By: Tim Cogshell
Mad Max, the first feature film of director George Miller and the second for the then 23-year-old Mel Gibson, premiered in North America in February 1980. I was 17 years old, crazy about cars and revenge movies, and generally ripe for the picking. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, followed in 1981, deepening devotees’ affection for the character and his car. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), was the third film in the series and was equally anticipated, though it has worn less well over time. It co-starred the Silent Dancer herself, Tina Turner, and her current hit of the day, the name of which I cannot remember and don’t want to look up.* I saw each of them at the time of its respective North American release and relished in them all. Yet I can say that the first achievement of Mad Max: Fury Road is that, like its titular character, Fury Road stands alone.
In fact, Mad Max: Fury Road is a good movie on its own terms, without reference to any other films, including the three I just mentioned – something notable in a motion picture universe that believes in the tent-pole-based feeder system, where the summer blockbuster is little more than an appetizer for the fall release of a “companion film,” itself a filler in preparation for the Christmas release of the third installment in a film series for which there is no foreseeable end, but I digress. And, there are several sequels to Fury Road underway, further, one should see the 1979 Mad Max for a complete experience… still, Fury Road stands alone.
‘Fury Road’ superior to ‘Road Warrior’ and ‘Beyond Thunderdome’
The second achievement of Mad Max: Fury Road is that it all but erases the need for the existence of the two films that precede it – Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome – both of which I still love because I haven’t made the mistake of actually watching them in the last 20 years.
Wisely, Fury Road is neither sequel nor prequel to those iconic classics of the Australian Road Rage genre (see Not Quite Hollywood). Rather, this latest Mad Max is a replacement for those films, which, as it turns out, are better considered placeholders, waiting for the technology to catch up with the mad doctor’s concepts for the film he really wanted to make 30 years ago. Which, includes sticking star Tom Hardy on a flexible pole attached to a car, surrounded by guys on poles attached to other cars, all speeding along at 80 miles per hour while, very carefully, blowing things up all around them.
Fury Road replaces Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome with one film that’s better than both of them put together, while, for all intents and purposes, being the amalgamation of its two predecessors, both visually and narratively.
Destruction and its opposite force
Mad Max: Fury Road, is about the scarcity of water and the sanctification of the mechanistic in a post-apocalyptic society and it’s certainly Max-ian, as one imagines the next films in the series will be as well.
The juxtaposition of elements in the film generally breaks down along these lines:
- Western concerns, iconography, symbols, and history, in addition to the Y chromosome make up one set of forces – generally, the forces of destruction.
- Aboriginal cultures, symbolisms, beliefs, and languages, plus the XX chromosome pairing represent renewal and regeneration.
The question posed in the film repeatedly is direct: “Who killed the world?” Or, by extension, “Who will kill the world?”
Miller’s answer is clear: Men. Specifically, men.
Salvation will be found in nature and in the replenishing power of the feminine.
Woman as the Hero
Thus the actual hero of this film – a film titled Mad Max: Fury Road – is a woman. Imperator Furiosa, played with all the squinty-eyed determination of a young Clint Eastwood by 39-year-old Charlize Theron, owns this movie.
And with one arm even. In other words, the girl in the movie does everything the boy in the movie does, and she only needs one arm to do it.
Indeed, the plan to set herself and the slave maidens – trapped in the grip of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Toecutter in The Road Warrior) – on the way back to her homeland is Furiosa’s plan. She intends to make the run to the “green place” with these scantily clad, beautiful young girls, down the Fury Road, where nothing but treachery awaits. And it’s a good plan.
Ass-kicking ‘nature of the feminine’
Anchored by Zoë Kravitz, who is becoming a welcome fixture in a number of films, the maidens include several young actresses who are not just lovely willows, even if some of them were (or are) supermodels. The costumes they wear – little more than linen rags – are deliberate; they are meant to reflect the lascivious nature of the male. Yet the women are ever the road warriors themselves.
There is nothing pacifist or even docile in Miller’s conception of the nature of the feminine, no matter what the woman looks like or what she’s wearing. The feminine will kick your ass in his dystopian world, but only for a fair and righteous cause – to be free.
Mad Max: The Heroine’s Sidekick
Max Rockatansky, on the other hand, is a Man – without a cause except survival. He must choose to do the right thing while clinging to a remnant of himself from a time before men not unlike him destroyed everything.
Still… make no mistake, on the Fury Road, Mad Max is Furiosa’s sidekick, handy and resilient, but she’s the one with the keys to the truck.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Director: George Miller. Cast: Tom Hardy. Charlize Theron. Nicholas Hoult. Josh Helman. Hugh Keays-Byrne. Nathan Jones. Zoë Kravitz. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Riley Keough. Abbey Lee. Courtney Eaton. John Howard. Chris Patton. Richard Norton. Megan Gale. Judd Wild. Cass Cumerford. Stephen Dunlevy. Greg van Borssum. Melissa Jaffer. Angus Sampson.
Screenplay: George Miller. Brendan McCarthy. Nick Lathouris (as Nico Lathouris).
Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog/). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/