Mad Max: Fury Road – the most important summer film in years

Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just a brilliant film. It’s one of the most important blockbusters in years. Ryan explains why...

That Mad Max: Fury Road even exists is a miracle. This is, after all, a new instalment in a franchise that hasn’t seen any activity for the best part of 30 years. Its director, George Miller, originally conceived the film at the end of the last century, yet it’s taken more than a decade of cast changes, calamitous weather and a punishing shoot in the Namibian desert to get it finished.

Yet after the kind of production that would give a director half his age a heart attack, the now 70-year-old Miller has finished his fourth Mad Max film. Who could have predicted that a sequel to such a relic of a franchise could be so thrilling, so vital, and stand as a beacon of frenzied creativity in the face of an increasingly risk-averse and staid Hollywood climate?

Fury Road is the most important summer film of the last decade, and possibly longer. Why? Here are a few reasons.

It’s intelligent enough to keep its plot simple

What do you do if you want to make a car go faster? Well, you can strip it out. Remove all excess weight until it’s just the driver, the engine, and the bare minimum of metal required to hold all the mechanical parts together.

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This is what Mad Max: Fury Road does. In an age of elaborate universes, a-plots, b-plots and c-plots, rug-pulls, twist endings, surprise codas and post-credit stings, Fury Road strips the summer movie back to its bare essentials.

The plot sees laconic hero Max Rockatansky once again emerge from a desert storm like a leather-clad aparition, this one embodied by Tom Hardy. He’s seized, beaten and strung up as a sentient blood-bag by a post-apocalyptic clan who call themselves the War Boys. But then he escapes from the clutches of the rabble and its repulsive, masked leader King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keys-Byrne, who also played Toecutter in the first Mad Max), and meets Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) out in the desert. Furiosa has her own reason to flee Immortan Joe; she’s taken his five wives, a harem of reed-thin young women the hideous ruler’s kept as “prized breeders” in his chaotic lair.

Together, Max, Furiosa and the wives (among them Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely and Zoe Kravitz) escape across the parched sands in a modified truck, bristling with skulls and weaponry. Close behind them is an extremely angry King Joe, who’s brought his hundred-strong army of petrol head War Boys along with him for a protracted joust at the end of the world.

And that’s it. The story’s wilfully, wonderfully thin – streamlined almost to the point of non-existence. But really, this is the point of Fury Road: it’s about a single deadly and exhausting chase, and how its events alter the characters who take part in it.

Fury Road’s physical stunts are integral to its themes

There are times that, when filmmakers crow about the use of physical stunts or practical effects in their movies, it feels as though they’re trying to evoke a sigh of nostalgia from older members of the audience: harking back to a more innocent time when stunt men flipped cars and computer-aided visual effects hadn’t even been thought about.

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Fury Road is different. The tangible quality of its stunts are integral not just to how the films looks, but the themes in its story.

It might look like a film about rumbling, gas-guzzling old cars charging about a post-apocalyptic landscape, but Fury Road is more than that: it’s about the flesh-and-blood human beings thrown around inside them. From beginning to end, Miller’s camera lingers on little details like the weeping wounds on King Joe’s back, clad in a weird plastic carapace. We see the ravages of sun and lack of nutrition in King Joe’s subjects, who stand at the foot of his Citadel with their bowls held aloft, crying out for water. One of the few likeable War Boys, Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, has a pair of malignant lumps on his shoulder that he’s given names.

In most Hollywood films, the actors look like Greek statues. They revere the human form rather than expose its frailty. In Fury Road, frailty is everywhere; the War Boys naively think they’re destined to live forever in Valhalla if they sacrifice themselves for their king. We just watch them thrown flailing from their cars as they explode in orange balls of flame, piteously. Fury Road is about a species that has already torn itself apart through war. The remnants of the human race, most having  given into the blackest side of their nature, continue to tear themselves apart in petty grasps for power. Miller’s film offers a warped, bleak yet compelling view of humanity at its best and worst.

The carnal, fleshy quality of the characters is also key to our investment in them, and a major reason why the stunts look by turns spectacular and horrifying. When cars are pounding against Furiosa’s rig, tearing themselves apart in a dervish of mangled steel, we hold our breath because Miller’s established the vulnerablility of his characters.

