by Gary Westfahl
I must begin by acknowledging that my memories of the first three Mad Max films – Mad Max (1979), Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior) (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – are fading and fragmentary, so I cannot provide a detailed exegesis on how this fourth film continues, expands upon, or contradicts its precursors. Yet I suspect that most of the people now buying tickets to see Mad Max: Fury Road have never seen the earlier films, as my interactions with contemporary college students indicate that young people are generally unaware of any films released more than twenty years ago. So, George Miller’s new installment of the Mad Max saga must stand entirely on its own, and for the most part it does so remarkably well. The film’s first hour is an enthralling thrill ride featuring men and women rapidly driving a variety of vehicles across the desert while battling with numerous weapons and with their fists, and if the equally well-executed second hour seems less successful, that may simply be because viewers have been exhausted by all of its nonstop action; perhaps this is a film best watched in two sittings. And those seeking intellectual as well as physical stimulation will find that the film’s dystopian future society is interestingly in dialogue with a modern world that no longer shares the concerns that inspired the original series.
The film retains the back story that was first explained fully in the second film: conflicts over diminishing oil reserves have led to a global nuclear war which devastated the landscape and shattered the fabric of civilization; the survivors have mostly gathered into isolated tribes, distinguished by colorful costumes and strange rituals, who employ whatever gasoline they can garner to maintain their rusting cars and motorcycles and violently prey upon outsiders. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former police officer maddened by memories of the daughter he could not save from marauders, wanders alone through the countryside, ostensibly devoted solely to his own survival but regularly impelled to assist others. Here, he is captured by the “Warboys” who reside in the Citadel, controlled by ruthless dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and he is caged to function as a human blood bank for the ailing Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). But through a series of contrivances, he escapes and joins Immortan Joe’s rebellious driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in her effort to escape from the ruler’s clutches, along with the five young women he had imprisoned to serve as his “breeders.”
While staging the film’s intricately choreographed battles was undoubtedly director George Miller’s main priority, he was also attentive to presenting a detailed portrait of a completely transformed world. Each tribe has its own, imaginatively distinctive style of clothing, regalia, and weaponry; indeed, while watching the film, it occurred to me that it had the same narrative structure as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900): a woman seeking to return home is assisted by male companions as they journey through strange new realms and encounter diverse characters – the difference being that these diverse characters are all armed to the teeth and poised to slaughter visitors. And the rare quiet moments in the film are often memorable. The opening scene, featuring a two-headed lizard that Max steps on and devours, speaks volumes about the grim realities of living in an irradiated world. (Later, Nux drives home the same point by eating a bug.) Because cows are presumably unavailable, Immortan Joe obtains milk by pumping it out of large-breasted women, a scene that will remind a few viewers of the similar setup in Piers Anthony’s story “In the Barn” (1972). While Max and Furiosa are traveling through a murky landscape haunted by crows, we briefly observe two people walking on stilts attached to their arms and legs, making them resemble elevated four-legged creatures. And when their vehicle is bogged down in mud, Nux tells his comrades that there is dry land “just beyond that thing”; a woman explains, “he means ‘tree’” – telling us that people are now growing up without any knowledge of trees.
While Mad Max: Fury Road is thus successful on many levels, one had to question, when the repeatedly postponed fourth Mad Max film finally began filming in 2011, whether its story would still resonate with twenty-first century audiences. After all, the earlier films had arguably succeeded by merging two of the nightmare scenarios that had haunted the 1970s. First was the fear of a global nuclear war, which had diminished since the 1950s but had never entirely vanished; second was the realization, after the oil crisis of 1973, that the world was utterly dependent upon a finite resource, oil, that might be depleted in the future, so that civilization might someday collapse if we did not begin to aggressively exploit alternate sources of energy. These are the problems that primarily afflicted Mad Max and his compatriots in the earlier films, as the atomic bombs had destroyed most of humanity’s structures and technology and rendered much of the land uninhabitable, and survivors had to fight for increasingly scarce supplies of oil in order to maintain a semblance of civilized society.
