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Thirty years after we left Max Rockatansky alone in the desert, we at last get Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth chapter of George Miller’s post-apocolyptic vision.

I enjoyed Fury Road, yet it felt like a step backwards in one important way, that of Max’s personal journey. Looking at the previous three films, there was a definite arc to the character. In the original Mad Max, we find ourselves in the not-to-distant future, where society, though harsh, still retains a familiar infrastructure (there are police, lawyers, judges, hospitals, shops, houses and farms). Max (Mel Gibson) is a Main Force Patrol officer, working the highways and back roads, arresting biker gang members and other vagabonds. His life is relatively normal and we see no evidence of the nuclear devastation of the next three movies. When the bikers kill his wife and infant son, he goes on a revenge-filled ride in his new V8 Interceptor and kills those responsible. Max’s final act with a man responsible for destroying his life is to cuff him to the vehicle and set it to explode, handing the gang member a hacksaw and telling him he can try to cut the cuffs or his own wrist to escape. Max drives off to leave him to his decision and we are left to assume the cruel ultimatum killed the biker, because who among us could cut off his own hand, even in the face of certain death? Max is a shell of a man now, thoroughly broken.

The next chapter, The Road Warrior (Mad Mad 2 in its native Australia), finds Max in the wasteland deserts of Australia. We’re told now there was a world war and in the jumble of a remembered history told long after, we get Max’s backstory as well in the opening narration. Max now as the titular road warrior cares only for his own survival and while not vicious and inhuman as the other road warrior gangs he encounters, he cares little for others and simply wants to exist and survive. Through circumstance, with little other choices (his Interceptor destroyed and his dog dead), he chooses to help a small band of refinery workers escape with their reserves of precious fuel and battles the forces of The Humongous. In this story we see flashes of humanity and kindness, mostly directed toward the Feral Boy, whom we learn at the end grew to be Narrator, telling us of this whole encounter with Max. However broken Max was at the end of the first film, there are still shreds of humanity in him.

The third chapter, Mad Mad Beyond Thunderdome, finds Max still wandering the desert in a covered wagon made from the remains of a V8 Interceptor (his original car? A different one? We’re never told, but I like to think that after the events of The Road Warrior, he attempted to rebuild it). The wagon is stolen and Max finds it at Bartertown, a community run by Auntie Entity (famously played by Tina Turner). She makes a deal with Max involving a duel to death in the Thunderdome (a gladiatorial cage), but Max’s humanity resurfaces again long enough to stop him killing his target, who is essentially innocent among the barbarity of the town. Max is arrested and sentenced back out to the quicksand filled wastes to die, but is rescued by a group of children living in an isolated oasis, survivors of a jet liner crash that occurred during the war. His arrival splits the group and some of the children leave, ignorant of the dangers beyond their little piece of paradise. Max, unwilling to let the children die, goes after them and helps them and a prisoner of Bartertown who was the real brains of the operation escape. Doing so leaves Max alone again in the desert, but less broken. Helping these people has given him part of his soul back.

And now we reach Fury Road…

[Spoilers Warning]

Max (now played by Tom Hardy) has an Interceptor again and is chased and captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a despot ruling his small corner of the Australian wastes. He doles out water to his subjects, but only just enough to keep them wanting more. His War Boys worship him and fight for him for a chance to enter Valhalla in the afterlife. I won’t breakdown the entire story, but suffice to say, Max finds himself eventually siding with one of Joe’s Imperators named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in her attempt to escape Joe’s tyranny and a massive chase begins. It is this chase which makes up most of the film. It is harrowing, visually spectacular and thunderous. It harkens back to the big rig chase at the end of The Road Warrior and the train chase at the end of Beyond Thunderdome, but is so much more vast in scale and scope, so dazzling in its visuals, in a way undreamed of 30 years ago.

