Hollywood and moviegoers seem infatuated with dystopian futures. To be sure this is not entirely new, dystopian fiction has been a staple of human imagination since we started telling stories. But the recent popularity of stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent and a plethora of other dark futuristic tales deserves notice. A look at any newspaper can tell you why: Environmental disasters and extreme weather events seem almost routine; an ongoing global economic crises has upended millions of lives and neoliberal economic policies offer only more austerity and hardship. In the U.S. and many other countries broken and utterly corrupt political systems only reinforce growing inequality, and serve to guard elites’ control of wealth and resources. Endless militarism and war have become the new normal as various elites fight for position and control of resources, bolstered by religious fanaticism and hollow but motivating patriotic fervor.
Director George Miller and company are veterans of the post apocalyptic genre. The fourth installment of the Mad Max franchise isn’t so much a reboot, as we’ve come to expect from an increasingly risk averse Hollywood establishment in search of sure fire hits based upon name recognition and audience familiarity. Instead it is an utterly refreshing reimagining of the universe inhabited by the previous Mad Max films, reiterating familiar themes but also transcending them. Therefore, though the left has already written a great deal on this movie (from high praise to critical panning), it is worth stepping back and looking at how its aesthetic accomplishments set it apart.
To be clear, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie masterpiece. Sparse dialogue is set against a symphony of exhilarating action and a story beautifully illustrated at every turn by expert cinematography. The movie starts with an iconic image: a lone Mad Max with his car, his police Interceptor from the first movie. Never mind that the vehicle was destroyed in previous installments of the franchise. Never mind the car is captured and repurposed in the first minutes of the film. All that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Max is quickly captured by a roving band of skinhead religious death cult minions known as the War Boys, and they take Max back to their fortress.
Like any post-apocalyptic story worth its salt, Fury Road expresses anxieties about the future through a contemporaneous lens. In fact a look back at the previous Mad Max films will reveal what folks at the time were worried about. In the first film, released in 1979, the fear is clearly social breakdown and the unraveling of basic civilization. Max in that film is a law-and-order cop and a traditional family man who loses everything to an outlaw biker gang and vows revenge. The film could be seen as a response to the social confusions and fears that arose in the wake of the incomplete social movements of the 60’s and 70’s. Max is transformed by his losses and ends by abandoning the remnants of a decaying civilization and becoming the iconic lone wolf. The second installment Road Warrior (1981) shows a Max confronting a fully post-civilization world that is obsessed with fuel shortages, reflecting the real world anxieties caused by the oil crises of the 70’s and early 80’s. The world has become harsher, the villains more violent, the pockets of humanity more tenuous amidst even greater levels of violence and barbarism. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) sees Max finding Bartertown, an attempt at rebuilding civilization based on a nightmarish combination of Chicago school style economics and a Steampunk DIY ethos. Everything in Bartertown is hyper-commodified, including people, reflecting the uncertainty of a rapidly restructuring economy and the rise of neoliberal ideology during the 80’s.
Fury Road sees the evolution of this same through-line, and it fits well for our time and place. Once at the Citadel, as the fortress is known, director George Miller starts dropping clues as to what sort of society the War Boys inhabit. In this world, everything living is a valuable resource: fresh water, two headed lizards, Max’s blood, women of childbearing age. Prisoners are harvested for organs and blood, women are harvested for mother's milk, and children are used to drive the machinery of the Citadel. This calls to mind a quote from Marx: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire like lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks.” Marx’s colorful metaphor about exploitation is brought to vivid life on the screen, even if in an appropriately comic book way.
Imperator Furiosa is a badass one armed force of nature who tears through the ruined desert landscape of the film. Played with an electric intensity by Charlize Theron, her steeled determination is shown early on when she leads her war party on their mission for “guzzoline”. She clearly has the respect of the War Boys under her command, and no questions are asked when she diverts the war party from the planned route. She helms a giant tanker outfitted for war and filled with mother’s milk, presumably to trade for gasoline. The symbolism is hard to miss here, the force harvested mother’s milk clearly the Citadel’s chief export commodity, to be traded to Gastown for gasoline, and to the Bullet Farm for you guessed it, bullets. Mad Max will literally use mother’s milk to wash blood off his face and hands at one point.
