Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz
Director of Photography: John Seale
Music by Junkie XL
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Directed by George Miller
Rating: 10 out of 10
Mad Max: Fury Road is such a force of a movie, it’s hard to not be blown away completely by it. It’s a movie I didn’t really have on my radar until the reviews came in and I had to go and see for myself. So, my expectations were high, but I didn’t really expect to be this amazed, this enchanted, this astonished by a movie like that. The acting is amazing as Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy have their roles down to perfection. The direction by (70-year-old!) George Miller is so flawless and confident, it should bring most other directors to shame. The screenplay is a brilliant mix of pathos and feminist propaganda. The production design, make-up, hair, costumes, the whole world that is created here in intricate detail is worth the ticket alone. I could go on and on about the breathtaking cinematography (72-year-old John Seale!), the relentless score, the brutal editing, the great mix of practical and computer effects, the action, the perfectly planted tiny bits of humor. This movie just has it all. I don’t know if you’ll like this movie, if you’re not really into dystopias or stunts, but I’d assure you that you’d still find enough to at least enjoy parts of it, because even if the movie is basically four giant action set pieces tied together, it still has more heart and brain than most movies coming out all year. It is a miracle it even got made by a major studio. This is an early contender for one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
I have been doing a lot of research on the future in films for school and realized how utterly dystopian almost any science-fiction movie is (which could be the topic for a whole series), but Mad Max’s future is as apocalyptic and bleak as possible. Granted, that has been true of the earlier Mad Max films, but the way this world is created here makes the future look so horrific, so merciless, so cruel that not many movies can compete with it. What makes it special, I think, is that it doesn’t enjoy its nastiness as many other movies do. Right from the start, with radio broadcasts of disasters off-screen, the movie sets the tone for an apocalypse that seems inevitable. This new world is all about the lack of resources, mainly water, fuel, blood and ammunition, with food seemingly a thing of the past. Emotions are absent, people are reduced to manic, mindless minion yearning for anything to make them keep going, hidden under tribal make up and obeying to authority more than ever before, personified by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, with a terrifying presence), one of the three oppressive rulers that reign like merciless gods over despairing masses with a “single instinct: survival”. It is an impressive feat of dystopian, authoritarian world building in the first act of the movie.
(some spoilers from here on, but nothing too specific)
What has to be surprising to anyone (and I simply can’t imagine how any studio boss has liked the idea), is that the revolution against this system comes from a feminist approach, so feminist in fact that you would be hard-pressed to find a similar feminist movie anywhere close in recent times. We discuss how some female roles in blockbuster movies have become a little bit more empowered and then Mad Max: Fury Road comes along and says: “Fuck all of you, this is how you do it.” How do you do it? While you pretend that the hero of the movie will likely be the titular character Max (Tom Hardy), because his name is probably the main reason this franchise has been going on, even with a new actor, you actually have the second leading character be played by Charlize Theron and have her own the movie from the moment she appears on screen until the very last shot of the movie. Or to give her a name as crazily brilliant as ‘Imperator Furiosa’. It also helps to make her character strong, idealistic, passionate, vulnerable and talented at anything related to driving and shooting. She fights so strongly against being victimized that it becomes the main drive for the movie.
There are actual feminist slogans in the movie, written on walls, repeated again in dialogue and most of all acted out in the story again and again. The leading ones are We Are Not Things and Who Killed the World?, but Our babies will not be warlords is also proclaimed. In a culture that still celebrates objectification of women all the time, where sexism is commonplace, where women rarely get anything to say or do in big movies, here comes a 150-million-dollar movie shouting and fighting for the fact that “women are not things.” The movie is filled with astounding imagery to support that idea: chastity belts with teeth in the crotch area, phallic symbols like guns and water hoses, women used as milking factories like cows in the beginning and in the end becoming the liberators who give birth to a new world, a recurring theme of umbilical cords being cut (yes, you read that right). This last one is probably my favorite because just the idea of using that imagery is fascinating and daring. Max having to cut through his chain that makes him free, him being connected by a tube filled with blood to Nux (Nicholas Hoult, with an amazing character arc) and the actual umbilical cord cut through with no care at all by another cruel man. And the women around which the plot revolves, might seem like supermodels at first glance, but they are not only representatives for all women through different race and hair color and character, but also show again and again that they have survival skills, even if they have been enslaved all of their lives.
