I must have watched the Mel Gibson Mad Max movies at some point but I have no clear recollection of them. That’s why I wasn’t planning to watch this one at all even if its trailer did impress me. But when it hit the theaters, the overwhelmingly positive consensus on places like Broken Forum was impossible to ignore. The clincher was us however is when it managed to piss off the MRA types. This meant my wife and myself just had to watch it if only to show solidarity.
Anyone who is paying any attention should already know that Max isn’t the protagonist here. That honor belongs to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Having risen through the ranks of the death cult led by Immortan Joe to become a war leader, she betrays the group to lead his captive “breeders”, i.e. wives, to safety. In response, Joe musters his entire army to get them back. Max, now played by Tom Hardy, is simply along for the ride after being captured by the footsoldiers of the cult to use as a “blood bag”. This sets the stage for a massive car chase that essentially lasts the entire length of the film.
To join in the debate, I’m of the opinion that Fury Road is unquestionably a feminist film and not just for the obvious reason that Furiosa is such a strong female character. Each of the wives actually have differentiated personalities and have agency. They each have wants of their own and act on them. The scene in which they bathe and angrily tear off their chastity belts, surely the most overt symbol of fighting back against the patriarchy that can exist, is particularly illuminating. They wear diaphanous white dresses, pretty standard fare for fantasy and science-fiction movies really even if it’s justified by the plot here, and you can see the camera turning into a standard sexualized, male gaze as Max walks in on them. But then the camera switches focus to Splendid’s belly, so that both Max and the audience realize that she’s pregnant at the same time. Just like that, the characters are desexualized and in fact, humanized. It’s incredibly astute bit of subversion.
The same admirable emphasis on visual storytelling, as opposed to weighty exposition, pervades every other aspect of the film. There’s no need to tell the backstory behind why Furiosa has only one arm and no need to have a scene in which another character remarks on it. All that is necessary is to show us that it is an inconvenience to her but she manages to be a badass just fine despite it. In the same way, all you need to know about Joe can be seen from how his attendants prepare him for his public appearance. No need to hear one of his citizens grousing about how evil he is. Director George Miller manages to build an incredibly detailed and original world with visuals alone and minimal dialogue. Think about the War Boys worshipping the V8 engine, their ritual of spraying chrome paint on their teeth, the figures walking across the swamp on stilts, or the unforgettable sight of the rocker on his mobile stage with his flame-throwing guitar, the perfect way to encapsulate of all of the craziness of this world in one compact image.
All this and I still haven’t written anything about how beautiful the visuals are and how fantastic the fight scenes are. For the former, you only need to think the extreme ranges of color that is used in different scenes instead of the desaturated hues that are usually used to depict post-apocalyptic worlds. For the later, I’m delighted that the combat always looks deadly and there are no super-heroics. The creativity involved in dreaming up all those modes of vehicle-to-vehicle combat and all those types of vehicles is simply astounding. Video game designers have a lot to learn here. What is especially impressive is that no matter how busy the scenes are, you never have a problem being able to tell what’s going on or who is fighting who. The various factions are all visually distinct from one another, both in what they wear and the designs of the vehicles they use. The fact that practical effects instead of CGI was used whenever possible could well also be a factor in why the action here looks so visceral and so intense.
About the only complaints I can think of are that it really is just one gigantic chase scene, especially since it leaves few opportunities for the audience to catch a breath and relieve some tension. I’d also have loved to have a closer look at some of the other settlements aside from Joe’s Citadel. Both Gas Town and the Bullet Farm sound like pretty interesting places. Of course, in the end, this is just an action movie so it was never going to be great art. But it’s an action movie that proves that it is indeed possible to be original and intelligent, to avoid lazy storytelling tropes and to be respectful in how it treats women, while being totally awesome in the action department. For my part, this is easily the best action movie I’ve watched since the first Avengers.