There are two sorts of people who are eager to watch Mad Max: Fury Road — those who harbour a lust-fuelled interest in Tom Hardy, and geeks who have been waiting 30 years for the follow-up to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The rest might wonder what’s the big deal about a reboot that has hellish jalopies and Charlize Theron at her most unglamorous.
Here’s the answer: Mad Max: Fury Road could well be the best film that will come out of Hollywood in 2015. Skip it because you don’t care for dust, grubby men, almost-bald women and/ or action movies, and you’ll have missed greatness.
It isn’t as though Mad Max: Fury Road is a perfect film. For one, it doesn’t linger long enough on Hardy’s delicious pout. The only time the actor is shirtless, it’s because he’s a prisoner being brutally tattooed, which isn’t quite what makes hormones surge to fever pitch in too many of us. Speaking of pitches, the film does does have, for no logical reason, a crazy guitarist whose job is to twang mightily while an army attacks a pack of renegades. The music is great, but the guitarist is just odd. Most seriously, the almost unrelenting whiteness of Mad Max’s world is deeply disappointing.
The only non-white member in the cast — from leads, supporting actors and extras — is Zoe Kravitz, who has a fantastic name (“Toast the Knowing”) but little to do.
However, chances are you will not notice any of this while watching the film. Mad Max: Fury Road is a gripping action adventure set in an unspecified future. In this ravaged world, water is likened to a drug. Oil is precious and humans scavenge off other humans.
Max (Hardy) is taken prisoner by a group who follow a leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, under a ghoulish muzzle, wig and geisha-white face paint) who controls the oil in the region. It’s a ferociously martial and masculine society, in which boys are vying to be the most violent of alpha males. When Max does manage to escape, his only hope lies with a group of women who are escaping Immortan Joe. Led by Furiosa (Theron), who was once Immortan Joe’s trusted lieutenant, the women’s plan is to take refuge in the distant Green Place.
It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but director George Miller manages to make this basic story of underdogs being chased by big, bad guys teem with ideas and nuances. From climate change, the dangers of superstition to feminism, it’s all in Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller has experience in lending depth to stories through storytelling. This is the man who wrote Babe and directed its sequel, as well as the two Happy Feet films. Clearly, Miller has a fondness for journeys undertaken by not-quite-normal characters.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a bit of a departure from Babe and Happy Feet, but consider this film carefully and you’ll see it does stay true to some basic tenets of the kiddie film genre. First, the premise of the film has to make you care for the film’s heroes. Second, for the fantasy to be convincing, the setting must look magical enough to make the audience catch its breath from time to time.
Third, the soundtrack should be excellent. Fourth, there should be a message. Mad Max: Fury Road may be for grown ups (and teenagers), but it ticks all these boxes. You care about Max, Furiosa and the other women from the moment you realise they’re escaping the horrific Immortan Joe. Namibia’s glorious landscape and CGI come together to create unforgettable sights, like the sandstorm that moves like a tsunami of dust rather than water. The metal-rich soundtrack with keening electric guitar solos matches the fury of the film perfectly.
And finally, the messages. Almost every second of Mad Max: Fury Road has snarls, stunts, violence and mayhem, which Miller uses with masterful skill to talk about serious issues with subtlety. The wasteland setting is both beautiful and hostile, reminding us of how vulnerable humans are and how immense and adaptable nature can be.
Climate change and ecological crises are very real issues in this film. Through Immortan Joe and his war boys, Miller presents a scathing critique of machismo and patriarchy, revealing how misguided and destructive it is to reduce women to birthing vessels. The “prized breeders” whom Furiosa frees are literally held captive in an enormous safe, but they’re resilient and more than capable of surviving in the unforgiving wild. The film also urges you to confront problems, rather than run away from them.
Yet for all this philosophy and idealism, there’s not a soapbox in sight in Mad Max: Fury Road. The dialogues are few, which means there’s no chance of tuning out. Instead, Miller uses action sequences to develop character and relationships.
For instance, the first time Furiosa and Max are in the vehicle together, their distrust of one another is palpable. It’s when they have to fight Immortan Joe’s men together that they swiftly develop a rhythm that makes shooting at the enemy seem almost balletic. By the end of that firefight, Furiosa and Max are a team. You can tell from their body language — and that’s great acting, because in reality, Theron and Hardy were not even on talking terms during the film’s shoot.
Hardy is fantastic as the troubled but determined Max and even the geeks will accept he is an improvement upon Mel Gibson. He’s also able to inject humour (which is fittingly dry, given the landscape) into the film at the most unexpected moments. However, for much of its two hours, Hardy isn’t the only one in the limelight.
There’s a scene in the film that sums up the balance of Mad Max: Fury Road. At one point, Max grabs a gun and tries to shoot an enemy who is a distance away, but closing in dangerously fast. He misses once, twice. Furiosa doesn’t take the gun from him. She just kneels behind him, saying nothing. He hands her the gun and the camera’s focus shifts to her. She aims, resting the barrel on Max’s shoulder, steadying the weapon. And then she pulls the trigger. Mission accomplished.
Theron — one of the few humans who can look sexy despite being comprehensively covered in rags and without an arm — is magnificent as Furiosa. In a lesser actress’ hands, this character could have been reduced to an Amazonian caricature like Xena the Warrior Princess, but Theron layers Furiosa’s intensity with tenderness and melancholy. She’s not flawless, but she’s strong; even when she’s on her deathbed. One of the most beautiful and heartbreaking moments in the film is when the one hope Furiosa was clinging to is wrenched from her.
She falls to her knees and howls with painful, furious despair and misery. Under and around her warrior-strong body, which still refuses to crumple, flame-coloured sand shifts and dances gently, as though in mourning.
For a film that’s set in a wasteland and full of inhumanity, Mad Max: Fury Road is astonishingly hopeful and fun. Perhaps this is because there’s redemption in it for almost everyone — for Max despite his madness, for Furiosa despite her singlemindedness, for the warboys despite their cruelty. But most of all, there’s redemption for Hollywood and its action extravaganzas.
With Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller shows that if done right, even the most crassly commercial of genres can be powerful, idealistic and cinematic. Action can be nuanced without losing its fun elements. Sure, it might take 30 years to come together, but by George, Miller’s done it.