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Mad Max: Fury Road

Entry updated 21 December 2023. Tagged: Film.

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Film (2015). Warner Bros Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures a Kennedy Miller Mitchell production. Directed by George Miller. Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris. Cast includes Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hugh Keays-Byrn and Charlize Theron. 120 minutes. Colour.

Mad Max, antihero of three previous films in this franchise – Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – returns reheated for the Cineplex. The original Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), played here by Hardy with some degree of similarly anarchic energy, is soon heard declaiming: "You know, hope is a mistake: if you can't fix what's broken, you'll, uh ... you'll go insane." This hard-earned wisdom highlights both the tone and the message of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Max has been captured via prologue and transported to Citadel, where heavy-breathing fascist Immortan Joe (Keays-Burn) enthrals a heaving corpus of irradiated apocalypse survivors inside a Ruined Earth desert fortress or Keep. When Imperator Furiosa (Theron) leads the despot's five wives in an almost-feminist marronage (in this case, the women are distinguished from their masters by sex rather than by race) toward a fabled "Green Place", she forges an alliance of convenience with Max when he is dislodged as figurehead of a vehicle-in-pursuit driven by sick-puppy warrior Nux (Hoult), who has been using Max as a source of fresh blood. A well-choreographed fight scene illustrates the power relationships between the major protagonists. Fortified in their enormous, cock-shaped petrol tanker the War Rig, they then try to outrun the high-speed patriarch and his henchmen in a frenetic tripartite chase through the Wasteland.

This is a reboot in the mould of Terminator Genisys (2015), albeit one which better understands, after 30 years of retrofitting, film's propensity to fold back on itself into a floating sea of well-known referents. Mad Max: Fury Road wears its symbolism on Furiosa's missing sleeve: bullet farms, corrupt bloodlines, threatening baroque skies. Movement is meaning; symbols are depth. Every destination proves a "wrong turn" and Furiosa is the only reliable custodian of the War Rig's detachable steering wheel. Max and Furiosa are underplayed almost to the point of somnambulism – even the Villains are unloquacious in this one – which serves to bring the world's background (to which the leads only gradually become less oblivious) into the foreground.

Norse myth – chrome-sprayed Valhalla, a shrivelled-up Yggdrasil of a world-tree – merits a fusillade of imagery derived as much from the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and J M W Turner (1775-1851) as from the science fictional tropes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982); this, one assumes, in order to convey the scale of the planetary catastrophe. Nothing is solid here: if anything, the real-life action is flattened out to fit with the film's computer generated imagery.

Furiosa has daubed "OUR BABIES WILL NOT BE WARLORDS" on the walls of the chamber from which she has confiscated Immortan Joe's hard-nippled concubines. (She leaves behind the Hottentot harem responsible for producing his "Mother's Milk", though the "fuel" they produce later proves useful to our fleeing protagonists.) Motherhood is thus divided from sex, every human dependency expressed as competition, the film's hyper-industrialized aesthetic a kind of body without organs, wherein any "deeper reality" is implied by functioning pieces of action theatre.

Subtle it is not; but nor, perhaps, should it be. Nuance is for those who already understand what Mad Max: Fury Road is depicting. Within the frame, the voice of conscience is Max's dead daughter, a kind of little-girl epitome of the world's missing Holy Wisdom, sometimes spiteful, sometimes encouraging, always enjoining him to wake up and face the music.

In 2013 – some dozen years after the film's first, abortive shoot was interrupted due to the 11 September attacks, and a decade after Mel Gibson left the project after its second cancellation due to the Iraq War – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization released a report stating that Australia will experience more extreme heat and longer fire seasons due to Climate Change. The country's internal desert is growing: the movie's widescreen desert of the irreal anticipates this stampede into apocalypse. Furiosa's forebears – a more-or-less autonomous commune of wise women – are forced to relate how their small pod of preserved seeds has found no purchase in their locale: the soil is insufficiently fertile. Having finally accepted that there's no more "Green Place" to run to, Max and Furiosa and their collection of mothers and sexual fugitives turn back to the Citadel, engendering the film's final, furious chase, wherein both Nux and several of the wives are obliged to prove both their independence and their usefulness.

Back at the ranch – the only sure source of clean water – Max fades into the crowd while Furiosa takes over from Immortan Joe: a kind of pragmatic mixed-monarchy on the English model. This is home, for better and for worse. Where in Under the Skin (2013) we needed an Alien woman to show us as we really are, here we need an indigenous female to redirect our route. [MD]

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