambled up Mad Max’s already fuzzy chronology while still nodding to the earlier films. The car Max drives at the start looks like his original police interceptor that was destroyed two films back. Furiosa plays with a wind-up music box like the Feral Boy from The Road Warrior. Everyone is burning gasoline like there’s no tomorrow, even though back in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome Max was reduced to a horse-drawn wagon and Auntie Entity’s Bartertown had to manufacture fuel from pig manure. Miller re-casts the series original villain (Keays-Byrne played the biker chieftain who killed Max’s family) without any acknowledgment that he might be the same person.

The scope in Fury Road is broader and more fanciful, and not just in ways allowed by the advances of CGI in the three decades since 1985’s Thunderdome. The series’ gallows humor is amplified — Nux, driving through a lightning-stabbed dust storm shrieks with joy, “What a lovely day!”, and most of his comrades behave as if they’ve been huffing glue since they came out of the womb — as is the elemental fairytale sensibility apparent in the ever-more baroque costumery and names.

Voiceovers after the opening credits murmur not only of the “gas wars” referenced at the start of The Road Warrior but also of nuclear conflict that most likely resulted in the desertification seen in the series since the first film. Each of the last two films ended with Max the knight errant helping weaker bands of good people escape the savage desert for civilized life in the ruins of cities on the coast. This time out, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to escape to. The oceans appear to have dried up, as we see in one scene where the characters face a horizon-spanning salt flats they believe would take 160 days of driving to cross. There is talk and evidence of wide-ranging radiation poisoning: that two-headed lizard, Nux being “near the end of his half-life,” all the boils and deformities.

This enlargening of scope, and the open-ended conclusion, leaves the series open to going in more interesting directions. Prior to this, Miller had been handcuffed by the necessities of the chase, shunting some of his more imaginative ideas off to the side. Here, they are front and center. Importantly, Max’s role as the gruff lone warrior here to save the innocent has been downplayed. In an interesting feminist twist to the series, Furiosa and her would-be Valkyries take center stage, with Max there as a good guy to have in the fight but not their sole means of salvation. One of Miller’s cheekier moments has Max wasting irreplaceable ammunition failing to hit a distant enemy, only to silently give it over to Furiosa so she can rest the rifle on his shoulder and take the crucial shot.

By taking the spotlight off Max, Miller gives himself a larger world to explore, one with tougher questions than mere survival. When Joe discovers his harem has escaped, he sees the message they scrawled on the wall for him: “WE ARE NOT THINGS.” In between its many explosions and beautifully choreographed vehicle demolitions, Fury Road is in large part about the refusal to see people as commodities, just more resources to waste in the drive for power. As all the never-to-be-replaced cars go up in flames with their crazed crews and thousands of gallons of water spill out into the desert sands, the film makes a stark statement: If this is humanity, then it’s no wonder the world was destroyed. Most of these maniacs would blow it up again tomorrow.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.