Nux is a War Boy dying of radiation poisoning. At the start of our story, he is a fanatical follower of Immortan Joe. Nicholas Hoult plays Nux with an almost embarrassing insanity, perfectly putting the character where he belongs, which is in the incredibly horrible universe of Mad Max. Nux’s transformation is a powerful example of the story’s main point.
Immortan Joe is played with death metal grotesquery by Hugh Keays-Byrne. Keays-Byrne is a veteran of the Mad Max movies, having played the mystical bike gang leader Toecutter in the first installment. In many ways, Immortan Joe embodies what Toecutter must have wanted to be when he grew up. All the chief villains of the Mad Max franchise have a seemingly incongruent philosophical side, often musing rather lyrically about the grim existential situations they witness, even as they themselves are the chief immediate cause of the death and mayhem they chillingly comment upon. Immortan Joe sits atop a sick and dying social structure, barely held together with authoritarian violence and strict control of all resources. He cements his rule with ideology; in this case a morbid death cult of personality based on a bizarre combination of automotive imagery and Norse mythology. His death obsessed followers are exhorted with visions of Valhalla — an afterlife paradise to which Joe is the improbable key. The War Boys are his army, and they fanatically enforce Immortan Joe’s death cult rule. The War Boys are poisoned in the mind by Joe’s mystical mumbo jumbo, but they are also poisoned in the body by their apparently radioactive environment. Even the loyal soldiers of Immortan Joe are trapped by the society they find themselves in. They are doomed to a brief and brutal existence, and Joe exploits this with promises of a glorious afterlife.
In contrast to the stale parade of hyper-frenetic CGI effects and quick cuts that often result in the headache inducing auto triggered snore fest that we’ve come to expect from our action movies, every frame of Mad Max: Fury Road pops with a vital immediacy that is refreshing and exhilarating. The photography captures well the actual stunts performed by actual humans, actually travelling at intense speeds on actual vehicles. Basic laws of physics like gravity are respected. Center framing keeps the action visually coherent and cinematographer John Seale hauntingly illustrates the dark visual poetry of Miller’s nightmare hellscape. Editor Margeret Sixel cuts the film to an impossible perfection to keep the visual narrative taut and crackling. The striking vehicles and compelling practical sets speak to a bold production design from Colin Gibsom and brilliant execution from art director Jacinta Leong. Indeed in some ways Fury Road reverts to the silent era of filmmaking, preferring more often than not to show rather than tell the story, although the audio design makes makes itself known in a big way.
The overall simplicity together with a lean and economic dialogue, actually helps the story work quite well. Furiosa is hell bent on rescuing the wives, and is willing to defy her entire society for a chance to help liberate them. The wives know they need Furiosa’s help, but they aren’t just a bunch of hopeless victims. They fully participate in their own liberation, and become key actors in the story. Max meanwhile struggles with his stated goal of just trying to survive. After a spectacular road chase and an incredibly filmed three way fight between Max, Nux and Furiosa, our protagonists are assembled. Theron’s Furiosa and Hardy’s Max don’t trust each other at first, but throughout the movie we see them gradually overcome their suspicions and realize that for the time being at least, they need each other. The on screen chemistry the two create resonates powerfully as the film unfolds, and in fact the basic respect and solidarity that is forged between the characters manages to wonderfully subvert the usual action movie romance tropes.
