To give Mad Max: Fury Road a traditional review is to do George Miller’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece a disservice. I confess that I’m late to the party, having never seen the original Mel Gibson trilogy, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be able to hold a candle to this game-changing work. At once wildly thrilling, deliciously subversive, and shockingly thoughtful, Fury Road is a breath of fiery passion into the sputtering lungs of bloated modern blockbusters.
Miller’s long awaited continuation of the Mad Max franchise sets itself apart from the dime a dozen spectacles of the big-budget sort through the clear presence of craft. Where films like Age of Ultron overwhelm, Fury Road inspires awe. Where other films utilize simplistic thrills during action, Miller refuses to allow the dynamic energy of his set-pieces to ever divorce themselves from a sense of dread and terror. Heavily digitally-rendered films utilize camerawork that zips around haphazardly, detached from practical concerns, while in Fury Road John Seale’s maddeningly beautiful cinematography remains anchored to the all too real vehicles and human beings hurtling across desert wastelands. Superhero screenplays tend to bow to the demands of fan-service, softening blows and keeping the tone light, but Fury Road’s writers (Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) subvert genre-expectations at every turn, supplying fleshed out characters that defy stereotypes and face actual consequences for their actions.
Fury Road is essentially an extended chase sequence as Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) attempts a defection from her disgustingly despicable cult-overlord, King Immortan Joe, (Hugh Keays-Byrne) for the sake of smuggling his Five Wives (little more than sex-slaves/breeding animals in Joe’s eyes) to a place of safety in the barren post-apocalyptic world that is refreshingly devoid of deserted cityscapes. Mad Max (Tom Hardy) crosses paths with the crusading Furiosa, and the two reluctantly join forces to survive, relentlessly pursued by an enraged Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys. Amongst them is the eager warrior Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who, like his comrades in arms, worships Immortan in all his horrific power, and longs to die in glorious combat so that he may reach the halls of Valhalla.
This may sound like a rather straightforward and basic plot, (perhaps even stupid on a cynical day) but Miller wrestles some incredible complexity and heft out of the story and action. Fury Road is a minimalist film in regards to dialogue, the titular character often going for long stretches without much more than a grunt, and exposition is kept to the barest minimum. This allows the characters to fully inhabit and embody the hellish, remarkably well-developed setting, and the refreshingly physical performances from Hardy and Theron allow Max and Furiosa to speak for themselves and on their own terms. In a wonderful stroke of compositional daring, Furiosa emerges as the focus of the entire film, her martial prowess and firm moral core anchoring a film otherwise surrendered to depravity run amuck. Those craving a truly strong female protagonist in an action film finally have one to celebrate in the one-armed Furiosa, whose motivations are complex, developed, and moving, while her physical and moral presence casts a long shadow over the largely ambivalent Max. Miller’s depiction of the Five Wives also defies genre-expectations, as Fury Road stubbornly refuses to give in to the temptation to sexually objectify and marginalize. Each is individually given moments to speak and act as human beings. Their plight is portrayed as tragic and horrific, but their souls are strong, and they stand in stark defiance to Immortan Joe’s disgusting barbarism.
The film’s exploration of the barbaric tendencies of the human soul is notable as well. The chase weaves its way through a post-apocalyptic nightmare that has degenerated into tribal warfare. Multiple boundaries are violated during the chase, and the appearances of these various bands with their own individual motivations is particularly intriguing, and a credit to the thoughtfulness of the world-building. Most impressive, though, is Immortan Joe’s War Boys cult. As his horde rushes into battle accompanied by a blaring heavy metal rig (complete with shredding guitarist) it is clear that Miller has capitalized on the ancient pagan methods of whipping up battle frenzy as the War Boys employ suicidal tactics, imploring each other to “witness” their acts of immortal valor. Nux’s narrative arc proves remarkably compelling, and Miller wisely undercuts any tendency on the part of the viewer to get swept away in any “coolness” by drawing constant attention to the vileness and perversity of Immortan Joe’s character and army. This horde, built upon an insightful understanding of the religious impulse in a godless world, is one that inspires genuine fear.
This fear leads directly to what sets Fury Road apart from the majority of recent blockbusters: our heroes are in actual danger. I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone, but suffice to say that the film makes very clear that nobody is safe on Fury Road. Couple that with the fact that a stunning amount was filmed without the aid of digital effects, shot on location with physical stuntmen and vehicles, and the action possesses an all too tangible menace. The battles between rampaging vehicles are not simply chaotic explosions involving vehicles suped-up for the simple sake of awesome-factor, but rather the result of the clashing of vehicles with appendages that have clear tactical purposes. Nothing lacks a legitimate and understandable combat function, and action sequences, anchored by at least the semblance of real-world logic in their physical nature, are shot in a fluid, digestible and comprehensible manner. Peril is far more impacting when the audience understands how the characters are imperiled.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the veritable blockbuster treasure trove that is Fury Road, from Tom Holkenborg’s pounding, cacophonous score to Seale’s painterly cinematography, this is a romp of the highest order, equal parts brawn and brains. Mad Max: Fury Road proves that one can have their cake and eat it too in the blockbuster genre. It is possible to be entertained at the cinema while also feasting on the bountiful and challenging delicacies of the greatest storytellers. If Fury Road doesn’t wake us up to the possibilities of truly daring and ambitious storytelling within the framework of a popcorn-franchise, we have only ourselves to blame when, twenty years from now, we’re all lining up to go see Avengers 10: Rise of Squirrel Girl and remembering when Miller gave us one last chance to escape escapism.
But for the moment, what a lovely day!
Caveat: The film is rated R, and deservedly so, for its intense violence. The violence is filmed similarly to The Dark Knight in that the most disturbing acts are wisely and tastefully kept off-screen or depicted in a blurred, unclear manner. The R-rating is more thanks to the sheer amount of violence and action onscreen. This is a film for mature audiences, with mature themes and mature consequences, not for children. One of the reasons I admire Fury Road is that the violence is not allowed to merely wash over the audience, but rather designed to batter the audience with the brutality of the actual events. Though admirable, this may be a bit too much for those easily disturbed by such things, and that is completely understandable. Fury Road is a must-see film that challenges the often flippant way that the action genre handles destruction and violence, but, with content like this, we must be able to agree that it isn’t a must-see for everyone.