Mad Max: Fury Road Review (2015) | Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
17May/150

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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The literally-oozing-with-evil Immortan Joe rules the post-apocalyptic colony of Citadel with his army of War Boys. When his own trusted warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) helps five women escape sexual slavery and imprisonment, Joe and his army pursue them across the Wasteland. A strong cast of supporting female characters led by Theron often takes center stage over Max (a mostly mute Tom Hardy), which makes for a refreshingly new entry into the franchise focused more on reworking the genre than rehashing the successes of The Road Warrior—though make no mistake, Mad Max: Fury Road is still totally insane.

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A kind of consensus has emerged by now that Mad Max: Fury Road will have a place among the best, if not the most elaborate, chase movies ever made, and that's deserved. But to label it as such is too mundane—it obscures all of the other things that it also manages to be. This is a gleeful, grotesque carnival of a movie. It works as an aesthetic spectacle that elevates conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre to a level of pop art, and then packs this visual framework with more details and nuances in passing than most movie worlds manage to contain as their sole points of focus. It's hard to talk about in any way that's not hyperbolic, because the whole movie is hyperbole—it seems director George Miller held onto a growing set of ideas for 30 years and then let them explode unrestricted onto the screen all at once. Several hours after leaving the theatre, I feel like I'm 13 years old again—I'm sorry, excuse me for a moment.

Whether you're familiar with the franchise or not, the story is simple enough you can jump on board for the first time at this installment. “My world is fire and blood,” says Max (Tom Hardy) in the voice-over that starts the film—but it may just as well be oil and water, the only two things that still have any currency in the post-apocalyptic Wasteland the characters inhabit. Almost immediately, Max is taken captive by a group of War Boys commanded by Immortan Joe, a half-mechanical monstrosity covered in sores who breathes through a respirator mask emblazoned with teeth.

Immortan Joe controls the Citadel—the only piece of land in sight with access to fresh water and vegetation—a kind of primitive city where he imprisons women as “breeders” and turns his many sons into War Boys. (“Boys” is apt here, correctly implying a kind of permanent adolescence.) The War Boys are 20-something young men shaved bald with white (possibly painted) skin, all of whom seem to experience profound ADHD. They have “half-lives” as delirious, glory-hungry warriors before being turned into “blood bags,” used to pump fresh blood into other War Boys before and during battles. No one ever explains why the War Boys need constant infusions of new blood—I imagine Joe made a decree one day and everyone just went with it.

Furiosa and Nux

Charlize Theron's Furiosa is the dramatic center of the film (and of most of the action too).

When one of Immortan Joe's vaunted imperators (he has imperators) betrays him by going off-mission with a large tanker, he assembles a war party to pursue her across the barren Wasteland, bringing Max along as a blood bag. The imperator—named Furiosa and played by a not-to-be-fucked-with Charlize Theron, wielding an equally fierce mechanical arm—has stolen more than just water and fuel, and eventually the true scope of her rebellion establishes the unexpected stakes of Fury Road as an attack on patriarchy and control.

This could be a clunky or overly labored point—not to mention hypocritical—for a movie targeting young men who want to see things blowed up real good, but part of what makes Fury Road such a success is that it manages to inject just the right balance of real ideas into a technically brilliant spectacle without ever overstepping its bounds. It satisfies all the demands of the current blockbuster-obsessed market while finding ways to slip in a rare level of social consciousness among the more standard narrative conventions it employs. And it's mostly rooted in the film's question...

Who Killed the World?

Early in the first act, Immortan Joe discovers that Furiosa has smuggled five women prisoners out of Citadel with her, in a sequence that provides a look at the kind of entitled rage and psychological cruelty that's granted the former his power. The women's cell, sealed behind a huge bank-vault door, is ornate and luxurious compared to the desolate exterior world, and light streams in through a large windowed dome—it resembles a bird cage, suggesting an illusion of freedom and comfort rather than abuse and control.

Within their quarters, three sentences are painted across the walls and floor:

Our children will not be warlords.

We are not things.

Who killed the world?

It is this last question that demands an answer as seemingly the entire population of Citadel blazes a trail of destruction across the desert. Immortan Joe must regain control of his “property” (in this he is referring to the women, not the tanker), and as the war party assembles we realize the extent to which aggressive models of control are so essential to this militaristic remnant society that has survived the world's near total death. As the War Boys prepare to charge out into the Wasteland, they fight to select various steering wheels from a large altar-like column containing hundreds of wheels—a ritual that determines what vehicles they will drive and consequently their role in the war party.