And it’s here that I pause to wonder about what for me was the real story: Max’s quest to regain his humanity. I’m not sure if George Miller intends Fury Road to be a reset button on the franchise or a direct sequel to Beyond Thunderdome, but I know he’s been trying to make the movie for years. “Development Hell” is a real thing in the movie industry and many films are condemned there despite the best efforts of people to save them. Fury Road escaped and does so as if to smash the gates open with its own War Rig. Believe me, I’m ecstatic that this movie was made and that Miller has said there could be more. However, if we’re to take this as a direct sequel, it seems we missed an important chapter. Max is suffering PTSD from the loss of a daughter whom we see in brief, hallucinatory flashes. He lost a wife and son in the first film, so who is this daughter? Is she his daughter at all? Are his memories and emotions all warped and distorted by now that this girl is simply someone he cared about whom he failed to save at some point since we last saw him? Maybe, but we’re not given much to go on (though maybe a second or third viewing will clarify things). It’s not the PTSD that gives me pause, it’s that I feel we’ve been here with Max and got at least somewhat passed it at the end of Beyond Thunderdome.

Some may argue that it’s not meant to be a deep examination of the human psyche, to just enjoy the rollercoaster action. I would happily do only that, except that Beyond Thunderdome was such a concious advancement of Max’s character that seeing him return to the cold road warrior without any real explanation leaves *me* a bit cold.

Another concern with the movie is once we get past the spectacle, this is a movie we already saw. It is wall-to-wall stunning visuals and effects, absolutely, but it seems assembled from (admittedly some of the best action) bits of the previous two. A dictator ruling over the masses: Immortan Joe is like a mix of Auntie Entity and The Humongous. Innocents who need rescuing: The Wives are like the lost children in Beyond Thunderdome. And as I noted before, the chase itself is a larger version of the chases from the previous two films. Where each of the previous films was unique and offered a large swath each of new story elements, Fury Road repeats a lot of what came before without much new.

At the end of the film, Max choses to depart amid the festivities, a move that echoes his choice at the end of the first film, though his motives are slightly different. He’s not the hollow, vengeful soul who cruelly left a man to die in that movie. He’s a lone wolf by nature now, but in The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, it was the specific events of the story that left him alone. The Road Warrior ends with Max learning he was a distraction while the refinery workers snuck away with the real treasure of fuel, outsmarting everyone. It’s implied Max may have been able to go with them and chose not to, but it’s left ambiguous. This keeps with the tone that the film sets up with the opening narration, that this is a distant, powerful memory of the Feral Boy, where “the man they called Max” is a now-mythic figure. At the end of Beyond Thunderdome, Max sacrifices himself to save the children and Master and in doing so is left alone in the wastes again as they fly off. Fury Road, by showing us his choice to leave, takes away from the idea that Max is a man destined to be alone and replaces it with the fact that he now *chooses* to be alone.

Everyone is raving right now about Mad Max: Fury Road and despite everything I just said, there is a LOT to praise about the film. In many ways, it would not have been possible to make this movie thirty years ago and Heaven knows Miller tried. The Road Warrior is an action masterpiece and Beyond Thunderdome is a powerful character-driven journey. Roger Ebert said Beyond Thunderdome was not only the best film in the then-trilogy, but one of the best films of 1985. As brilliant as those films were, they could only go so far in terms of effects and stunts. CGI was still a primitive tool and digital editing practically non-existent. Miller nonetheless pushed the technology as far as he could in the most creative ways and the results are stunning.

Fury Road does what it sets out to do and does so in with such raging, noisy, blistering power that even with character and continuity taking a back seat to sheer action, this movie is a masterpiece.

Numerical values are subjective, relative and limiting, but if I had to give Mad Max: Fury Road an “out of 10” rating, of course it would be 10/10.

There may be more Mad Max films on the way and all I ask is that Miller take those opportunities to include both more of (and an advancement of, that’s the key) Max Rockatansky’s internal war in amongst all the crazy, nightmarish, psychotic brilliance of this desolate auto-punk world.

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