The Future of Cinema is Discovered on Fury Road
by Matthew Cabe
(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
One of the pleasures provided by the Mad Max sequels are the crudely elaborate structures fashioned out of what little remains after the apocalypse.
In The Road Warrior it was a guzzoline-production compound that had a school bus for a gate and high walls of scrap metal that led to turrets on which football-padded defenders stood guard with flame throwers. In Beyond Thunderdome it was an entire city, Bartertown, where people exchanged what few goods they had for food or water or sex.
That everything is makeshift though means that everything is prone to collapse. The guzzoline compound exploded and Bartertown was destroyed by Max and a gaggle of misfit children whose clothes, mannerisms, weapons, domiciles, and politics were later mooched by Steven Spielberg for the Lost Boys scenes in Hook.
Sixteen years have now passed since Mad Max creator George Miller knew a fourth film was inevitable. Back then, in 1999, Mel Gibson had already signed on to reprise the titular role. Filming was to begin in 2001, but in an interview with DP/30, Miller explained that “with 9/11, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar, the budget ballooned out” and the project was put on hold.
Filming was again postponed in 2012. “It rained [in the Australian Outback] for the first time in fifteen years,” Miller stated, “and what was flat, red wasteland was now a flower garden.” Locals told the crew to wait out the unexpected rebirth of flora, that the water would eventually dry up. They waited a year before relocating the entire shoot to Namibia in southwest Africa.
Now Mad Max: Fury Road has finally been unleashed on the world, and it arrives vengefully intent on reclaiming the action genre for a practical mode of filmmaking CGI crusaders would have you believe is obsolete.
A staple in the series, beginning with a world on the brink of apocalypse in Mad Max, is the perpetual devolution of the landscape into an increasingly unfathomable wasteland of dirt and dust. Fury Road envisions that landscape at its most desolate.
All remnants of a semi-functioning society are gone. Bartertown’s demise has spawned several new anti-cities, the largest of which is The Citadel, ruled by a ruthless warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in Mad Max).
Imortan Joe’s name is somewhat ironic. His failing body demands armor to protect what’s left of his leprous skin and a skull-like oxygen mask allows him to suck clean air out of a saggy bag hanging off the back of his head.
The Citadel functions as Joe’s final attempt at literal survival, as well as the survival of his bloodline. Joe is cognizant of his own mortality, and the legacy of war babies he hopes to leave behind is evidenced in his efforts to knock up his five sex-slave wives. Suggested here is notion that war could cease to be if power hungry psychopaths simply kept their dicks in their pants.
Ever the survivalist himself, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) vows to steer clear of The Citadel (and, thus, the pesky complexities of human interaction that have wreaked havoc on his psyche), but is captured by Joe’s War Boys after a brief high-speed chase that ends with Max crashing his beloved Interceptor. He is soon enslaved and used as a human blood bag to revitalize a sickly War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Health, by the way, is a major concern at The Citadel. Not only are the impoverished in bad shape, but those lucky enough to exist in proximity to Joe’s power also suffer from a wide-ranging array of physical and mental maladies that make the grotesque Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch’s Dune look like a model of wellness. None seem to care though because Joe has ingrained in his minions a belief that death in his name will result in glorious rebirth in Valhalla.
On the same day Max is enslaved, a convoy is set to embark on a routine mission to retrieve guzzoline from nearby Gas Town. In charge of the convoy is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has long been entrusted with Joe’s war rig. Furiosa has other plans this time though, and veers off-course while en route. It’s her decision, part of a desperate plan to free Joe’s enslaved wives, that sets the movie on its course down the metaphorical Fury Road.
What transpires is what Miller envisioned for his Mad Max universe from the start. The numerous fight and chase sequences consist of highly choreographed set pieces, each one more improbably remarkable than the last.
The world encountered along Fury Road is a larger-than-life replica of Miller’s imagination, and the artistry is like nothing else put on screen. Just as important though are the underlying social issues Miller is able to convey through the action.
For starters, there’s the gender politics. Furiosa, a one-armed badass, boldly stands against Joe’s belief that women exist merely to breed future generations of warmongers. More than freedom, however, she yearns for peace in the “Green Place” of her youth. At her side are the five wives and a group of longtime female survivors willing to defend Furiosa’s search for peace.
Sexism and ageism are two of the more pressing issues in Hollywood today. The roles these women play only strengthen the debate against both.
Max, meanwhile, is confined to a secondary role. The genius of this decision is that it’s what he’s wanted all along. Never in the previous films was Max in search of heroism; the moments simply found him and he reacted accordingly, if not reluctantly.
In Fury Road you almost forget he’s involved. Hardy fuels this absence with pithy, guttural dialogue. His actions speak slightly louder, but this is a performance of anonymity that paradoxically reveals a great deal about his painful past.
Also central is the ever-topical inclusion of young men willing to die for a violent religious cause. There aren’t just echoes here of current concerns with militant groups like ISIS or the increasingly-tame-looking-by-comparison Taliban, but of the long and tragic history of bloody conflict carried out in the names of various, suspiciously absent gods.
When Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, an ardent believer in Joe’s Valhalla, realizes that afterlife isn’t nearly as important as life itself, his loss of faith is handled with a rare moment of quiet grace that rebuilds him into a much more complex character. It speaks volumes, then, that his insanity vanishes with the onset of his newfound faithlessness.
There is much to unpack, a rare feat for an action saga. But then, everything Fury Road accomplishes is rare and deserving of high praise. It dismantles the prevailing notion that only computers are capable of creating the next generation of what’s awe-inspiringly cinematic. History will regard it as a miracle of moviemaking and it already stands as the benchmark to which all future action films must aspire. But most of all, it renews a sense of visual wonder essential to this particular art form, and does so through use of the same reliable techniques that made movies uniquely wondrous in the first place.