After five years, Mad Max: Fury Road’s breathless phantasmagoria of fire and blood reigns supreme as the Valhalla of action cinema.
The Ozploitation franchise’s fourth chapter is as miraculous now as it was when it was first released. The wrath of development oblivion was immense – from the grip of 9/11, the Iraq War or Mother Nature’s will to impede – but George Miller’s mad-eyed fervour defied the odds, forging a place in cinema history.
Upon its V8-roaring release, it’d been 30 years since we entered the Thunderdome. Yet, scepticism became a spectre of naivety as NoS-charged aftershocks rippled through audiences. Two stages became clear in a cineaste’s life: pre- and post-Fury Road.
Even the trailer is still mesmerising – check it out:
Mankind has ‘gone rogue’. The oil wars ravaged lands of power, water has fallen from ubiquity to become a commodity controlled by a dictator, and forestry is a mere dream among fields of sand. From 1979’s feral road rage, this is a wasteland reduced to a single instinct: survive.
In this dystopia, former cop-turned road warrior Max (Tom Hardy) stands idle, plagued by ghoulish flickers of the family he couldn’t save. ‘As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken,’ he says. However, he’s soon captured and caged in the caves of the Citadel, ruled by the empirical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the original’s Toecutter).
Every single detail of his palace breathes, from his loyal, white-painted War Boys and women hooked up to milk machines, to the thousands in rock-bottom squalor who look to Joe’s Elysian cliff-top, awaiting waves of water to rain down by his hand. The production design is impeccable – unsurprisingly, it earned one of the film’s six eventual Oscars.
However, one cog looks to break the machine – the trusty Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a mechanical-armed badass marked with a skull-head insignia.
While driving an 18-wheel War Rig to the ‘bullet farm’, she goes off-course in a bid to take Joe’s chastity belt-wearing harem of five wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) to the Green Place, a sanctuary far away from his rotten enslavement. Later, she and Max will form an unlikely alliance.
After they flee, he finds empowered messages scribbled on the walls: ‘Our babies will not be warlords… we are not things.’ With Joe’s future son and heir escaping his grasp, he launches a no-holds-barred chase to bring them back: ‘They’re my property!’
Seeing his opportunity to ascend the ranks, ill War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult in an entirely uninhibited, career-best performance) joins the pursuit, strapping Max to the front of his vehicle as a ‘blood bag’. Start your engines and buckle up, ‘What a day, what a lovely day!’
Nothing illustrates Miller’s unhinged imagination quite like the Doof Warrior (played by iOTA), a harnessed metal-head spouting flames from his guitar, with a band of drummers pulsing above the revs. This isn’t just any car chase – it’s a weep-worthy symphony of pyrophoria on a scale hitherto undreamt of.
Welcome to the Cirque du Mad; a meticulous, Newtonian showcase of insanity with a masked Hardy being spun around in a drifting car, Rock Riders flinging explosives as they soar above the rig and War Boys flying into the sky via giant vertical poles.
More so than ever, CGI is a founding layer of a set-piece. Fury Road may utilise 2,000 effects shots, but they’re used sparingly – either enhancing the already-fantastical, or enabling the impossible (for example, War Boys being swept up into a lightning sand storm).
Here, practicality is the name of the game. This is arguably the pinnacle of kinetic filmmaking, rivalled only by Gareth Evans’ The Raid movies. Imagine a western on wheels combined with the raw anarchy of Apocalypto and eccentricity of a carnival.
Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale was enticed out of retirement to shoot the film, arguably producing the crowning jewel of his career. Each chaotic sequence is tracked with ultra-precision, while channelling the film’s barren yet ethereal ochre to occasionally stop time – no shot of the past 20 years has equalled the evocative wallop of Furiosa collapsing into the sand.
Unlike the cult charisma that bolstered Gibson’s inaugural turn as Max, Hardy works under a different sketch. This is by no means the traditional hero; taciturn, often self-motivated, conversing monosyllabically and executing violence with an almost cartoonish fever (purposely jerky frame rates add to this sensation).
Well-refined movie star energy keeps him from floating into the ether, but the undisputed champ is Theron’s Furiosa. On one hand, she was revolutionary; a shaved head, no love interest, just the will to free women from chains.
On the other, she’s a classic movie heroine; a likeable force of nature with hard-edged reserve, instantly joining the iconic ranks of Ripley, Sarah Connor and, of late, Angela Abraham from HBO’s Watchmen. She’s the soul of the film, the real Mad Max, with an earnest, compelling arc. The future belongs to the Imperator.
It was all conceived on a single idea; a continuous chase with human beings as the MacGuffins. But Fury Road’s thematic heft reaches further; there’s the conflict of man’s inhumanity towards man, trauma, class inequality and impending ecological collapse.
All this in a script where carnage takes precedence over verbiage – to shift here from Happy Feet and Babe, Miller (and his co-writing team of Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) clearly had clarity in the bank.
Most significantly, Furiosa’s revolt against the patriarchal Joe, and his ruthless, far-from-distressed damsels, is a potent feminist parable. Examining that weighty oppression in a bombastic blockbuster is no mean feat. To do so, Miller brought in Eve Ensler, writer of The Vagina Monologues, as a consultant on the script and to work with the actors playing Joe’s ‘wives’.
Alongside the chaos onscreen, there’s Junkie XL’s extraordinary rock opera soundtracking the madness. It’s an absolute monster of a score, weaving grungy, thunderous cacophonies with mighty orchestral crescendoes – comparison lessens its achievement, but think of a post-apocalyptic cross between Hans Zimmer and Bernard Herrmann on crack. Listening to Brothers in Arms is still an out-of-body experience.
This barely scratches the surface. Whether it’s five, 10 or 50 years from now, it’ll remain a timeless, breathtaking touchstone. Mad Max: Fury Road is a kamikaze celebration of pure spectacle, the beauty and scale of which still moves me to tears.
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