Today, few people are actively worried about a nuclear war or an energy crisis: the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s seemingly eliminated the possibility of a World War III, and even if Vladimir Putin sometimes behaves badly, no one imagines that this will inspire world leaders to launch their nuclear weapons. And scientists proved unexpectedly resourceful in locating new reserves of oil, and unexpectedly ingenious in devising new methods for extracting oil from the ground, so our supplies of oil remain ample, and most people are confident that the energy crisis has been indefinitely postponed. These shifting attitudes necessarily influenced the film: there are no overt references to nuclear war, and signs of the effects of radiation are minimal – the tiny lizard (and many viewers will not notice its two heads), the tumors on Nux’s shoulder, a tiny dwarf, and people with missing limbs (perhaps due to war wounds, not mutations). And no one in the film seems particularly worried about lacking gasoline, which seems much more plentiful than it was in the other films. True, Furiosa at one point seeks to obtain safe passage through dangerous territory by giving its residents a tanker full of oil, indicating that the fuel is still valued, but none of the innumerable vehicles that crisscross the landscape ever run out of gas, and Immortan Joe is positively profligate in wasting oil, as his forces are accompanied by an electric guitar player whose instrument periodically spews out flames solely as an arresting visual effect.
So, if we no longer worry about a nuclear holocaust or an energy crisis, what should we be worrying about, according to this film? As Californians begin to endure unprecedentedly severe restrictions of their water usage due a prolonged drought, they will relate to the fact that the people in Mad Max: Fury Road are mainly worried about running out of drinking water, not running out of oil. Immortan Joe maintains control over the citizens of the Citadel largely because he periodically supplies them with a flood of fresh water; having developed mechanisms for extracting substances from deep underground, he employs them to pump water, not oil, to the surface. We further learn that the residents of Furiosa’s former home were forced to leave when changing conditions left them with insufficient water for their crops. Immortan Joe even warns his subjects, “Do not become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence,” making him an unlikely spokesperson for the need to conserve water. (It is true, however, that Furiosa and the breeders later display no worries about wasting water when they freely employ a hose to wash themselves.)
As surveys indicate that increasing numbers of people are no longer affiliated with organized religions, the film is willing to explicitly indict religion as a false tool used to oppress and manipulate the masses. Seeking a belief system that validates warfare, Immortan Joe has turned to Norse mythology, telling his Warboys that if they die in battle, they will be transported to “Valhalla”; however, this revived religion is tied to the culture’s fixation with gasoline-driven machinery by its new name, “V8,” referencing the V8 engine. When they believe they are about to be killed, Warboys spray their mouths with silver paint, probably to provide them with a more metallic voice and appearance when they join the company of gods that are devoted to machines. Mad Max, Furiosa, and their friends naturally recognize that this religion is bogus, telling Nux that Immortan Joe is a “lying old man,” yet when a distressed breeder is later mumbling, she says that she is “praying.” “Praying to who?” another breeder asks. “Anyone who’s listening.” Thus, even as they turn away from religion, it seems, people still feel a need for its comforts in times of need.
More so than the previous Mad Max films, Mad Max: Fury Road depicts future individuals who are fiercely devoted to possessing and operating an amazing variety of advanced weapons, and as the number of guns owned by American citizens continues to rise, this undoubtedly represents a trait that many filmgoers can relate to. In Mad Max’s society, everybody owns and operates at least one gun, and the film’s combatants also employ grenades, flame throwers, chainsaws, mines, dart guns, and explosive spears, among other weapons. Granted, owning firearms might seem a necessity in a world lacking organized governments, and these beleaguered denizens do refrain at least from arming their children, as Immortan Joe, after leaving the Citadel in the hands of his young “Warpups,” comments that his stronghold is now “undefended.” (In general, though, defense does not seem to be these warriors’ strong suit: the bare-chested Warboys are needlessly vulnerable to enemy fire, and watching several vehicles set on fire, one wonders why nobody brought along a fire extinguisher.)
Another issue that comes to the forefront in this film is the mistreatment of women. There is a long and sorry tradition in science fiction of imagining that post-apocalyptic societies would be dominated by men, as the frail womenfolk would necessarily depend on the protection of strong, manly men to survive in anarchic conditions, and one could detect glimmerings of that attitude in the first two Mad Max films. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gestured toward feminism by featuring a strong female leader, played by Tina Turner, but her Auntie Entity did depend upon male henchmen to enforce her orders. In this film, all of the women resist being pushed around by men, and they are all able to defend themselves. The breeders are willing to risk their lives in order to get away from Immortan Joe so that their “babies will not be warlords,” and although they initially appear to be helpless, they eventually pick up guns and actively participate in slaughtering Immortan Joe’s minions. When Furiosa encounters some elderly women from her former homeland, they prove to be pistol-packing grandmas, capable allies in her final battle against Immortan Joe.
