By Matthew E. Milliken
June 4, 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road, the new science fiction action movie from George Miller, is a brutal, kinetic, testosterone-powered thrill ride that finds cause to recognize (and even celebrate) women as something more than sex objects.
This is the fourth film in Miller’s series about a warrior who roams a twisted post-apocalyptic Australian desert landscape. While watching it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this apt dismissal of an entry in James Cameron’s franchise starring an Austrian as a post-apocalyptic warrior: “Terminator 2 probably ranks as the most violent tribute ever made to peace.”
The title character here is portrayed by the versatile English actor Tom Hardy, who played the petulant Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, the puckish Eames in Inception and the murderous Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Hardy steps in for Mel Gibson, the Australian-American whose star was made in no small part by Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), all of which Miller wrote and directed. I’ve only seen the first of the earlier movies in its entirety (and many years ago — the details are quite hazy), although I’m of an age where snippets of the 1985 film couldn’t help but impose themselves on my adolescence.
But familiarity with Mad Max’s previous outings isn’t a prerequisite for watching Mad Max: Fury Road. The important thing is that the viewer enjoy watching cars and trucks race towards and past one another while various (mostly heavily muscled) characters direct guns, harpoons, explosive-tipped spears, chainsaws, knives and fisticuffs at one another.
It’s to Miller’s credit — and, surely, to some of his potential audience’s discomfort — that the sympathetic characters don’t withstand the onslaught entirely unscathed. Max gets nicked once or twice; so does Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a capable fighter who betrays her warlord, the monstrous water baron Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), by attempting to smuggle Joe’s harem of healthy, nubile and fertile women to safety. The passengers are sometimes subject to the depredations of battle, as are the band of allies whom Furiosa and Max attract in the film’s third act. (One member of this group is played by the Australian actress Melissa Jaffer, who was a series regular in the latter seasons of Farscape.)
The plot is minimalistic. In the prologue, Max, who’s haunted by the memories of children and other innocents whom he has failed to protect, is captured by Joe’s “war boys.” The first act is dominated by a vicious three-way contest amongst Max, Furiosa and Nux (Nicholas Hoult). That last character is a sick but suicidally ambitious Immortan warrior who’s so eager to attain a glorious martyrdom that he takes the O-negative Max into battle as a blood bag — a portable blood transfusion.
Initially, Max is interested only in survival and freedom. But he eventually reaches an uneasy accommodation with Furiosa, who’s determined to bring her passengers to the Green Place of Many Mothers — the idyllic, peaceful land of plenty from which she was abducted as a child. Around midfilm, after Max and Furiosa’s alliance has been cemented, they also make common cause with a former antagonist.
The fugitives are chased by three groups. One is a party of war boys headed by their leader and god, Immortan Joe, who’s hell-bent on recovering his harem; the others are posses from the friendly fiefdoms of Gastown and the Bullet Farm. As Max, Furiosa and company flee, they encounter a few mostly unfriendly other parties: Nameless warriors traveling in heavily spiked vehicles and not one but two groups of motorcyclists.
The landscapes and the vehicles prove to be as substantial characters as some of the people on screen. Most of the land is barren and dry, but virtually all of it is perilous. The flatlands provide no shelter from human enemies or natural elements; the hills and canyons provide concealment, but the cover can aid the hunter as well as the hunted. (The hills also enable the motorcyclists to mount aerial assaults as the bikes make breathtaking high jumps over their foes.) When the groups reach a sort of wet desert, where the terrain is flat but waterlogged, most of the vehicles bog down. And an immense sandstorm offers both peril and sanctuary.
The main piece of machinery is a war rig, an armored tanker truck that Furiosa highjacks on what is supposed to be a more or less routine supply run. Most of the movie consists of various car chases, but Miller stages them brilliantly; they read as two-dimensional dogfights, as impressive as anything in Top Gun or the Star Wars trilogies. These are staged at the same time as smaller battles among individuals who navigate the speeding machinery, set pieces that resemble combat atop speeding trains. Every battle brings its own twist, too, such as when the Gastown warriors dip and dive over and onto the war rig using what seem to be immense motorized pendulums. Overall, the spectacle is thoroughly impressive.
The imagery is awesome, but the violence is cringe-inducing. Life in Mad Max: Fury Road has minimal value; human dignity and virtue are principals more honored in the breach than in the observance. People are shot, stabbed, stomped and run over, and the victims aren’t always menacing thugs. Immortan Joe’s civilian populace is dirty, bedraggled and misshapen; leaders and warriors alike bulge with hideous boils and tumors. (It’s unclear whether these are attributable to the unspecified nuclear or environmental disaster that has caused society to collapse or simply to humanity’s inability to provide medical supplies and services that are now considered standard.)
Before he’s transformed into Nux’s captive blood transfusion, Max is shackled, fitted into a sort of head cage and tattooed as being O-negative, a universal donor. Milk is collected from women; a pregnancy culminates in a bloody conclusion. (This last is more suggested than shown, but still quite disturbing.) Violence and degradation in Mad Max: Fury Road is graphic and pervasive, perhaps more so than in any other film that I’ve seen. It’s certainly not advisable for young children, and it will leave many adults feeling queasy if they lack a high tolerance for this kind of brutality.
That said, there’s something admirable about Fury Road, even if it is often unlikable. Miller’s script, which he co-wrote with first-time feature screenwriters Nick Lathouris and Brendan McCarthy, allows Furiosa and other female characters to have their own agency, something that’s still relatively novel in the action-adventure genre. (“We are not property,” the chattel yearning to be free insist both to the warlord and themselves.) Indeed, with her close-shaved skull, Theron’s character is more than a little reminiscent of the heroine Sigourney Weaver played in Alien 3. Consider Imperator Furiosa as a sort of Ellen Ripley 2.0, if you will.
More to the point, perhaps, Mad Max: Fury Road is visually breathtaking, and the action is sure to accelerate the pulse of just about any adrenaline junkie. Still — and maybe this is just because I’m getting old and stodgy — I found it hard to enjoy the movie, simply because so much of the violence and cruelty made me wince.