It’s taken me a week to write a review of Mad Max because I’m still not over the experience of watching Mad Max: Fury Road. I plan to see it again this weekend, because not only does it come with a high re-watch-ability factor, but I feel like a second viewing is necessary for me to fully absorb all the subtleties Mad Max: Fury Road has to offer. This review is as spoiler-light as I can get for a movie where the plot is almost entirely visual.
Let’s get quick details out of the way first: this is a continuation of the Mad Max franchise from thirty years ago, by the same writer/director and with a new cast. The solo road warrior Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is caught up in a massive vehicular pursuit across the sand dunes of a post-nuclear wasteland. So you can expect amazing car stunts, excessive explosions, loud noises, and bloody fist fights. Given director George Miller‘s commitment to practical special effects, essentially every car you see on screen was built for the film and operates as a real vehicle. There’s a post-apocalypse band on an outdoor driving rig with a flame-throwing guitar that functions as a flame-throwing guitar. If that doesn’t convince you that this film is something special, then you and I have vastly different opinions of ‘special’.
Everything in Fury Road is massive. The characters are outrageous, the scope of the war parties on the chase is awe-inspiring, and the fire tornadoes, when they hit, are dazzling. If you’ve ever wondered what a fire tornado might look like, wonderment is no longer necessary because you personally can watch it consume cars like a meteorological dragon swooping across the big screen. Fury Road blends stunts, special effects, beautiful photography, and tone-perfect directing into a massive art film that has the physiological viewing effect of snorting espresso up your nose and while shooting tequila. The cinematography by John Seale is not only ambitious, it’s arresting in the sheer beauty many of these shots achieved. What’s better than a roller coaster of an adventure film? A heart-stoppingly gorgeous roller coaster of an adventure film. George Miller operated from a 2000+ piece storyboard panel called ‘The Comic Book’ instead of a traditional script, and the approach paid off. The tone and look of the film were brought together with delicate brutality by film editor Margaret Sixel. This is a five-star piece of film work.
“Margaret is also my wife,” said Miller at the Cannes Film Festival. “She had never cut an action movie, and she said, ‘Why on earth would you want me to cut the movie,’ and I said, ‘Because if it were the usual kind of guys, it would look like every other action movie you see,’ and she said, ‘My job here is to stop you from embarrassing yourself’.”
Not only does Fury Road look different from just about every action film I’ve seen in the last decade, but the value of a woman behind the editing chair cannot be overstated in a film whose central plot is the pursuit of freedom from sexual slavery. For a film about five women escaping a rapist warlord who imprisoned them as human breeders, there’s no sex on screen, only a bare hint of romance, and stunning lack of sexual objectification from the eye of the camera. When we first meet The Wives that Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has rescued, we have the first and only shot that presents them as desirable objects: a group of scantily-clad women bathing beside a parked big-rig truck. It’s a scene right out of The Odyssey, but these aren’t temptresses here for audiences to salivate over. While Max observes them at gunpoint, they use tools to pry each other free of grotesque chastity belts. As it falls to the ground, one of the women kicks it in disgust. The dialogue doesn’t need to tell us paragraphs of exposition about the world these women lived in, because we’ve seen it portrayed a dozen times over in a dozen films. What matters is what they do now by choosing to leave that world behind.
And at last we are upon the thing that makes Fury Road such a staggering achievement in thematic storytelling: the most jaw-dropping action film you will see this year is also the most feminist summer blockbuster you will see in probably the decade. Hollywood doesn’t make films like this. I’ve never seen a film like this. Women suffering under the oppression of men make up the casual set dressing for any number of science fiction or apocalypse films (from Star Wars to Apocalypto), but I’ve never sat in front a blockbuster action film devoted to the story of women helping other women escape the patriarchy. Don’t let the soft-ball reviews fool you, the so-called MRAs had one-thing right: this is a feminist film and it is about dismantling patriarchal systems.
Here’s where they had it wrong, and here’s where Fury Road becomes epic: it’s not just women that are hurt under a system of social domination and toxic masculinity. It’s everyone, and when women are empowered in society everyone benefits. In the film, as in places all over the real world, we see women, men, and children be exploited in a system that asks boys to live up to an impossible hyper-masculine standard and punishes women for existing as something ‘other’ than the masculine ideal. Mad Max Rockatansky is imprisoned for medial exploitation as his blood type makes him a ‘universal donor.’ Nux and the Warboys are raised as clay-covered mooks, treating each other little better than ravenous beasts. They worship their warlord and are convinced that dying in his service will bring them a worthy afterlife, and they are denied individual thought, compassion, or humanity in the same way that the Wives are denied freedom, safety, and bodily autonomy. The Wives, pacifists but never weaklings, scrawl “WE ARE NOT THINGS” on one wall of their prison, and “OUR BABIES WILL NOT BE WARLORDS” on the other.
Fury Road isn’t a tale of revenge, it’s a tale of life. The value of life, the necessity of life, and the audacity to protect life: these are what fix a world that’s been broken. When our heroes are surrounded by dying things, they hold onto a dream of truly living, and there’s no motivation more powerful than that. On the historic fury road, the human experience is a journey through the desert, where we all need each other if we want to survive.
Oh what a day, what a lovely day! Because Mad Max may not have been conceived as a feminist statement, but in telling a story of women helping other women to survive the apocalypse, George Miller ended up making the most in-your-face feminist action film I’ve ever seen. Imagery of motherhood and female symbolism abound, disguised under gun metal and axle grease. Women of different ages, different ethnicities, and differently-abled bodies work together to save first themselves, then their society. As he helps them find freedom, the mad dog warrior Max rebuilds his own humanity.
Some viewers will look at this movie and say ‘Oh, that’s not a feminist thing to want to escape, that’s what anyone would do under those circumstances’ and at that point you should nod and agree because that — right there — that’s the magic of representation in film. Women’s stories are human stories, and you don’t need to be a feminist to identify with a good story. You just need popcorn, a darkened theater, and an appreciation for flame-throwing guitars.