Immortan Joe

Who killed the world? Probably this fucking guy.

They are also obsessed with the notion—put in their heads by Joe—that if they die valiantly in battle they will “have a place in Valhalla.” Before one is about to sacrifice himself he demands that the others “witness,” to which all the War Boys within shouting distance begin to deliriously scream “Witness!” like rabid hyenas. The question left in the women's cell underscores not just who “killed the world,” but the ignorance of those who continue to be complicit in its annihilation (and more than any other movie in the franchise, this Mad Max exists in a world devoid of any hope of recovery).

At a point during one of the chase sequences that make up 95% of the movie, one of the women attacks a War Boy, condemning him for the past violence that has literally scorched the earth, to which he responds with the panic of a guilty child, “No, it wasn't our fault!” She echoes the question again—“Who killed the world?”—this time an accusation carrying the already-known answer: the militaristic men who are still in control (and still killing whatever and whoever is left).

This World is Obsessed With Objects

One of the great things about the Mad Max series is how the films are constantly reconfiguring objects to evoke a future formed from the broken remnants of our recognizable present. Vehicles are always Frankensteins, pulled together from many mismatched parts. Outfits consist of contrasting styles, accessories, and usually leather. Objects (here, the steering wheel) take on new and almost mythical meanings. It's an aesthetic that obliterates any contemporary values associated with the objects—indicating the obliteration of society—while maintaining for the audience the satisfaction of recognition. It's like an inversion of retro-chic exaggerated to infinity.

Fury Road doesn't just fetishize cars and costumes, though—everything (and everyone) in this world is an object, which is precisely what Furiosa and her crew are fighting against. Many of the characters' bodies are modified in order to become sites of both potential and control—the War Boys self-mutilate as a way of distinguishing themselves (otherwise they all look like the Strangers from Dark City); Max is given a tattoo to indicate his blood type is that of a universal donor; Immortan Joe's vaguely disease-ridden body is fused with a protective suit that includes his respirator, which in turn is inlaid with human teeth. He also brands the necks of his male and female slaves and then wears the brand symbol on a metal, serrated, totally-not-loaded-with-Freudian-significance cod piece.

War Boys' Steering Wheel Altar

The War Boys have a special bond with their... steering wheels.

Miller is also keenly aware of the way female characters are so often presented as visual objects for the audience—and the group of liberated “wives” is first encountered here through Max's eyes. In a scene that's both surreal and funny (but also indicates a kind of meta awareness on the movie's part), a dehydrated and chained Max bursts around the side of Furiosa's tanker, guns drawn and ready to issue orders, only to encounter the five scantily clad women literally hosing themselves down in the sand. (One is using bolt-cutters to remove a horrifying chastity belt with... teeth).

It's a quick and smart sight gag that acknowledges the objectification at play on multiple levels and then, yes, plays into it. The thing that makes this scene different from similarly exploitative ones in most blockbusters is that Fury Road trusts the audience to situate the tropes they're consuming within some sort of cultural and critical awareness.

A Post-Apocalyptic Circus of Insanity

The best thing about Fury Road is that no matter how self-aware and clever it is, or how effectively it skewers common representational conventions, it's not trying to be anything other than entertaining. It simply integrates these elements into the overall narrative and visual experience along with everything else—and the “everything else” is a gleeful excess of design and imagination.

Flamethrower guitar

This movie features a flamethrower guitar.

There is a scene of mass destruction in which cars and people are whipped around inside a miles-wide tornado that reaches almost operatic scope. In one of the most hilarious ways I've ever seen of providing a diagetic soundtrack, an eyeless War Boy in a onesie sits on a vehicle made only of speakers and plays an electric guitar that shoots flames during battles, and his guitar riffs actually mesh up with the external soundtrack.

Possibly my favorite moment involves additional war parties joining Immortan Joe to pursue Furiosa and Max, one of which is led by “The Bullet Farmer,” who wears a samurai-style helmet made from ammunition belts in a 60s coupe, the wheels of which have been replaced with tank treads. We later learn that his teeth are actually bullets, as he plucks one out to load his gun.

The unrestrained, borderline-insane level of invention with which Miller envisions the chaos of Fury Road's world—and the shockingly good technical execution—is enough to make this the most fun movie of the year so far. The fact that there's actually something to it underneath the spectacle is an awesome surprise. Almost as awesome as a guitar that's also a flamethrower.

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Mad Max: Fury Road PosterMad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Directed by George Miller.
Screenplay written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris.
Starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and Nicholas Hoult.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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