Thirty years after the last installment of the beloved apocalyptic series, the scorched earth in director George Miller’s world of squalor and vehicular homicide is as desolate as ever. What audiences got a taste of in earlier entries Mad Max, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—the gradual erosion of society and its economic, political, and moral structures—has devolved to its natural end: complete anarchy. The world is ruled by those who own the resources, and the resources are owned by those who rule the road. The first sound of Mad Max: Fury Road is the unmistakable roar of an engine, which at once thrusts us into a brand new adventure while also returning us to somewhere familiar. It is this wonderful blend that Miller maintains throughout Fury Road that gives the film a sense of timelessness despite its setting. The scope is more awe-inspiring. The carnage is more grandiose. But Miller’s orchestration of action, photography, and narrative imbues an elegance to the whole endeavor. If the setting were not so bleak, one could argue it is downright romantic. Though this be madness, the method in it is magnificent.
“I am the one that runs both from the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this wasteland, reduced to one instinct: survive.” So goes an early voiceover by our hero Max Rockatansky, now played by Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises). It is part of an opening monologue that serves to bring viewers up to speed on the circumstances that drove the world into ruin. Like the rest of Fury Road, this prologue flies by at a breakneck pace. You better keep up at the risk of being left behind. The only thing that matters in the desert is what lies ahead.
Max embodies the tragic wandering hero in that he would rather live in self-imposed exile than deal with the throes of what remains of civilization, so he must be pulled back into the story by a band of War Boys who capture him minutes into the film. The War Boys are doomed soldiers, skin-headed, white-chalked, cult-crazed abominations poisoned with radiation from nuclear fallout at the onset of the apocalypse. Thus Max is used as a literal blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy who has names for his visible tumors (Larry and Barry) and dreams of dying in glorious battle to earn his place in Valhalla. He is often heard chanting, “I live. I die. I live again!”
The figurehead at the top of this cult of personality is Immortan Joe—(Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain Toecutter in the original Mad Max)—a megalomaniac who controls his people by hoarding the most essential resources, most notably water and gasoline. In his compound, The Citadel, he redirects the flow of water from its nearby source to a garden to grow food for himself and his closest confidantes, only occasionally dispensing a fountain of water to his subjects to ensure their reliance on him. In another chamber he pumps breast milk from women to feed his soldiers and use in trading with neighboring tribes. Joe may be a monster—he wears a mask adorned with horse teeth that serves as a respirator as well as imposing body armor that covers his tumors—but he is a product of his environment. His most egregious offense is the harem of five “wives” (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) he keeps under lock and key in the hopes of birthing an heir to his empire.
This unsavory aspect to Immortan Joe’s regime is what propels the story forward. One of his top lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), is none too pleased with Joe’s stranglehold on these women. As the driver of The Citadel’s “war-rig,” Furiosa smuggles the five women aboard before a supply run and makes a break for the desert while en route. Joe is irate by the theft of his “property,” and so he ventures out with his army of War Boys in pursuit of Furiosa. For Nux to be able to join his brothers in battle, he mounts Max to the front of his vehicle (a nice callback to The Road Warrior) and continues to siphon his blood. What ensues for the remainder of Fury Road is a chase across the desert, to freedom, to hope, and to redemption—but always moving forwards. Miller does not push the pedal to the floor for the entire film, but he constantly has his finger on its pulse.
This chase opens with one of the most breathtaking action sequences staged in recent memory (Spoilers: that is just the warm up), and Miller uses all the tools at his disposal. Accelerated frame rates, rapid editing, and deliberate blocking all serve Miller’s distinct vision of his world. Yet for all the technical virtuosity, at no point are we disoriented or lacking a spatial understanding of characters or vehicles barreling through the desert at ludicrous speeds. Miller digs his feet into the sand, emphasizing practical stunts and effects over CGI broad-stroking. As a result his set-pieces lend more to David Lean than Michael Bay—grand in intent, but efficient in practice. Even the various nods to past Mad Max films (Max’s signature sawed-off shotgun, a music box, and a particular flash cut of a character’s eyes bulging out of his sockets) do not feel ham-fisted.
Similarly, in the world of Mad Max, such insanity is born out of need. Our traditional economies have given way to new ones, hinged on natural resources often taken for granted as well as the “resources” easily extracted from humans (namely milk and blood). The most enduring apocalyptic worlds are those that carry an inventive logic to their surroundings and methods. Fury Road exemplifies this notion. Armored vehicles covered in porcupine-like spikes, spears tipped with fire grenades, and pole vaulters bounding from one car to another never felt so fitting. This vision is remarkably imaginative, but it all stems from consequence, from cause and effect. And it all has its place, not unlike last year’s fringe-blockbuster hit Snowpiercer.
Understandably, Furiosa desires to escape from this world and Immortan Joe’s clutches, racing with the wives—and eventually Max—towards “The Green Place,” a safe haven where they can potentially rebuild civilization. It represents much more to Furiosa. Though we see early on that she lost one of her arms and has a mechanical replacement, we never learn how she lost it, or why. The most compelling mysteries about Furiosa go largely unanswered, and yet Theron absolutely makes this her movie, communicating more with her steely eyed gaze than with any dialogue. The axel grease she paints around her eyes only emphasizes the effect. Furiosa is a tortured soul, and the wives are her last chance at overcoming her grief and finding some kind of redemptive catharsis. The subtitle, Fury Road, is not by mistake.
“Who killed the world?” asks one of the wives midway through the film. It is a question that arises frequently throughout but is always asked by women. While the men would rather squabble over resources and accept the world they created, the women in Fury Road have the perspective to challenge the status quo. The film does not empower the women as much as it puts on full display the power they always had and was overlooked or repressed by men. A scene in particular where one of the pregnant wives (Whiteley) dangles herself outside the rig to protect one of her comrades is equally exuberant and tense. That the emancipation of humanity comes from the undoing of patriarchal institutions is not coincidental. It is up to Furiosa, the wives, and a mysterious band of women named the Vuvalini to reverse the objectification and exploitation that pervades Immortan Joe’s reign, so it is appropriate that the plot makes a reversal as well (when you see the third act, you’ll know what I mean).
While Max took a backseat to other characters for most of the film (as he does in other series entries) the ending circles back to him, drawing from one of the great westerns of all time, John Ford’s The Searchers. A closing narration ponders, “Where must we go, we who travel this wasteland in search of our better selves?” And so Max continues to wander, in search of something that was lost long ago and may never be found. For it remains a mad mad mad mad world.