Today’s Hollywood is interested in two things: making films and making money. With the latter being more important the best films to produce are ones which will attract the biggest audiences. Although there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, what results is a market dominated not just by the typical blockbuster spectacle but by constant sequels and remakes of older franchises that are sure to already have a big and established consumer market. What’s left then are usually films of lackluster product, ones which focus more on the marketing of their familiarity in order to haul in more tickets rather than quality of the film itself.
George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” stands as one of the exceptions to this rule. Two decades after the last entry in the series, “Beyond Thunderdome,” Miller successfully manages to breathe new life into the franchise by way of cinematic surgery. In doing so, Miller deconstructs the imagery of his previous trilogy before smartly reconstituting them together. The resulting product is a modern film that still retains the old spirit of what originally made “Mad Max” Mad Max.
In a post-apocalyptic future where the Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, the vestiges of humanity live across the planet’s desert wasteland. Like the seamless switch in James Bonds, Max is now played by Tom Hardy, who begins the film with a bleak monologue on his inability to save his loved ones and the current state of humanity.
Dialogue in the film is sparse yet key moments such as this one, in combination with Miller’s technique throughout the film to show and not tell, allow Miller to deeply flesh out his characters. Max is more than just the typical B-movie action hero now but is given more of an introspective side. Max’s penchant for few words and violence become more than just a trope but turn into a way to understand not only his character but the world around him. Max and the rest of Miller’s characters then become micro-narratives which help build Miller’s overall world. In the setting of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” survival is above everything else which Max wanes on. Survival is difficult for Max, however, who’s now constantly haunted by those he’s failed to save and in a twist of ironic humor, Max is shortly captured by bandits.
Max is then taken to Citadel, an outpost of civilization that’s ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Miller begins to carve a distinct style for the film here through Max’s escape from prison. The movement of bodies are edited to appear sped-up, giving them an inhuman appeal. This aspect of inhumanity is further fueled by the various jumps and grunts of the bandits, an attitude that, as Miller points to in the film, stems from their warrior-like religion where death on the battlefield is welcomed with open arms. What Miller is doing here is more than, once again, building several narratives that expand on the cinematic world of “Fury Road,” but finding ways to translate the abstract narrative aspects of the film into the physical realm of the camera—a technique that’s only possible with the film genre.
Interspersed with Max’s capture, Miller takes the time to introduce the character of Furiousa (Charlize Theron), the film’s second protagonist. Furiousa is immediately, at least visually, characterized by her bionic arm and shaved head—two testaments that prove her survivability and strength in the wasteland. Furiousa stands as one of Immortan Joe’s chief bandits and it’s through this trust that Furiousa takes the opportunity to skew a raiding mission for supplies into a rescue mission of Joe’s prisoner concubines. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Immortan Joe stumbles into an empty home to be greeted by a painted message on the walls, citing: “We are not things.”
A pursuit begins with Max at the helm of things in the most literal manner. In a world where modern technology is scarce, bandit engineers turn to other resourceful ways to carry on with their lives. In this case Max has been turned into a blood bag to be hooked up to and used by Nux (Nicholaus Hoult), a lowly positioned warrior who’s driven to death on the battlefield for Joe. While the circumstances behind their transformation into commodities or “things” are vastly different, there’s a parallel between Max and Immortan Joe’s concubines.
Max as a human blood bag and Immortan Joe’s prisoner concubines are concepts that can only exist within Miller’s world. “Fury Road” differs from its counterparts through its exploration of social roles that women play in a post-apocalyptic world. Women aren’t dispossessed to just be escaped concubines however—they also play the role of high ranking warriors like Furiousa or the potential saviors of humanity as shown by the character credited as “Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer)”, a farmer/warrior who plants seeds around the desert in hopes of reviving vegetation.
After a battle through the desert, where he’s freed, Max ends up having to join forces with Furiousa in order to survive. In essence the rest of the film from here is one long chase sequence, although that’s not a bad thing. Like in the previous trilogy, Miller understands that these are films that are at their strongest during movement. That is to say, it is during these chase sequences–be they on foot or in a car–that Miller is able to work best, bringing the “Mad Max” series to its own original aesthetic peak.
From start to finish the action in “Fury Road” never dies down and the entire film almost feels like one long-take because of how Miller handles the transition in narratives between scenes. There are reprieves as well as time devoted to exposition, yet these moments are brief and Miller weaves the latter into the action pieces seamlessly.
In comparison to the original “Mad Max,” released in 1979, Miller’s filmic style has both evolved and kept true to its spirit. The sparse use of dialogue, the chase sequences, Max’s hardened attitude—these are elements which all remain. What’s affected “Fury Road” the most in making it a different film is the change in Max’s dominance of the screen.
Furiousa plays the deutertagonist and alongside her is a slew of female characters when compared to their female counterparts in previous films, play much more important and better roles. Miller emphasizes this balance between Furiousa and Max in a variety of ways yet the most subtle one—as well as coolest—stems from the manner in which Furiousa and Max battle Joe’s bandits. With minimal spoilers, in one scene after missing his previous shots and only having one left, Max reluctantly hands Furiousa the sniper rifle, who, admittedly, is the much better marksman between the two.
Like the shot Furiousa makes, Miller has found a great mark in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The new changes are welcome ones, although die-hard fans might miss Gibson or Max’s car, Hardy successfully brings Max’s disquieted attitude back and while the removal of Max’s iconic car is sure to be missed, it’s also representative of Miller casting off the old and bringing something new and modern to the screen.