George Miller made a movie that looks like a bump of the finest cocaine. It’s visually aggressive, it’s incredibly fast and extremely chaotic despite being a laser-focused story and production. Mad Max: Fury Road is extremely unique in the current Summer blockbuster climate: it’s fast, the story is thin yet fully formed, it allows women to be the focus and heroes in a way that feels genuine and not purely as bait to appeal to PC culture and most importantly, it’s just a fun ride. There’s nothing quite like it right now and it doesn’t seem to want to do any of the things that other summer movies/sequels/reboots want to do which is, namely, to sell toys and set up for the next 7 movies in line.
Mad Max: Fury Road brings back the titular Road Warrior, now played by Tom Hardy, into a depleted yet still technically thriving desert landscape known as the Citadel, where a ghastly beast-man kept alive by a makeshift breathing apparatus by the name of Immortan Joe, rules over the entire fortress: from the scarce supplies of water released from a sewage system at the top of his fortress based on his whims to the manufacturing of women’s breastmilk to the use of women’s bodies for the purposes of making more children to fight in his wars in the name of their God.
The movie starts with Max’s kidnapping at the hands of Immortan Joe’s soldiers where he is turned into a blood bank for the weakest yet most energetic of the soldiers, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When a one-armed tank driver named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads a band of rebels tired of being used by Immortan Joe for reproduction on an escape through the Wasteland in search of a new home, she’s hunted down by every soldier and bloodthirsty, war-mongering lunatic in the Citadel.
In the midst of their escape, Furiosa and the women are joined by Max and forced into working together in order for the both of them to escape their dire straits. I worry about whether this description functions properly to state what this movie is about since so much of the movie simply moves without feeling the need to explain itself. Truthfully, it doesn’t need to: There’s a group of dictators, warlords and sheep and there’s a group of underdogs trying to escape them is enough to sustain a movie whose primary goal is action, excitement and visual spectacle.
The dialogue isn’t scant necessarily but it is small, you learn just enough to know that Furiosa is seeking to make something right from her past and that she cares about protecting the women. You learn enough about the Citadel and Immortan Joe to know that this a man who wants an endless supply of soldiers to work under his hand, that the Citadel is full of people who know to worship him as a God and that children, and as a result women, are tools in keeping this order. You also learn what drives a character like Nux and that Max is ultimately still trying to atone for the family he lost in the original Mad Max.
Much has been by critics and cultural writers about the feminist agenda of the film–a thought that hadn’t crossed my mind until I heard a lot of commotion about complaints from meninist groups and internet trolls. I suppose the film is feminist in a broad sense. Despite the title, the real star of this film is Charlize Theron and her band of women who are running away from patriarchy essentially. The phrase “who destroyed the world” comes up a few times and it’s pretty safe to assume that the answer is men (that’s certainly the answer in real life). There’s a lot of very clear ideas about toxic masculinity: Immortan Joe’s soldier’s are deviants obsessed with sacrificing themselves in the name of their Lord, they are brutish in the way they speak and both the violence and the vehicles are cartoonishly excessive. I mean there’s a guy whose job it is to play a garish axe guitar over a giant bass system on the top of a monster truck like vehicle while flamethrowers go off behind him; it is a winking parody of everything about masculinity.
At its core though, it is a movie about underdogs and people who just want peace and hope. You could equally use the film as a referendum on religion or with capitalism. Immortan Joe has an army of sacrificial lambs excited to die for a cause they assume is meaningful in the name of their God so that they can be welcomed into heaven. The Citadel is a society with a clear upper class and lower class that are treated terribly and children are bred to bulk up the armies that make sure the Citadel continues to have gas and water from other enemy territories. These are the foundations of most apocalyptic action films. The Have-Nots vs The Haves and the influence of religion in our wars.
That’s not to say the feminist coding of Mad Max: Fury Road is unfounded. This is still a movie with a female heroine and a band of women at the forefront of the action who either fight side-by-side with Max or utilize Max as a partner to fight for them. Max is never the leader; he’s the muscle at times and he even comes up with a plan in the movie but nobody thinks to look to him for what they should do. There’s no superhero movie trope of the woman who has to prove that she’s just as tough as a man and there’s no backstory or desire to sort of showcase the femininity of the women even though they’re extremely tough as some sort of misguided attempt at nuance. It’s feminist in the way it lets the women be human beings stuck in the same grim world as Max and surviving in the exact same way.
Speaking of superhero movie, in a Marvel run world, this movie really does feel like a bottle of cold water after days spent walking in the desert. Watching the latest Avengers’ film is a lot to take in: it’s noisy, cluttered, all over the place, full of CGI, full of story, full of backstory and full of pounds and pounds of exposition. Everything happens and yet at the end it all feels disposable; I can’t imagine that’s completely accidental. The thing about these movies is that they’re one long commercial for the next seven movies. Nothing feels essential or valuable because nothing in these movies is essential or valuable. They’re all based on comics that have existed for years and hell, characters have died and come back so, does any of this really matter.
Mad Max, despite being the fourth movie in a series, is fresh in the sense that it has a straightforward story and it’s not particularly concerned with the how of all of this. There’s no backstory explanation and there’s no side story or extra baggage tacked on. This is a movie celebrating spectacle and insanity. There’s nothing like it right now and that’s both a positive and a sad reality.