A Brief Note On the Lesser Villains
Arrayed against our heroes is a massive host of post-apocalyptic villains, from the uniform War Boys and Immortan Joe’s Goliath sized but mentally limited son Rictus Erectus down to the People Eater a bloated old white man sporting, I’m not kidding, a Victorian great coat and a monocle who worries a lot about spending resources. Almost stealing the show is the Doof Warrior, a guitar playing rock and roll demon that hangs by bungee cords in front of a towering sound truck stacked with amps and speakers. The Doof Warrior takes his name from the Australian outback rave scene. If you attended a Doof, you might well see a sound-truck like the one the Doof Warrior hangs from. This much talked about but rather minor character has provoked almost as much discussion as Furiosa and Max, but little has been said as to why Doof resonates so strongly. Every action movie is accompanied by a pounding, thrashing, pulsing soundtrack that wants to carry the viewer along with it and deepen the immersion of the audience into the visceral action sequences. Fury Road is no exception. As the chase begins thrashing guitar chords backed by menacing drums heighten the excitement of the action and the threat of the villains’ fleet. The surprising visual reveal of the Doof Warrior and his ridiculous sound truck as the source of the soundtrack is at once shocking and funny. This has an almost Brechtian alienation effect by snapping the audience out of the visual/action hypnosis, allowing us to step back and cast a more critical eye on the unfolding events. The audial assault continually intrudes upon the heavily visual story, with the intensity of the rock directly related to the p.o.v. camera’s physical proximity to Doof’s mobile speaker array. The fact that the Doof Warrior’s guitar also shoots spectacular fireballs is a brilliant and absolutely hilarious visual topping off of the effect.
Why It Matters
Much has been written about the central role of the women characters in the film. As John McDonald and Mary Bowman point out in their Socialist Worker review: “As popular culture — and particularly the geek-inclined wing of popular culture — has increasingly become a battleground between those who think women should be equal to men and those who pine for simpler times when wives were considered property, existing solely to pleasure their husbands, Mad Max unapologetically takes sides.” I agree and it is beyond refreshing to see an action film wander beyond typical gender norms in the way Fury Road does. If the hate filled man-children of the Men’s Rights movement are up in arms about it, well who could ask for a better endorsement? As filmmaker Laura Durkay wrote in her brilliant review of the film: “In a genre where power and agency is defined by your competence at violence, is showing a woman who’s just as good at fighting as all the men around her a feminist act? Yes. I’m gonna go with yes on that one.”
The debates elsewhere about whether or not Fury Road can be finally declared a “feminist film” seem to miss the point however. I’m not sure what that would mean in an entertainment industry overwhelming dominated by men, aimed at the production of commodities for a market, with profits as the ultimate goal. I am sure that Fury Road embodies many feminist themes and this alone is a groundbreaking achievement in today’s film industry.
Ultimately Mad Max: Fury Road was subject to all the usual pressures like any big budget Hollywood movie. Yet it is undeniable that the film subverts many sexist tropes, especially for the action genre. Furiosa, not Max is the main action hero. The film utterly slays the usual tokenization of women in action films — most action women characters are usually tough (but conventionally attractive) outliers who can hang with the boys and Kick Real Good. Fury road turns that on it’s head with Max often ceding the spotlight to Furiosa. Miller makes a fascinating choice by deemphasizing the title character, or least sharing the action hero role between Max and Furiosa. Max is limited by his lonewolf individualist approach and he is haunted by visions of past failures and this seems to make him cautious about teaming up. He is only won over when necessity demonstrates the superiority of Furiosa’s collective and collaborative approach. Furiosa is clearly the leader of our heroes, skillfully marshalling her resources and her team. The Vulvalini surprise you at every turn in a way that perhaps only kickass old lady biker gangs can. Immortan Joe’s slave wives transcend the typical movie victim status by actively participating in their own emancipation. Solidarity and trust is the bond that holds our heroes together, not some tired cliché of the strong and skilled protecting the weak and vulnerable. In fact that particular dynamic is transferred to the bad guys, illustrated by Immortan Joe’s obsessive paternalism and twisted family values.
Fury Road shows a thematic concern with resource scarcity, but also goes beyond the focus of most post-apocalyptic fiction. Environmental degradation and a ruined land figure prominently to be sure- but we are shown in vivid glimpses the effects such a scenario would have upon actual human bodies. The importance of reproduction both human and social, almost entirely absent from almost all films much less action blockbusters, is highlighted and made a central aspect. Haunting images of women being harvested for breastmilk and the Wives' determination to be free of their slave status underline this. Women’s control over their own bodies is a powerful motivation for Furiosa and the wives. I can’t think of another action movie where reproductive freedom is a driving theme.
