Mad Max: Fury Road is an amazing genre bending popularly dubbed “post apocalyptic road trip” movie. You might enter the theatre thinking, at least it’s a way out of the unseasonable New York City heat. You might be convinced that its rep as a remarkably “feminist” movie held up by a powerful female lead and powerful secondary female characters—setting the genre on its head- was completely overstated. But you’d be wrong.
The movie is stunning, painterly even, featuring sand dunes touched with fire in red and gold, then fading to a deep blue closely matching the sky in the evening, then returning to gold and red as the sun rises. It uses deafening sound in conflict contrasted with utter silence in the desert in brief moments of repose. And it has many more surprises in terms of character and plot.
The film moves way beyond the conventions of the screaming slam bam guy sci fi movie to present us with the Imperator Furiosa: a gorgeous, although nearly bald, one-armed female lead (Charlize Theron) as tough guy laconic and physically powerful as the Mel Gibson precursors. She easily shares the screen with the current Max Rockatansky, himself a beautiful and sensitive (can’t believe I’m writing this) “feminist” hero who shows her respect and even a kind of love that ends with his saving her life by performing an emergency tracheotomy on her and transfusing her with his own blood. Max and Furiosa share power, share our gaze onscreen, and perhaps most important, share the driver’s wheel.
Furiosa has only one ‘complete” arm, something we scarcely notice until roughly halfway through the movie, but she makes do with an arm and a half, magnificently. She can fight bare handed and with weapons, shoot guns and drive a huge “war rig” truck pulling a tanker of fuel. And when we are forced to view the furious action on the Road between warring trucks, cycles, white maggot like Citadel creatures flying on poles from vehicle to vehicle to wreak havoc, crazed electric guitarist upping the voltage and the screaming with his flame throwing guitar, we still crane our necks for a view of Furiosa in her truck cabin. We follow Max too, of course — but we cheer for the unlikely heroine Furiosa.
Back at the Citadel home base they say, with wonder and fear – “The Imperator (Emperor) Furiosa has gone rogue!” Implication- the world must be coming to an end.
Furiosa is commanding. She drives the Fury Road plot. (Whoever drives the giant truck drives the plot.) She drives with her single functional hand, switching off to a bionic strapped on arm only when outside the truck. (If indeed as rumored she has done her own stunts it is an amazing set of maneuvers.)
We learn that she has done a deal with the gangs in the Outback to allow her free transit through the desert- she has hijacked a huge tanker of fuel with which to trade. She has also either taken hostages, or is rescuing, the willowy “brides” of the old Imperator- including an elegant wispy very pregnant blonde whose baby is considered by the Imperator to be his property which must be returned to him. These young women appear frail and fragile and lovely and bride like in thread bare white garments but quickly display warrior abilities. Said to be “the Emperor’s best breeders,” like Furiosa and Max their looks are deceiving — they too can fight, repair or drive the rig in an emergency.
And the young women are loyal to Furiosa, also much taken with Furiosa’s goal, to find “the green place,” a presumably well watered desert oasis where she believes she was born, where her mother may still be, and where she hopes there will still be a colony of women living and worshipping together. The bond between the rescued women and Furiosa grows so strong that even when Furiosa discovers the green place has vanished, nobody suggests that her mission has been compromised.
In the desert, Furiosa does find the women’s colony, one of whom may be her mother. From their demeanor we learn that these desert women may be members of a Demeter Earth Mother Gaian goddess colony, who share thoughts and memories and worship together. They welcome Furiosa and the young brides/breeders as their own.
In all, the movie’s gods, demons, demigods and creatures of power are a fine mixture of religious or spiritual tropes. The old Emperor is a mixture of Japanese samurai and screaming Nordic war god. He is kitted out for war like a samurai in full plastic body armor over his hideously puckered wounded/suppurating flesh which mimics muscled skin. He has a face like a wicked skull with teeth bared in a horrid gumless grin—the very skull face which is his own logo, appearing on the walls and ceilings of the Citadel and branded onto the backs of his underlings – Like Max. The Emperor tells his young maggot white Nux- subject that if Nux carries out his assignment to recover the rig and the breeders – or at least, the lost baby in utero- the Emperor will personally take the boy to the Norse Heaven, Valhalla, himself. In a tribute to the gods of technology the Emperor binds Nux to him by spraying Nux’s face with chrome, and says that he has become “all shiny-like.” A fine combination of tech and myth.
The obvious MM franchise comparison to Imperator Furiosa is the fabulous Tina Turner as Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Entity is the ruler of Bartertown, an oversized and voluptuous figure of glamour and exuberant brutality. But Fury Road’s old Emperor has more in common with Beyond Thunderdome’s Auntie Entity than does Fury Road’s Furiosa—who emerges as a potentially enlightened ruler, kindly and benevolent.
The ultimate power in this film resides in the ruler’s control of access to water. The Old Emperor, a creature of death’s head cruelty, has held the water in his hands, releasing it to his dry, water-starved subjects in small dribbling waterfalls only at his own capricious command.
By contrast, if Furiosa manages to survive the Fury Road to become the Empress of the Citadel, she may share the wealth of water with her subjects. The gushing of water at Furiosa’s command may symbolize her return to life to the Citadel people. The release of water in thunderous waterfalls causes deafening cheering among the Citadel people and in the movie theatre alike.
At the very end they share one long significant glance that we struggle to interpret. Will they meet again? Will they rule the Citadel together? No. Max is leaving and Furiosa remains, hailed as ruler.
In short, Fury Road stands well on its own as an extraordinary piece of epic movie making. It has created its own myths and legends, and has enshrined its stars in the sci fi pantheon. Along with many reviewers I’d say, this is how the movies used to be! Fury Road takes you away to another world. Grab your popcorn and your drink and settle back with your 3-D glasses in the overstuffed theatre armchairs for a wondrous experience.