I hadn’t intended on watching Mad Max at first. But after being cajoled into watching it as part of a social event, I’m glad I did.
Fury Road isn’t a particularly sophisticated movie. But it does benefit from the confluence of three things. The first is a simple but powerful thematic backbone. The second is pure, kinetic spectacle anchored by a strong and coherent visual direction and language. The latter benefits greatly from the presence of the former, giving us a reason to care about the pyrotechnics on screen.
The film sits in a post-apocalyptic thematic space, but is distinct from other films of its type because it sits in the boundary between civilisational collapse and civilisational renewal. The scene is the blasted desert of the post-nuclear Outback, where rabid warlords rule with psychopathic impunity over their wretched subjects through monopolising scarce resources like water and “guzzoline” (gasoline). The war has occurred within living memory of our protagonists – they attempt to navigate a strange new world where nature and civilisation have all but been burnt off the face of the world, where power resides in the squeal of the tire. This is a world where the petrolheads rule, where fleets of armored vehicles charge at each other like brazen knights, where facepaint-smeared War Boys spray their mouths with chrome paint as they hurtle into the jaws of death, believing that their deeds in battle will transport them to Valhalla. It is post-apocalyptia without zombies or mutants, where humans have become their own worst nightmares, pillaging and killing in the name of a tinpot cult ideology amidst the howling dust. This is the anti-Waterworld, that other post-apocalyptic film starring Kevin Costner.
The film starts with the titular Max in a state of insanity, wandering the wasteland alone. But he is soon captured by warlord Immortan Joe and made to become a blood bag – a supplier of nutrients through IV drip – of one Joe’s fanatical War Boys. As Max escapes, he joins up with Joe’s harem of girls, who have escaped with the assistance of the (awesomely-named) Imperator Furiosa, a one-time lieutenant of Joe who has made it a point of conscience to bring the girls to a better, freer place. Naturally, the furious Immortan Joe assembles his warband and sets off in pursuit of Furiosa and her War Rig, a retrofitted, armored and weaponized cargo truck. Thus does the chase on Fury Road begin.
The world of Mad Max is its own character – a surreal expanse of posthuman weirdness, almost an alien planet. One of the most amazing set-pieces of the movie occurs when an immense dust-storm envelops Furiosa and her pursuers. It is an awe-inspiring and terrible sight, one that instils genuine trepidation in the viewer, a phenomenon of such magnitude that it assumes an almost Biblical sense of terror.
The movie’s action sequences are without parallel in recent action film, ranking up there with The Matrix and 300 in its potential for achieving cult status among the cinematic pantheon. It has its own frenetic tempo, a hyper-violent yet graceful choreography of knives, guns and bombs, and everybody is moving all the time. The most awesome thing about Immortan Joe’s army is the Doof Warrior, a blind War Boy who whips up the army’s blood frenzy by jamming on an electric guitar that spouts fire out of one end. His dedication to the cause is hilariously admirable – he never stops playing even after being elbowed in the face by Max at one point. Other luminaries include the BDSM-themed People Eater, an ally of Immortan Joe who has two holes in his shirt to accommodate his nipple chains and is so grossly corpulent he needs to be hoisted into his car by three henchmen, and the Bullet Farmer, another of Joe’s lieutenants, who grafted bullets into his teeth. There is a trend here – the Wasteland has forged some truly deranged tyrants. Max himself is mad, plagued by his past and the events of the past two movies. But his insanity is lifted by the call to heroism, which provides him the redemption he needs as a curative to his madness. But he is Mad Max, after all, and his demons will undoubtedly claim him again in time for the next instalment in the franchise – and there will likely be one.
But Mad Max also has a deeper appeal underneath the chrome, cars, guns, crazy antagonists, and action sequences. This is a film with considerable metaphorical interest. The desert, the wasteland, is a place that forges the world of Mad Max. It resounds with the voices of the dead, questioning who killed the world. Gasoline is the essence of war, water of peace, but both are crucial ingredients in survival. And water, ultimately, is the symbol of salvation, and the reason our protagonists ultimately return to Immortan Joe’s Citadel, from which they had escaped – to release the water that he has hoarded and bring back peace and sanity to the frenzied and wretched denizens who wallow in their madness and their hopeless adulation for the false deity who is Immortan Joe. These elements are what makes the film stand head and shoulders above similar action films – the intelligent use of such symbols to give the world of Mad Max its particular brand of thematic texture. The film can teach us about the human condition – about our follies, our penchant for violence and our need for redemption – without shoehorning it in in an overly in-your-face way. It is an action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, visually resplendent package of a movie – and surprisingly deep at that, as well. And high-octane enough that I left the theater experiencing heart palpitations.
I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 War Rigs