As I sit behind my keyboard, cursor flashing with impatience, I find myself at a rare loss for words. Such is the effect of a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road. There are innumerable reviewers who have touched upon pieces of the film—its gender politics, its exaggerated scale, its replacement Max, or its inclusion in the gradual return to practical effects—but the truth of the matter is, Fury Road is a movie too large to explore in a single conversation. So I’ll focus on the pieces that resonated with me, following my own tried-and-true(ish) formula, and leave the rest to other reviewers.
This would be the point where my other half would wrap his clumsy lips around some semblance of the movie’s story. I try to hold my tongue when he summarizes a movie, partly because a summer blockbuster’s plot is increasingly less essential to its success, and partly because Goon is actually pretty good at it. Don’t tell him I complimented him, though, or I’ll never hear the end of it.
Fury Road is a sequel to the original Miller-helmed trilogy of Mad Max films. I sat down this week to watch the original Mad Max and The Road Warrior (sorry, I couldn’t get Beyond Thunderdome, wakka-wakka), thinking that it would give me some insight into what this new film would be. And in terms of plot, those previous films couldn’t have mattered less: like The Road Warrior, Fury Road opens with a brief montage and voiceover explaining the state of the world and its post-crisis lack of traditional fuels. Like the other films, this one is set in the Australian outback, and doesn’t care much for the state of the rest of the world. Everyone living there is too busy looking for their next meal and their next fuel-up to worry about the rest of the globe.
We’re reintroduced to Max, recast with genre standby Tom Hardy, now the wasteland loner who spawned the dystopian protagonist archetype: vicious, survival-minded, but with his own set of ironclad morals and values which he would die before compromising. This limited idealism comes into play when he encounters a group of women fleeing the clutches of Immortan Joe, a local warlord who controls a triumvirate of fuel, ammo, and water that makes him a god in his little kingdom. Max finds himself the unwitting protector of these women who, led by a steampunk-limbed Charlize Theron and aided by a nearly unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult, are looking for the promise land that lies beyond the endless supply of freaks and monsters, who themselves have an endless supply of cobbled battle wagons.
Structurally the movie is a repeat of the final twenty minutes of The Road Warrior, making most of the two-hour runtime into a single chase sequence broken up by occasional reprieves. Such a long chase might become a slog in other movies—I’m looking at you, Matrix Reloaded—but Miller varies the obstacles encountered by Max and crew to keep the tension fresh. The constant threat of Joe and his war band creates a tension that never leaves the movie, an edge-of-the-seat experience as opposed to a traditional narrative. This leaves little time for narrative arcs or character development, but neither of those elements are missed. Fury Road isn’t a story, but an event, and if you can accept that, you’ll enjoy the hell out of it.
I haven’t heard a single word of complaint for the recasting of the titular role with Tom Hardy. This isn’t solely due to the fact that Mel Gibson has spent the last decade making himself an unbankable star with his off-camera antics. Hardy has slowly but surely built himself up as a source of legitimacy for genre films. Smaller, character-driven roles like his turn in The Drop afford him the legitimacy he needs to make a character as insane as Max Rockatansky seem grounded. For all of the cartoonish stunt work the character is subjected to (and most of it sublimely practical, eschewing summer blockbuster CGI in favor of wrecking real cars in the desert), Hardy makes Max feel like a real man who wants to survive, but won’t live with himself if he abandons others to the tender cruelties of Immortan Joe.
Theron’s presence is perhaps the most surprising, but it’s certainly not the oddest role an Oscar winner has ever taken. That honor still belongs to Ben Kingsley for any role he’s taken in the last ten years. But Theron takes her role as Furiosa seriously. The revelation that her character originated in a survivalist matriarchy adds a welcome twist of characterization to what is otherwise a powerful enigma of a character. We’re never told how she lost her arm, how she became one of Joe’s most trusted lieutenants, or even the events that led her to rescuing Joe’s breeding stock from under his nose, because none of those details are important. The character stands upon her immediate actions, and is a welcome counterpart to Max’s determination and implacability.
If there’s a tenderness to the movie, it’s supplied by Nicholas Hoult, who is deeply practiced in the art (I still love him in About A Boy, and even that dumb zombie rom com he was in can’t change that). His character, the war boy Nux, is perhaps the most complete character with the closest thing to a narrative arc in the film. His values are questioned and eventually reshaped by the events of the film, turning him from a raving berzerker to a heroic figure. Such sentimentality might otherwise feel hokey amidst all of the explosions, but Hoult’s natural sensitivity and doe eyes make it work.
