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.