The Mad Max franchise has achieved that rarest of all things. It’s a series of films that not only pleases whatever crowd watches it and has been cited as one of the best film series of all times. In the same way John Ford invented a genre while pleasing a mass audience, Mad Max director George Miller created a slew of imitators all based on a simple idea about the open roads and fast cars.
Miller’s been trying to make Fury Road for almost 15 years. By all accounts, the production was a disaster, suffering from budgetary overruns to reshoots to recasts. This is normally an indication of an epic disappointment in the making. Disregarding those problems, there was no artistic reason for a Mad Max sequel. The films have been imitated so many times that everyone would assume a new Max film is part of worn out genre.
But Fury Road is incredible.
It is one of the few films that creates an entire self-contained world with only the simplest of ideas. Fury Road has one question – what would actually happen if the entire world collapsed and the only people left were a group of Jodorowsky-esque creatures who are trying to find some sort of hope? There is no attempt to reconstruct what is lost and there is no attempt for anyone to be morally good. Despite its bizarre characters and over the top set pieces, Fury Road comes across as incredibly realistic. I have a feeling that, if human society were to collapse and we found ourselves slowly returning to nature, the “might makes right” attitude of the characters in Fury Road would be exactly what humanity would face.
And the action sequences are exciting and exhilarating.
That idea is used as a subversion for every trope about post-apocalyptic fiction, even in the way that Max (Tom Hardy, replacing series mainstay Mel Gibson) is characterized. He is not a typical postmodern hero that has to have a quip about his situations in order to lessen the impact on the audience. He’s not even a hero, really. As he explains, his existence is based only on his own survival.
At the beginning of the film, Max is captured by the tribe of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an old man who has drilled down into the earth to bring the increasingly rare water to his people. They worship him as a god and his warriors, including Nux (Nicholas Hoult) dream of dying for him so they can go to Valhalla. He also keeps female slaves to bear him children.
So, does Max see these women in peril and spring into action? No. That falls upon Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who is the true main character in the film. She’s the one who steals a truck to take the brides to “the green place.” Max, as usual, is an ancillary character to the proceedings. He spends the first act as Nux’s blood bag (tied to the front of Nux’s car with his blood being fed into Nux’s veins) and is only introduced to these characters when he tries to shoot one in the leg and steal their truck for his own getaway.
What’s interesting is how Miller changed the characterization of Max. This is not really a sequel to the second or third film, but wants to take Max back to the beginning. He’s haunted by very abstract images of his dead family, but doesn’t fight for them. He’s running from them and doesn’t care about anything that could remind him of his past. Max doesn’t even like saying his name. That obsession with the world as it was before (as Furiosa demonstrates) is more insane than grabbing a gun and hoping you can kill the warrior tribe before they kill you. Even the wives, at times, are desperate to turn around and beg forgiveness from Joe rather than keep going into the unknown. It’s all handled quite well because the actors make it believable.
But that’s not what makes Fury Road so incredible. The characters are almost ancillary to the breathless action sequences. I said that, after Furious 7, Fury Road had a lot to live up to. I was completely wrong to assume that Miller wasn’t up to the challenge.
Miller creates an entire world using his action sequences, from Joe’s war rig that includes drummers and a guitarist to play his war cries and the acrobatic drivers who use trapeze style maneuvers to yank people from moving vehicles. I’ve already mentioned the fact that Max is used as a blood bag for a warrior. This is because everyone seems to be suffering from a deadly illness, including Nux and Joe. A lot of the drama and tension comes from the necessity to cool engines and use winches.
None of this is really explained by anyone. These are characters who have been inhabiting their world for decades. (Furiosa mentions being away from home for 7,000 days.) And the sequences themselves are handled very well. The editing is rapid, but that’s an artistic point rather than a standard. There are beautiful shots of the vehicles as they pursue their prey. And above all, there is a sense that the heroes may not survive. It stirs the imagination as you see warriors descending from vehicles on long poles and snatching someone. Who are these people and how did they arrive at this point?
It’s exactly what made The Road Warrior so unique. That film ended with a fifteen minute car chase filled with a great deal of bizarre characters who were fighting out of duty and their beliefs. Fury Road is almost nothing but car chases – and it finds something new and unique to do each time. There are so many moments that stay in the imagination that I have a feeling I’ll need to re watch it in order to capture everything.
Fury Road, like The Road Warrior, is one of those films that no one would expect to set off a revolution. It’s an energetic ride that takes the simplest ideas and uses them to create something new. Miller could have easily just remade The Road Warrior and made fans complacent. But Miller wanted to show a new generation WHY The Road Warrior was so widely beloved and why imitators still pop up. It’s about showing the same passion you had about the films that inspired you. That’s a lesson that Kurosawa knew, that Spielberg knows, and that Miller demonstrates perfectly with Fury Road.