There is perhaps no villain more terrifying in recent memory than Immortan Joe, played by Australian actor Hugh Keays-Byrne and a ton of makeup and prosthetics that transform him into the wasteland equivalent of Darth Vader. And like the Lucasian dark lord (pre-prequels), much of Joe is an enigma wrapped in body armor and a breath mask. His sheer will to see the return of his wives and unborn children reflect the force of personality necessary to reshape a nation of crusty Outback survivors into the bizarre cult we see in the film, which in turn informs the pageantry he’s cultivated around him. The character of Immortan Joe isn’t only crafted by Keays-Byrne, but by every facet of weirdness around him: the ghost-faced kamikaze soldiers he commands, and the fleet of hodgepodge death machines they drive, complete with a drummer barge led by a live electric guitarist. Joe is the only villain I can think of who actually travels with his own soundtrack, an aspect of the movie that should be too ridiculous to swallow, but is instead exactly the kind of excess that makes the film memorable.
Though easy to forget while watching the film, Fury Road is a sequel, and belongs to a series credited with inventing the modern concept of the cinematic dystopian film. Here, of course, I speak of The Road Warrior; the original Mad Max had some interesting political allegory, but was lost amidst a muddied plot, plodding pacing, and abysmal sound editing that makes the film nigh-unwatchable by today’s standards. It’s somewhat forgivable, as it was Miller’s first feature-length project, but it also highlights just how much improved his talents as a filmmaker became with The Road Warrior, a film that still holds up as deserving of its praise and its place as the definitive modern post-apocalyptic movie.
As I stated above, the plot to Fury Road is more or less the same as the final chase scene from The Road Warrior. Does this, then, make Fury Road derivative? Only if you believe the story matters, and I would argue that it doesn’t. Dystopian film doesn’t hinge on guiding its audience through a single narrative, but instead the imagined meta-narrative of the collapse of modern society. In our previous review, The Rover (man, what is it with Australia and socioeconomic collapse?), the movie emphasized the cavernous spaces that grow between dwindling points of civilization, depicted through its sprawling, silent landscapes. In a large scale production like Fury Road, that collapse is instead communicated in terms of spectacle. When the world ends, the people living in it go insane, trying to make sense of the crumbs of society they’re forced to live on. They disguise that crumbling sense of self and society through pageantry, reinventing themselves as the monsters they fear to assert control over their increasingly-inhospitable environment.
This theme was present in The Road Warrior, and was what made the film so iconic. So does Fury Road’s continuation of the film make it derivative? Again, I’m forced to say “no,” because the new difference is scale. The costumes, vehicles, and pursuit that made the previous film so iconic is juiced to herculean proportions until the seams of the silver screen all but strain to hold it in check. Each vehicle is its own unique deadly junkpile, each weapon a cobbled masterpiece of improvisation and murder, and the leaders of the cult-like gang (gang-like cult?) are singularly gruesome. I predict there will be a slew of imitators in short order, themselves derivative of Miller’s self-reinvention of spectacle dystopia.
THE BEST PART?
Nothing in the film felt so iconic of the sense of excess and lunacy evoked by Immortan Joe and his war boys as the drummer barge and its guitarist masthead. No matter the stakes of the pursuit, the drums and guitar played on, spurring each painted warrior to fling themselves into the jaws of death for their Vader-esque god. The fact that the guitar spews a jet of flame only adds to that sense, making any sane viewer gleefully suspend their disbelief in anticipation of cinematic mayhem.
THE WORST PART…
I have no qualms about the gender politics of the film. Men and women both were exploited in Immortan Joe’s war engine, cast in the Paleolithic roles of warrior and mother. But for the love of Joe, couldn’t someone have gotten the smuggled women some actual pants at some point in the film? Even after they encounter a gun-toting matriarchy, no one thinks to give them clothes that will actually let them survive the Outback. It’s a small complaint, but it bothered me.
AND LO, THE THUMBS
Without hesitation, and without hyperbole, I believe that I have just seen the best film of Summer 2015.
Avengers was entertaining, and I still have high hopes for Ant-Man and Jurassic World (ridiculous though both of those appear), but Mad Max: Fury Road accentuated all of the best parts of the summer blockbuster: the spectacle, the scale, the excitement, and the simple storytelling. But even better, the film had its own sense of style that elevated it from a too-late sequel into its own sensational movie. I haven’t seen a film this visually engaging in a long, long time.
Best of all, though? Fury Road didn’t merely stave off boredom for a couple of hours. It actually got my blood pumping. I left the theater feeling excited.
Two thumbs. Now go see it again.