Intentional or not, Mad Max Fury Road is a brutal rebuke of action and science fiction spectacle from the past few years. It does not waste time with exposition, yet finds time for character moments, anyway. There is no plot beyond the direction in which cars travel, and world-building strikes an impressive balance between intrigue and disgust. The action is spectacular, with our heroes confronting multiple sources of danger at once. But for all its explosions and mayhem, director George Miller has focused command over the material. All the car chases are frenzied, though they are filmed clearly, without any chaos or confusion. Fury Road is also a feminist film – idiots will claim that it is misandrist – and the heroine might even represent an improvement over Ripley in the Alien films. It’s that good.
Miller opens with a flurry of voice-over and bizarre imagery, plunging us into a post-apocalyptic landscape where bands and marauders fight over gasoline and water. Now that Miller has a bigger budget than the three previous Mad Max films, he has an opportunity to show misery and desperation on a massive scale. The first big set is the Citadel, a series of cliffs and tunnels where Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) acts like something between a warlord and a cult leader. Swaths of the Citadel’s people are falling apart, psychologically and literally, while Joe’s disciples are brainwashed automatons who snuff paint fumes as a reward for good behavior. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is Joe’s trusted lieutenant, at least until she diverts from a routine supply run for a more dangerous mission: she wants to rescue five young women – Joe claims them as his property – and transport them to safety. He’ll do anything to get the women back, and not just because one of them is pregnant.
Those unfamiliar with the previous Mad Max films may be surprised by the supporting role Max (Tom Hardy) serves. After the initial voiceover, his infrequent dialogue is never more than a few words. We do not see Max’s entire face for the first forty-five minutes: he’s either wearing a gag, or a grotesque steel mask. Max only gets involved with Furiosa because he’s a “blood bag” – a living hood ornament – for the cult member Nux (Nicolas Hoult) who pursues her. The first scene between Max and Furiosa is a riot of physical comedy: Max is still chained to Nux, with a car door separating them, and Miller uses the handicap as an opportunity for clever variations on fight choreography. Max eventually adopts Furiosa’s cause, as he must, and the wordless understanding between the two leads is refreshing when so many other films stop the action to strike an uneasy alliance. In the hellscape of Mad Max, the need for survival overrides any pretense of discussion.
After Max and Furiosa join forces, the rest of a film is a furious chase across the desert. While Miller was doing press for The Road Warrior, the second Mad Max, he said Buster Keaton’s The General was a major influence, and in Fury Road that is still the case. Parts of the chase feel like one damn obstacle after another: there are henchman who can jump from car to car with ease, and there are others with guns, flamethrowers, and explosive spears. The austere landscape also adds to the power of the chase. There is no background that could serve as a distraction, and the simplicity of the road ahead means that all the imagination is put into costume and production design. Still, Miller’s action masterstroke happened during the climax: instead of heightening the scale, he simply adds more obstacles. At one point, Furiosa, Max, and others must contend with so many enemies at so many different angles that the cumulative effect is way intense, and also kind of funny. Some critics have pointed out that Mad Max films are exhausting, and I always have the opposite effect. After leaving the theater, I felt like I could go for a long sprint.
Every Mad Max film has memorable characters, whether it’s The Humungus or Master Blaster, yet no one is as compelling as Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Like Max, she has few words, so Theron has no choice but to develop her through action and gesture. She begins with a streak of fierce independence, only to later experience anguish and protective, violent rage. Furiosa is not merely a male character that’s played by a woman: she has distinctly feminine qualities as she coerces, punches, drives, shoots, and head-butts her way to salvation. There is a brief respite in Fury Road where Furiosa and Max discover some unexpected back-up. These new characters deepen the film’s feminism since they show that Furiosa is no lone iconoclast. In Fury Road, patriarchy is the source of a world gone mad, and Max is correct is to recognize that Joe’s minions are no match for women who simply will not tolerate their bullshit anymore.