A lot can happen in thirty-six years. Looking back it’s always interesting to see how much things have changed and perhaps more profoundly, how much has remained fundamentally unaltered. I was born a mere two weeks after Mad Max was released in its native Australia on April 12 1979 – quite literally a lifetime ago. At age 70, director George Miller was around the age I am now. Comparing his taut and muscular original to 2015’s stonking successor Fury Road, it is possible to glean the intricate ways the director has evolved over the intervening time period, for Mad Max 4 gives us many clues; his mind is sharper, his thematic vision has broadened and his loyalties to the established aesthetic from his debut all those years ago are undoubtedly, steadfastly resolute. Fury Road is a buttery-smooth gear transmission, a flawlessly executed up-shift that utterly belies its thirty-six-year operation.
Miller’s film picks up pretty much where 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome left off, with dune-wanderer Max roaming Ronin-like in the apocalyptic sands, his trusty Pursuit Special still going strong after perhaps one too many retrofits and regrades. Elsewhere in the wasteland, the ailing and deformed King Immortan Joe (Miller still has a wonderful way with nomenclature) played by The Toecutter himself Hugh Keays-Byrne, rules The Citadel with the help of his War-Boys, an irradiated army of be-powdered soldiers who identify through scared flesh, tattoos, and brands. High above the plain Joe commands and rules over the masses, magnanimously doling out the “Aqua Cola” he pumps from deep within the ground, but harbouring several concubines in an inner vaulted, Edenic paradise, the purpose of whom is to bear him an uncontaminated heir. When he sends out his lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to plunder a nearby gasoline works, she takes the opportunity to flee the terrible oppression, and abscond with the Five Wives in tow. Joe’s hand-built 150-strong car-army inevitably gives chase, with a captured Max skewered and tubed-up to the front of a sand-buggy as a kind of mobile blood-bank for its driver Nux (Nicholas Hoult). That’s pretty much it. But then it wouldn’t be a Mad Max movie if things weren’t this ultra-lean.
The passage of time has gifted Miller with new technologies and methodologies with which to expand the realisation of his world; Mad Max‘s outback (actually the Nambian desert) now pops in saturated high-contrast with tealy sky-blues and ochre sands; the fleet of vehicles has increased exponentially and with further impossibly complex detailing; Brian May’s wonderfully anachronistic and Noiry score has been replaced with Junkie XL’s vein-bursting percussive portent; the camerawork (utilising the new Edge Arm – think a car-mounted, crane-mounted camera) now takes us inside the balletic chase as explosive spear-tips cause maximum vehicular carnage and Cirque du Soleil performers dance and sway among thirty-foot poles fixed to the onslaughting, weaponised cars.
But the most startling of changes is that Fury Road, as it turns out, isn’t a film about Max at all, but rather about its reluctant heroine Furiosa. The great thing about Max is that he’s always been unburdened with that Marvel-ous obligation to save humanity. His heroism was always balanced on the keenest of knife-edges. At times throughout the previous films, you wouldn’t have been surprised if he just upped and left the poor ragtags to sort things out for himself. Such ambivalence at the call of heroism actually allows Furiosa’s more motivated backstory to come to the fore; she liberates the film’s subjugated sex-slaves from their rapists and makes a dash for freedom. Return of Kings’ blogger Aaron Clarey almost gets it right – it is a feminist piece (though of propaganda, he falsely proclaims) posing as a guy flick, and that’s its genius. Additionally, coming to the aid of Furiosa, Max, and the Five Wives, are the Vuvulini, the last remaining vestiges of a matriarchal society – quinqua-, sexa-, and septuagenarians who pilot a mean dirt-bike and know their way around the business ends of assorted weaponry. Max provides able, stoic assistance, but at times he seems like he’s along for the ride. This never feels like relegation, however. It’s entirely befitting of his character.
Mad Max: Fury Road succeeds then – tremendously – where other action films have spectacularly failed. In all its pared-down, roaring and tumultuous glory, it’s storytelling at its most essential, fortifying the notion that cinema is at its purest when truly transcending language and differentiating culture. It’s virtually impossible to conceive the scope and ambition of Miller’s production – indeed, so wildly kinetic is the movie, you won’t until consider it until well after it’s ended. Miller has cast with scalpel-precision – Tom Hardy wears Max’s near-silence well, occasionally giving subtle flashes of Gibson’s Rockatansky. Similarly, Theron is a joyous mass of contradictions as Furiosa – at once graceful and brutish, vulnerable and relentless – ten times the frontman than most of her male counterparts. But perhaps most impressively, Mad Max: Fury Road genuinely feels like a new movement in film-making, a convergence of industries where Hollywood sheen and arthouse sensibility meet, ignite, and thunder off into the barrens together.