It really does feel like George Miller spent the last 30 years elaborating the world of the Mad Max series in his head, deepening, broadening, and at the same time condensing his vision of the post-apocalyptic desert society of the second two movies. (The first movie takes place before the apocalypse.) The sheer wealth of detail and design is stunning, at least on a visual level. In fact, much of the world-building is only presented visually and left to us to interpret. As for condensing, I have in mind the sort of reductionist or mythological approach of creating separate enclaves that control water, gas, and bullets, which isn’t really the way the world works but does a wonderful job of communicating what’s important in this story. And for broadening, we only have to look at the increased role of women in this film, which builds on the precedent set by Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity in the third film of the series.
It’s been a long time since I watched Beyond Thunderdome (1985), so I don’t actually remember much about it, but I did watch most of Road Warrior (1981) again last week and was reminded that one of the things Miller does that makes these films feel unique in the post-apocalyptic genre is show sympathy for the bad guys. This is another way in which Fury Road feels like the earlier films on steroids, because not only does it take us deep into the warlord society that presents a grievous problem to the protagonists, allowing us to see the logic of the horrible things they’re doing, it goes one step further by giving us a character, Nux, who believes in the heroic warrior ethic of the clan but gradually grows to understand the perspective of the rebels too. While some of Nux’s path through the story seems a little too literally touchy-feely at times, he provides a vivid human face for the monstrous behavior of the followers of the warlord Immortan Joe. Whereas Road Warrior gives us bad guys with feelings, Fury Road gives us bad guys with beliefs. It lends depth to the conflict that’s so viscerally depicted in physical terms as well.
The most controversial aspect of the film seems to be the relegation of Tom Hardy’s titular Max to a slightly secondary role, and the elevation thereby of Charlize Theron’s (also titular?) character, Imperator Furiosa. I have to say that Max did strike me as a slightly unfocused character in this story. His opening monologue distills his motivation down to a pure survival reflex, but of course the story complicates the picture. This is not completely unlike Max’s character arc in Road Warrior, but in that one his reasons for collaborating with others were masked behind more utilitarian motives. Max’s motives in Fury Road are perhaps a bit obscure.
Imperator Furiosa is a great character, and on first blush seems like an improvement over Aunty Entity. (I really do need to revisit Beyond Thunderdome at some point.) She’s bad ass, but she’s not one-dimensional. Again, as with Nux, some of her path through the story veers into pathetic territory, but over all she’s the glue that binds survival and compassion together. It’s true that Max’s agenda is subservient to hers, but I’d say that within the logic of the story it makes sense for him to serve her interests. It’ll take another viewing to see if Miller’s intent was actually to use audience expectations as a weight to leverage in an effort to build her character up and thus to challenge some of our ingrained biases about who and what matters in this kind of post-apocalyptic narrative.
Does this narrative judo actually upend the dominant paradigm? I’m skeptical, and I’m treating the claims that this is a feminist story with skepticism as well. What’s true, however, is that Miller gives us a variety of female characters, and Furiosa isn’t the only one that’s played against cinematic expectations. The slave-breeder girls are all played by skinny models and presented as standard cinematic hotties, so Miller seems once again to be teasing us into leaping the wrong way. Likewise a scene with a naked beauty that adroitly denies us any view of the body. More questionable, to my mind, is the traditional association of women with nurturing and agriculture. Then again, one of the ways that Max’s character is portrayed differently from earlier versions involves an act of healing. I’m left with many intriguing questions, and that’s a good thing for a movie to leave you with.
Oh yeah, and Fury Road is fabulous as a brutal, gearhead chase movie. The vehicle, weapon, and flamboyant costume designs are amongst the things that 30 years have given Miller and his team time to elaborate in the most fantastic ways. The action sequences, which probably make up two-thirds of the story, leave everybody else in the dust, just like Road Warrior did in 1981. Miller has topped his already high standard on that front, and as in the earlier Mad Max films the amazing action works in the service of some thoughtful, if largely mythological, world-building and some complicated genre characters.