For 30 years, the original Mad Max trilogy took its place in history as a tripartite masterpiece of post-apocalypse storytelling, a saga invented, reinvented and reinvented yet again of a world obsessed with energy, mobility and violence suddenly overturned, first by a lack of fuel, then by the tumult of war, and the by the holocaust of nuclear fire. In each installment, we saw the survivor Max, once a policeman of the old order, now a selfish wanderer living off what he can scavenge and fighting those who would rob or kill him. Despite his stronger instincts, he remembers enough of his humanity to do the right thing and help those who need it most in this world gone savage, mad and bleak. The original Mad Max movies set the tone for popular imaginations of life after the fall of civilization, a reflection of Western audiences’ pre-occupation with both the destruction of the life to which they are accustomed, and their refusal to confront the forces that might end it prematurely. They were also some of the most inventive and influential action movies ever made.
Until Fury Road.
The story is some time in the future, when civilization has utterly collapsed and the world has been reduced to a global desert, thanks to nuclear armageddon, environmental destruction, or both. Wasteland wanderer Max Rockatansky is captured by the War Boys of Immortan joe, a twisted warlord who runs the Citadel, an oasis with plentiful water and vegetation but is run as a brutal fief in which Joe enslaves the local population and keeps a large stable of women kept as broodmares to produce his ever-expanding family/army. In league with two similarly despotic cities—Gas Town and the Bullet Farm—order has arisen from chaos, but it is even more brutal and unequal as anything that ever existed before the fall. When Immortan Joe’s chief soldier, a tough, one-armed woman named Furiosa, helps Joe’s five wives escape, Joe summons the entire might of his War Boys, as well as that of the Bullet Farm and Gas Town, to recapture his prized women. What follows is an epic road battle into which Max is first introduced as a prisoner, later as an uneasy ally of Furiosa and Joe’s wives, and later still as exactly the kind of fire-hardened warrior and leader this ruined earth needs. As Max, Furiosa and their charges battle the seemingly endless resources of Joe’s coalition, the independent bandits and freaks of the wasteland, and the environment itself, it becomes clear that there is only one direction in which they can run if they want to survive this. Head-on.
Look, let’s get right down to it: Fury Road is perhaps the greatest action movie made ever since George Miller—the series creator, writer and director—stopped making Mad Max movies three decades before and shifted gears to sunny tales of talking pigs and singing penguins. The sheer amount of time dedicated to action sequences is audaciously lopsided, with major scenes taking a solid 20 minutes or more to resolve themselves. The action never lets up, and yet, it is all so varied in its style, direction and payoff that never does it exhaust or jade the audience. That owes much to its writing and direction, but even more to its editing, given over to Miller’s longtime editor, collaborator and spouse, Margaret Sixel. Miller bet that Sixel, having never edited an action picture before, would bring a fresh vision and sensibility to this project, and the bet paid off in spectacular fashion. Sixel and her team spent two years building a two-hour movie out of hundreds of hours of footage, and their efforts produced something transcendant.
The movie is replete with incredible images and moments. Max’s hair-raising ride as a kind of living hood ornament on War Boy chariot. The grotesquerie of the Immortan Joe, the Bullet Farmer, the People Eater. The spectacle of their twisted minions, exemplified by the heavy metal madness of the Doof Warrior. The secondhand splendor of a seemingly endless convoy of rebuilt post-apocalypse war vehicles. Bizarre crow-people walking on stilts through a swamp of toxic mud. Furiosa’s anguished cry when faced with a vanished dream. Max’s recurring vision of a girl he failed to save. And the way he shares his courage, blood and name with Furiosa.
It would be easy for any sense of story or theme or character to be lost amid so much action. But nearly every one of Fury Road’s 120 minutes speaks truth about this world reinvented yet again from the ashes of what we already know. But the plight of Joe’s wives and Furiosa’s tribe of warrior-women figures most prominently as Max begins to understand the stakes at play here. The most valuable resource isn’t water, fuel, ammo, women or even good genes. It’s compassion. Halfway through the redline journey from the Citadel to the Green Place and back again, the War Boy Nux repeatedly tries and fails to foil our heroes. Like so many of his fellow War Boys, Nux is riddled with tumors, and embraces a short, suicidal life because he can see no other road to travel. Immortan joe has fed his sons a mythic lie about a warrior afterlife because he has nothing better to offer them: their only options are victory or death. So when Nux fails at that, and is captured by Max and Furiosa, he breaks down emotionally amid his shattered belief system. And that’s when it happens: the fugitive wife named Capable takes Nux into her arms, and consoles him, knowing that more violence is not what will save this world. It is, in fact, what destroyed it in the first place. No, the future here belongs to love, and to give it with such ease, innocence and purity to a man who just one day before helped to enslave her shows the greatest courage of all. Love wins. It always does.