Let’s get back to our titular hero, Max. The way he is treated and portrayed in this movie is another real gamble for a major movie. For the first third of the movie he is mostly helpless, kept as a prisoner, exploited, abused and mistreated. The first huge action sequence has very little to do with him besides the fact that you wonder how he survives it while being strapped to a car all the time. He later becomes more of a central figure but ever so often he has to step back, to let Furiosa do her thing. At one point he tries to shoot a bad guy and misses him twice. Instead of trying it a third and final time, he simply hands over the gun to her who doesn’t waste the chance. He has to be rescued by women several times and when he is alone, he often seems, well, mad, but not stereotypical “mad but actually amazing” and more like “I really have issues-insane”. There is one moment where he single-handedly goes out and takes out some bad guys to save all the others, risking his life for the greater good… and it happens off-screen. He literally goes away for a while, there are some explosions and he comes back with blood on his face. That sequence alone baffled me in the most positive way, the way it didn’t grant him a heroic moment. But there is even more to his enforced passiveness and victimhood. His captors force a mask on him and for the longest time he tries to get rid of it. What could have been a running gag in a normal movie becomes a symbol for his willingness to let go of his male stereotypes and engage in something more important. Furiosa explicitly asks him: “Do you want to get rid of the thing on your face?” and the way it is presented, it becomes clear that this is not only a practical question but a moral one that implies “Do you want to be like them?”
Two more moments worth mentioning in this aspect. There is a scene where a woman is killed and the responsible man reacts as if he orgasms. We are not supposed to share his feelings but be disgusted by it. And in another crucial scene it is a man who sacrifices himself for the cause of the others (mainly women), which also gender-switches a trope we see all the time. What a dare this movie is in its gender politics, how challenging and refreshing to see this is still possible.
There is one last theme that runs throughout the movie, which still grounds it in our culture in a way. Since this world is such a ruin, a world where “everything hurts” for all of its inhabitants (even the rulers who all suffer from some disease or physical impairment), the characters are looking for something, which boils down to the choice between two things: redemption and hope. Redemption (or salvation) is a very key aspect in our culture, the ticket we are being sold by all major religions and other institutions constantly to endure the pain we live in as a bargain for the good that will come after it. It is an effective and deceptive gamble that worked for a long time and comes up in the movie at several points. The villain uses it to control his followers, by promising them a better world after this one, even turning some of them into something like suicide bombers (there is a large area of more themes in the movie I haven’t even hinted at). Max also believes in redemption or, to be more precise, thinks “hope is a mistake. If you don’t fix what’s broke, you’ll go insane.” That implies that this world cannot be fixed, so you can only wait for the next world to find some solace. Furiosa and the Five Wives only live for hope, of changing their situation and eventually the future of their world. The movie makes a case for both concepts, but it is interesting that all the men just look for redemption and long for the afterlife, while the women try to achieve actual change for the future. As much as the last shots are full of pathos and optimism, the hope comes from people who hadn’t had a chance to be in control of things before. Something that always bothers me about the happy endings in dystopian movies, is that we are supposed to believe that people who screwed up suddenly change. This makes the utopia flawed and invalid to me, but here it seems earned and reasonable because none of them had the chance to be greedy and oppressive, but suffered enough from it that it seems unlikely they will walk down the same road. Again, the movie does not put its hope on the shoulders of its tormented male hero, but on the women. Look at that last shot and the decision behind making it the final image of the movie.
That was a long one, but all it did for me is appreciate the movie even more and wanting to see it again and again. This must be one of the most important movies we have right now and accidentally it’s also one of the most spectacular and exciting. All of the bad or problematic movies I’m writing about here seem to ask for something else, a movie that gets things right. This is that movie. I love it.