In a way, Fury Road represent a full circle for the character Mad Max, who started his career on a loner vengeance quest against the non-conformist villains who killed his family. The arc of his character in this film takes him on a very different path. He must grow beyond feral independence and brute survival instincts and learn (relearn) sympathy and solidarity and trust for others just in order to have a chance at survival. If the earlier Mad Max films show Max shedding his humanity as the world dies around him, Fury Road shows Max begin to regain it even as hope for escape is dashed when our heroes discover that Furiosa’s “Green Place” is just a poisoned swamp inhabited by creepy stilt walkers. Moved by Furiosa’s despair Max suggests another plan: attack the now unguarded citadel. This is the defining moment for Max, as he convinces our heroes that they can’t run away from their dilemma, but must address the root of the problem, which is control over the resources of the Citadel and self determination for it’s inhabitants.
One of George Miller’s strengths as a director is an ability to evoke a fully fleshed world using small details and carefully composed imagery. One example is that Immortan Joe and his two sons all have respiratory issues, and all need some kind of mechanical breathing aids. It has nothing to do with the story directly, just a curious detail that helps us get into the over the top reality of the film. The Mad Max world of Fury Road may be outlandish, hellish and filled with sometimes surreal scenery, but it is internally consistent. When Nux sees a tree but doesn’t know what to call it, this is both darkly funny and makes perfect sense according to the logic of the story.
Mad Max: Fury Road has garnered almost universal acclaim from critics and audiences. It’s gets an astonishing 98% positive rating from movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. As of this writing, it has tripled its debut weekend take domestically in under a month, a strong indication that word of mouth and repeat viewings are boosting ticket sales. Overseas it is doing even better, with openings in massive markets like China, Japan, and Brazil yet to happen. It’s garnered over $300 million total, double its production budget. If current trends continue it will surely be a bonafide box office success.
These numbers are important for a couple of reasons. Hollywood studio execs are motivated at the end of the day by a project's potential to make profits. For movies that break the mold and cut against tried and true formulas the way Fury Road did, success or failure at the box office will determine the likelihood of future films that take risks getting greenlit. In this case how women interact with and are portrayed in the action genre will definitely be impacted.
The second reason the numbers matter: big blockbusters can sometimes help indicate where the popular mood is. In the case of post-apocalyptic movies, as I’ve said what is illustrated are often the anxieties and fears of the times. I would argue that Fury Road resonates because it nailed on the head some of the greatest concerns of our day: sustained attacks on women’s rights, the seemingly exponential degradation of our environment, the deepening exploitation of the many by the few and the relentless militarism and war we get in the daily news make even George Miller’s feverishly imagined dying world seem like an all too real possibility for a not too distant future. This is socialism versus barbarism writ large. The fact that the over the top hellscape of the film can feel like a logical outcome of our current status quo should give everyone pause.
I would suggest yet another reason the film is so popular. Our protagonists set aside differences and suspicions and act in solidarity to try and bring about the overthrow of an unjust, patriarchal and unequal society. Through daring, hella fighting skills and sometimes ultimate sacrifice they eventually triumph over their adversaries and seem ready to build a new kind of society. Furiosa is the most obvious victor, having achieved her goal of liberating the wives, but also in the mean time the rest of the Citadel society. Max’s victory is more internal, having at least for now overcome the demons from his past, and rediscovered his basic humanity. This is illustrated beautifully towards the end, when Max connects an I.V. from himself to the injured Furiosa in order to save her life. Whereas before Max’s blood was extracted by force to feed a rotten regime, now by choice he is sharing his blood to save an ailing comrade that he has come to trust and respect. While Max is saving Furiosa’s life (she saves his multiple times in the film), he is also taking a step toward saving himself. The buoyant feeling many experienced upon exiting the theater speaks to the liberatory feel of the story. The upbeat notion is that even in a post apocalyptic nightmare world, values like solidarity, trust and the impulse towards cooperation can survive and even be triumphant. I am reminded in my enthusiasm of something a brilliant comrade once warned: “Too many of us on the left are looking for socialism in all the wrong places.” Too true I’m afraid. Fury Road is certainly not a flawless piece of left-wing agitprop. At the end of the day, it is a commodity produced for exchange in search of profits. The fact that such a big budget blockbuster successfully incorporates so many progressive themes is surely a cause for celebration. Especially when measured against the usual drek Hollywood mechanically throws upon our summer screens.
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Tim Koch is an activist and socialist living in Upstate New York.