The film’s preeminent woman warrior, of course, is Furiosa; and while Tom Hardy emerges as a suitable replacement for Mel Gibson, and while his Max is responsible for more than his share of the film’s carnage, Mad Max: Fury Road is really Furiosa’s film, and this is not simply because of Charlize Theron’s superior acting ability. Even though periodic flashbacks of his deceased daughter are designed to make the tormented Max a sympathetic figure, audiences will more likely be intrigued by Furiosa’s background and mainly concerned about her fate. The film is essentially her story – a woman who successfully escapes from, and eventually defeats, the evil man who had long oppressed her and her friends; the character of Mad Max, her most effective assistant, could have easily been written entirely out of the film. At one point, demonstrating her superior ability, Furiosa watches as Max is unable to hit a distant target with a powerful rifle running out of ammunition; he hands her the gun and she hits it with the last bullet. And one way to unambiguously identify a film’s true protagonist is to ask: who gets to kill the main bad guy? Here, it is not Mad Max, but Furiosa. All things considered, then, it is not surprising that George Miller, having become enamored of the character, at one point announced that this film would be followed by a sequel, called Mad Max: Furiosa, which would have featured her as its protagonist. But a bolder and better strategy would have been for Miller to reimagine his iconic hero as a woman, merge the characters of Mad Max and Furiosa, and christen the new protagonist and her film Mad Maxine.
By minimizing some old issues, and foregrounding some new issues, Mad Max: Fury Road might be regarded as appropriately modernized; yet there is one aspect of the Mad Max saga that can never be altered, even if it seems outdated, and that is its obsession with motorized transportation. All post-holocaust stories, in describing where the survivors focus their energies, identify one aspect of human civilization as most central. In Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), for example, the protagonists are dedicated to restoring and promoting literacy, whereas the younger generation of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) rejects book learning for lives of hunting, fishing, and physical exercise. In the Mad Max films, in addition to their weapons, people seek above all else to maintain and use their cars, trucks, and motorcycles, suggesting that the power to travel long distances, not reading and writing or communing with nature, is what defines a true modern civilization. And they have calmly adjusted to the loss of the twentieth century’s other major innovation, long-distance communication. As conveyed by Furiosa’s rediscovered countrywoman, the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer), people are aware that the Earth-orbiting satellites they observe at night once broadcast messages and shows throughout the world, but they are making no effort to restore that technology. Instead, to find out what is happening far away, they rely on telescopes and binoculars; to determine if his breeders are missing, Immortan Joe must run to the chamber where they were held captive, unable to call them or look at a monitor; and in order to communicate with his lead driver Furiosa, a Warboy must leap from his own car to the top of her vehicle and then, while clinging to her door, shout questions through her window.
At first, one thinks that few people today would agree with these people’s priorities; for example, if asked to choose between a world without motorized vehicles, and a world without computers and smartphones, I am confident that almost all of my students would choose the former option. Still, more so than getting one’s first smartphone, getting a driver’s license and gaining the ability to travel long distances remains a key turning point in the lives of young people, a rite of passage signaling their increased maturity; and if they actually experienced months of being confined to their immediate neighborhoods, young people might again long for the freedoms they now take for granted – to travel to and experience different environments, visit with distant friends, and simply enjoy the sensation of rapid movement. If today’s civilization did fall apart, then, it remains possible that people would mostly dedicate themselves to rebuilding their cars, not to rebuilding the internet.
Overall, one might have wished for a Mad Max: Fury Road that was a little calmer, a little less violent, a little more willing to give its characters time to breathe, and its audiences time to sedately appreciate its imaginative world-building. But considering the realities governing contemporary filmmaking, no one can expect ideal films to emerge, and considering all of the obstacles that were placed in his way, one must compliment George Miller for his unwavering dedication to finally getting this fourth Mad Max film completed, and for doing an excellent job. One hopes we will not have to wait another thirty years for the next installment.