Somewhere amidst humanity’s collective unconscious lies The Wasteland. Sand. Emptiness. Industrial collapse. An absence of life metaphored through lack of water or greenery. In the 80s, George Miller fashioned Mad Max’s desolate universe, surrounded by cold war paranoia and the potential for weaponized destruction of the earth, and it immediately lodged itself into the apocalyptic zeitgeist: other movies, books, video games are like to feature a variation of Miller’s wasteland. In 2015, the franchise inexplicably rejuvenated, we now fear environmental destruction instead of the atom bomb but the result is essentially the same. Neither nuclear winter nor catastrophic glacial melt creates the setting of Mad Max — but it’s how we envision a world dead, the unintended-but-obvious endgame of carelessness & greed.
Each of the Mad Max movies is tonally different. I know because I watched all three again in anticipation of Fury Road. The original (1979) has the captivating quality that all very early projects by talented directors have. Its vision is central and palpable. The apocalypse is background to an interpersonal tale that flangs outward to include a psychopathic biker gang. The violence is sparse and devastating, the aesthetic unmistakable. Road Warrior (1981) follows and Max has turned from family man to brooding, reluctant hero. Apocalypse has arrived. Gangs fight on the road for any scrap of gas to keep driving. The plot revolves around an enclave surrounding a tanker full of gas and their plan of escape, beyond the second coming of psycho biker gangs in bondage gear. Last comes Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which takes the series into extra campy, goofy territory. Mel Gibson’s Max is more of a grunting, disoriented non-hero. Tina Turner is resplendent as the villain. It’s kind of hilarious. Those four years changed a great deal.
So what is Fury Road? Non-stop action, that’s what. The main characters drive a weaponized, armored rig through the desert with an army of mad hooligans in hot pursuit. Then they turn around and do it again. There’s rare stoppages to breathe and they do not last long. The bondage attired goons of the 80s are replaced by white skinned bald guys who hunker and scrabble and leap like goblins & orcs (WETA workshop, masterminds behind Lord of the Rings costuming and imagery, were at work here). I missed the sexually deviant leather-clad-assless-chapped-codpieced cadre of the previous movies but there’s hints of weirdness and humor here and there. The action is tight & smart — not nonsensical blockbuster explosions and quick shots. Tension is engineered through unique situations: take for an example two racing vehicles, both with a passenger on the hood frantically siphoning gas and spitting it into the engine to stay ahead of the other. Or the Crouching Tiger-esque fight where Max engages Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in fistfight while chained to a corpse he must keep navigating around/with.
It’s exhilarating. I haven’t seen a great action flick in years, it seems. I missed some of the small scale quirkiness of early Mad Max’s, but I am also glad this movie struck its own path and avoided a nostalgic Thunderdome rehash. The movie unapologetically blames everyone — the good guys, the bad guys, the in-betweens, the audience — for the destruction of the world. There’s a scene with some characters screaming “You killed the world!” at another character while he denies it. We exult in the action and violence of the movie, revel in our own projected destruction. It’s the villains people dress up as. Fury Road doesn’t so much warn us of a potential future; it shows us what we think it looks like and asks us to celebrate along with it.