This is a review of the reboot of Mad Max, Fury Road. You’re reading this and you want to know exactly two things.
First of all, is this a film that holds up against the original series? Is it the action packed, fuel injected, chromed out post-apocalyptic vehicular mayhem tale worthy of bearing the name? Yes. Unquestionably, unequivocally: YES. This is a film that never stops. From the very beginning until the end there’s no pause, just a shifting of gears. It’s an unrelenting, frenetic action piece. Gloriously shot and edited. Full of incredible set pieces and props and character design. Like, did you see that guy with the guitar providing a soundtrack for us from within the universe? Just, whoa! There’s details like that throughout the whole film. And it was probably made all the better for its relocation to Namibia and long production time. This isn’t a film for the Fast & Furious generation, it’s a reminder that Max was the first road warrior, and they’ve just been keeping the signal fire burning. He’s back now to carry the torch and light the way.
The second question then, if you’re still reading this, if you need to know anything else: is there any more to it than that? YES! Yes, there is. And this is the focus of the rest of my review. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
George Miller could have just delivered something resembling an elaborate cut scene from the Borderlands video game and been done with it. There’s definitely an audience out there for that kind of material. But he didn’t stop there, no; he imbued the entire thing with a rich mythology and an important message.
While this is a story very much situated in what we immediately recognise to be Mad Max’s universe, the tale it tells is all about Furiosa’s journey. Max is in fact barely present in the story. He’s on the screen a lot, he’s just not… there much. Perhaps half of his dialogue in the whole film is spoken before the titles roll. Tom Hardy, in a voice much like that of his Bane character in The Dark Knight Rises, introduces the world he’s meant to embody before stomping on a two-headed, mutant lizard and calling it breakfast. Again, like Bane, Max is muzzled for most of the film’s beginning. He doesn’t even say his own name until two thirds through the film. He’s just a haunted, shadow of a man. Describing himself in the trailer above, as the film itself begins:
In this wasteland I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead.
A man reduced to a single instinct.
He is pure action and reaction. No forethought. All hope has been quashed in his mind. Instead, it’s his counterpart in the film, the Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron, who drives the plot. Literally.
Furiosa takes command for herself of a war rig – a kind of mutated, ruggedised, welded together road train – that’s meant to be doing a simple delivery/resupply mission between two post-apocalyptic fiefdoms ruled over by suitably cartoonish War Lords. This is where we enter into the territory of the film’s mythology and it’s caricature of the Patriarchy.
Now I’m yet to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I have been listening to a book on Babylonian mythology. I keep losing my place though, so last week I listened to a reading of the Babylonian Creation Myth three or maybe four times; the tale of Marduk slaying the dragon Tiamat. Marduk is repeatedly called the (first) Avenger in this story. The gods fit him with a sweet costume, some awesome weapons, mad powers and name him their leader. He successfully fights the dragon, and creates the heavens and the world from its body. From her body. Tiamat is the primordial mother, and by killing her Marduk establishes the Patriarchy and rules over the first State. Or so it goes. But there was an age that preceded this moment that’s almost completely lost to time. Where Tiamat ruled, when mother goddess worship was the dominant religion. The Matriarchal period of pre-history. As find after archaeological find has evidenced. Like this statue from the Upper Palaeolithic, around twenty-five thousand years ago:
What’s up with this diversion into a history/mythology lesson? Well, Fury Road‘s ultimate destination is a return to just such a Matriarchy. And that’s why all the MRA types will be freaking out even more when they all secretly go to see the movie they’re raging against online right now. Beyond having a single strong female counterpart to Max, the entire film’s plot – in between explosions and chase sequences and car crashes and methamphetaminic action sequences where women continually hold their own against men – revolves around its restoration. It’s a tale of rebirth, in a chaotic time just as sure to be poorly recorded and barely remembered by the age that follows it. The post-Collapse world depicted heavily resembles our imaginings of a pre-history lost to time. An almost perfect symmetry exists between the science-fictional carmaggedon barbarism of George Miller’s Mad Max universe and the fantastic sword & sorcery Hyborian Age of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Plot them on a graph showing the cycles of history and they align.
Which emphasises the point that one civilisation’s decline can mirror another’s ascent. Just as we speculatively recreate and mythologise the Bronze Age based on the artefacts we find today, and the few tales that have persisted, so some far future generation will hypothesise about the world that existed based on the fossil fuel age relics they discover. That mythology is being pre-emptively created for them here. What Fury Road depicts is the world during the end days of the Kali Yuga, and the events that mark its transformation. The symbolism is layered everywhere.
The question I asked when I posted my initial thoughts on the movie here, based on the first teaser trailer, was whether Fury Road could offer anything more than a vision of the Collapse to come. And whether we ourselves could find a way to avert it. In constructing this film George Miller has indeed, to my delight, very consciously made something that answers that question: what comes after the apocalypse? Is it just a continual descent into further barbarism, or can you build a new community from the shattered remnants. This is a theme also explored in the latest season of The Walking Dead, and is one of the excellent additions to the wider mythology in the television adaptation of 12 Monkeys. Miller’s answer is loud and clear: don’t stop, power through the end of the world and forge together elements once thought were separate in doing so.