When a computer-generated city collapses in the average summer action film, we blink. When a dozen cars collide in Fury Road, we gasp.

Fury Road is a multi-million dollar art film

Out on the independent fringes of cinema, directors like Jonathan Glazer and Andrew Garland are doing fascinating, unexpected things in the sci-fi genre. As for action cinema, Gareth Evans lit a firework under the entire genre with the extraordinary choreography and editing in his 2011 film The Raid and its 2014 sequel.

Miller, possibly through some previously undiscovered form of hypnosis, managed to coax Warner Bros into giving him the best part of $150m (some estimates suggest even more) to make Fury Road.

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Consider this for a moment: when Miller went off into the Namibian desert with dozens of cars and a bunch of actors, he had an extensive set of storyboards, but almost no script. Warner basically gave Miller $150m to spend on crashing cars into each other, over and over again, with no guarantee that they’d get a coherent film at the end of it.

The result is an action film shot and edited with the brio of The Raid, combined with the sensational visual inventiveness of Glazer’s Under The Skin. It’s thrilling, certainly – arguably the most bracing, fearsome action film I’ve seen in a long time – but it is also, I’d argue, an art film. 

There’s something eerily powerful about its central image of men hanging carelessly from the roofs of cars, silhouetted against the dazzling reflected light of the desert. Fury Road is also dappled with rare yet exquisite quieter moments: the lonely figures on stilts, lugubriously tottering through the muck against a shimmering night sky.

It’s also a rare movie that remembers exactly what cinema is. There’s dialogue in Fury Road, but the greater part of its story is told visually. Miller realises that there’s more power in a single image than a page of exposition, and so he simply lets the shots speak for themselves. Unlike too many films, this isn’t an expensive TV show you have to pay $15 to see.

Furiosa

Fury Road introduces a new version of Max. New not just because Mel Gibson’s been replaced by the younger, less controversial Tom Hardy, but new because Hardy’s take on Rockatansky is quieter, more internal. His wellsprings of anger, which blasted out in great geysers in Mad Max and Mad Max 2, are buried deeper here.

We’re given the impression of a warrior capable of unspeakable violence, but who just wants to turn away from it and find a sanctuary away from all the chaos. There’s a wonderful moment in the new film where Max wanders off into the desert night, only to emerge from the gloom a few minutes later, covered in blood and holding some supplies. “What happened to you?” A concerned Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) asks. “That’s not his blood,” Furiosa observes.

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(On an unrelated topic, the names in Fury Road are magnificent: Rictus Erectus, Slit, and Cheedo the Fragile are just a few of them.)

Effective though Hardy is, Max isn’t the only hero in Fury Road. Miller boldly makes Furiosa his equal – not just a plucky sidekick, but a seasoned fighter who can more than hold her own in a fist fight. It’s a tremendous physical performance from Theron, one of the best in her career. With little back story and even less dialogue, she crafts a sympathetic, fascinating character who deserves a place in the pantheon of great sci-fi heroines.

Fury Road’s feminist underpinnings have irked some – hilariously, there have been calls from murky parts of the internet for the film to be boycotted – but they arguably add to its freshness. There’s something almost Swiftian about Miller’s vision of a future society, which reads like a critique of masculinity at its absolute worst.

An army of cretinous underlings crowd around their alpha male leader like pack animals, swallowing his absurd cobbled-together religion. Immortan Joe prattles on about the addictive qualities of water (or “Aqua Cola”), while he mercilessly exploits everyone and everything: older women are harvested for their milk, the younger for their offspring; men like Max have their healthy blood siphoned off. In a world where everything has become a commodity, Max and Furiosa’s glimmers empathy offer a ray of hope, like the bag of seeds carried by one lovably dotty old character.

Beneath all the spectacular crashes, explosions, death and destruction, this, perhaps, is Miller’s underlying belief: it’s empathy that separates us from the animals – or at the very least, greedy, resource-sucking vampires like Immortan Joe.

This, for me, is why Mad Max: Fury Road is such an important summer film. It’s that rarest of things: an expensive movie made with care, intelligence and integrity. It takes enormous creative risks – the lack of a conventional script, the simplicity of its plot – yet attacks those risks with the confidence of a director making his $100,000 debut. Films like this don’t come along very often.

Classic status surely beckons.