Thirty years ago Australian director George Miller made Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the third in his series of post-apocalyptic road-warrior movies, and it appeared to be the last—he went on to make innocuous children’s films like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet. But the 70-year-old director has gone back to his roots with Mad Max: Fury Road, and found a lot of new toys to play with.
What he has made is an adrenaline-pumping, two-hour thrill ride that feels like a perpetual video-game, full of explosions, crashes, fireworks, and pieces of wrecked auto parts and human bodies flying at you in 3D. With its panoramic desert vistas, the film is visually stunning and seems clearly the product of a director who sees film as a visual medium rather than a linguistic one. The desert scenes are reminiscent of a John Ford western, with a stagecoach replaced by a war-wagon pieced together from a rusted oil tanker and various truck parts, and the pursuing Apaches replaced by a cavalry of turbo-charged jeeps and other crazily modified vehicular hardware. The biggest difference is that the western is a movie interrupted at some point by a dramatic chase scene; Fury Road is an exciting chase scene interrupted briefly by a few snatches of dialogue.
The story is set in a waste land some time after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed civilization. The humans who are left alive are plagued by deformity, disease, cancer and mutation, while at the same time they struggle to eke out the necessities of life—particularly gasoline (they’ve got to run all those souped-up ancient vehicles) and water. There is no real exposition in the film—it opens with Max standing on a cliff, with his voice over saying “My world is fire and blood,” and bemoaning the people he had not been able to save, including his wife and a young girl who is, perhaps, his daughter, who appears to him in images that spring into his mind at various times through the movie. Then he stomps his foot down on a two-headed gecko scurrying by, and pops it into his mouth to eat raw.
In the movie’s opening scenes, Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by a gang belonging to what is in effect a primitive tribe whose chieftan, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), dresses in body armor that covers his deformed body, and a hideously barbaric mask that makes him look proto-human. He has seized power and maintains it by controlling their access to water, by using people like Max as forced blood donors to keep his War Boys alive, and by using women as personal sex slaves in the hope of begetting normal children.
Enter Furiosa—Immortan Joe’s top raider, with shaved head and blackened eye-sockets, and a mechanical arm. She is leading a band of raiders to scavenge for gas, but suddenly switches direction. Turns out she’s rescued Immortan Joe’s harem of slave-wives and has them stowed in her vehicle. When Joe realizes this, the chase is on, with Max strapped to the front of one of the pursuing vehicles, wearing a metal cage face mask and connected by IV to a skinny diseased War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Nux, whose dream is to die in battle so that he can be reborn in Valhalla (following the neo-pagan beliefs of his neo-barbaric society), just can’t seem to manage it, and, after a budding love affair blossoms between him and one of the stolen wives, ends up joining the women. Max, who at first simply wants to take off by himself in Furiosa’s truck, ultimately must join them as well as Furiosa tries to make her way to what she has promised the captive women are the “Green Place of Many Mothers,” the lands of her birth far, far to the east. She does succeed in finding the mothers, a band of battle-hardened older women called the Vuvalini. But I won’t reveal the end of the movie. Which, as you might expect, takes place after another very long climactic chase and road-battle.
Let me say, first, that this movie is not for everyone. You may have heard about the fuss raised by “male activist” bloggers, calling for a boycott of the movie, because they believe it to be “Feminist propaganda” disguised as an action movie. In particular, Miller’s consultation with Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler aroused the ire of the “men’s rights” crazies, when he brought her in to discuss her work with real-life sex slaves in the Congo with the actresses playing Immortan Joe’s five “breeders.” It seems unlikely that this “boycott” will have much of an effect on the movie, other than to make women more interested in seeing it.
So if you happen to be one of the aforementioned protectors of fragile male identities, you might have a problem with this movie. Conversely, if you are one of those women who is intrigued by the movie because of those blog posts, you may find yourself disappointed. My wife hated every minute of the movie, and said afterwards that she has never enjoyed herself less in any film she has ever seen. The film is not for the weak of stomach or the faint of heart. It resoundingly earns its R rating. So much for feminism.
Nor is this the sort of movie I am generally interested in. Like many another summer action flicks, this has the feel of a video game, but essentially it is like watching someone else play a video game for two hours. Eventually, you’re going to lose interest. Or at least I am.
But then of course, I’m not the intended audience. And neither is my wife. If you like summer action movies, you’ll like this movie. If you like video games, you’ll love this movie. If you liked the three original Mad Max movies, you’ll go nuts for this movie.
But I think there is more to it than that. I think with what is clearly a genre movie, it is important to ask whether there are aspects of it that transcend the genre. Fury Road appeals to viewers on a much deeper level than the surface story might suggest. There are archetypal themes here that not only transcend but perhaps even transform the genre. The film exploits the archetype of the waste land, which must be restored to fertility by the grail knight, whose quest heals the dead land and brings life to it. Here, Max must defeat the old king and bring the waters of life back to the people.
At the same time the film makes use of the archetypal Eden motif—the green land of fertility that existed before man lost paradise—and, in the world of the film, created the waste land. The desire to return to Eden, to regain paradise, is strong in the film, and is what motivates Furiosa and her rescued slaves. The mothers, the Vuvulini, are keepers of the seeds, restorers of fertility. The film brings the two themes together and makes the point that to regain the Eden that was, we must restore the waste land that is. It works on a mythic level, and in that way even converted skeptical me. And that took some doing.
I’m giving this three Tennysons, a ranking that will disappoint my wife, who would have given it a Robert Southey, and will disappoint the millions of adolescent video gamers, who would have given it four Shakespeares plus. But that’s how I see it.