Some more plot details to explain. Furiosa is being chased for the length of the film because inside her war rig she’s smuggled out the War Lord, Immortan Joe’s five wives, one of which is heavily pregnant. These are women he’s had imprisoned and been using to breed pure, healthy human children. Clearly a rarity in this nightmarish future scenario, as opposed to the many mutant, tumor-ridden ‘Half Lives’ that make up his army – the sickly children of the apocalypse that are fed on mother’s milk. Inside his Citadel women are shown forcibly hooked up like cows to a milking apparatus. Huge, unavoidable signs that this is about the suppression of the feminine, where children are a commodity.
The Half Lives are disposable fodder for the war machine that taps the untarnished blood of any scavengers or wanderers they find on the wasteland, in order to prolong their short lifespans. Following some cargo cult ideology that mixes worship of the V8 with Nordic mythology. Chroming their faces and hoping for a glorious death to be Witnessed by their peers, gaining themselves entrance into Valhalla. Max enters Furiosa’s story as a mobile blood bag shackled to the front of a pursuit car by a half-dead Half Life chasing after her.
When the in-universe, future oral tradition is told that will mythologise Furiosa’s adventure, Max will be the helpful figure they meet on the road. The one that offers the piece of wisdom that sets them on the right path. This is in fact the only other meaningful dialogue he has, beyond establishing the bounds of this fictional world. These are his two key roles within the narrative.
Through a series of aptly furious, exhaustive efforts and vehicular combat sequences, Furiosa succeeds in her planned rescue mission. Getting far, far away from the Citadel her and the wives were kept in. Only to find that the verdant, “Green Land” she was stolen from by Immortan Joe, and that she has been promising as a utopia to the wives in encouraging their escape, has become a corrupt wasteland in her absence. Populated only by crows and ragged figures on stilts. A short scene that is the eeriest of all, it looks like the actual Underworld. A landscape far worse than the desert they’ve journeyed through to get there. Passing beyond that she reconnects with the few remaining members of her lost Amazonian tribe. One of whom carries the literal seeds of rebirth to remake the lost ecology of the world that came before. Another symbolical check point.
They set out together – this small band of warrior women and the Half Life who’s thrown in with them – carrying the flame of humanity. Attempting to make a further, even more perilous journey into a bleak horizon of salt flats that stretch infinitely before them, in the vain hope that something better awaits them beyond it. It is then that Max comes to them with his simple, but powerful advice: everything they need awaits them back at the Citadel they escaped from. They just have to seize it for themselves. A task made easier by their escape from it, since the whole army is out chasing them, leaving the place undefended. That is the fate they can make for themselves. This is their chance to begin again.
And so the story then folds back on itself. The loop is closed. They manage, not without great peril and drama of course, to return to the Citadel they spent such effort escaping – having slain Immortan Joe during one of the battles. This is the final part of the mythological symbology in the film, marking the end of the age. The warriors of the mother goddess triumph over the patriarchal figurehead. Furiosa is become Marduk, the avenging Amazonian. She finds the redemption she seeks and with her cohorts can now remake the world. The cycle of history resumes once more. The imprisoned milk mothers are freed and release the flood gates, bringing life-giving water to the barren desert and its pitiful remnant human population. The Matriarchy is ascendant! The symbolism here is powerful and unmistakeable.
Then, his part fulfilled, just as the character did previously in Mad Max : Beyond Thunderdome, Max vanishes back into the wasteland. His small role in helping rebuild humanity complete. It isn’t his place to lead, this isn’t his story. The future is for the others, far better suited to the task, to build. Max doesn’t kill the King and become the new ruler as is the standard hero’s journey. But maybe he can find his own redemption out there.
This is the overall message George Miller brings us after a thirty year hiatus between Mad Max films: the apocalypse is not necessarily the end. No extinction event has ever been total. Humanity has neared the brink of annihilation before and rebounded. The cycle of history will always continue, but the key to avoiding another Fall involves dismantling the dominant paradigm; the Patriarchy. An incredibly liberal and feminine idea to find in what might otherwise be expected to be a purely testosterone-filled film. Again, to contrast this against the Fast & Furious films, which talk a lot about family, but are foremost about the bonds of brotherhood. Miller offers up an act of synthesis here, uniting the feminine and masculine aspects. Creating a piece of culture that serves as a landmark to chart a better way forward. The fact that it has evoked such a strong, visceral response from certain segments of the population tells us just how its much needed. For the rest of us it’s a visual feast with a message to be treasured, and a litmus test to identify fellow travellers.
I celebrate George Miller’s vision in weaving together such a compelling film that works so well on two levels, where others would have stopped at storyboarding and choreographing its amazing, complex, compelling action sequences. Mad Max: Fury Road is already being called a masterpiece with good reason.
@m1k3y – who is totally not the leader of an Asteroid Death Cult, is keenly interested in DeExtinction, and other things that fall under the Dark Extropian label, principally examining them through the lens of pop culture.