Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m not sure how it happened, but I saw Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior when I was about ten or twelve years old. That’s too young. Seriously. But like all such things we experience too soon, it had a deep, lasting impact on me. Mad Max was, of course, a particular product of Australian culture. We’re suited to the post-apocalypse, not only because so much of the country is beautiful and blasted, but because with colonisation, Australia suffered its own kind of apocalypse – all those films of the empty desert, or the deadly desert, need to be understood as unconscious rendering of the genocide of the indigenous population. And yet the early movies are explicitly post-nuclear war films, and reflect the pretty large fear of nuclear war which was so omnipresent in the 1980s. They were parables then, warnings.

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In The Road Warrior, Max himself is a kind of Australian archetype, with his blue heeler dog, his hotted-up car, and his unacknowledged sense of social justice. This was back when Mel Gibson was beautiful, he was also ours, before we knew that he was a nutty anti-semite, and when Australian cultural nationalism was still associated not with the Right but the Left, especially in Australian film (the films of Peter Weir, Fred Schepsi, and other of the Australian New Wave). Those contradictions were yet to unravel. Certainly as a ten-year-old, the world of Road Warrior was terrifying, but it was also familiar, as it would be to any Australian ten year old, who had been on some kind of road trip, even if only along the coast.

My memories of it were compressed, selective: first, the rape and murder of a woman, which mostly happened off-screen but which disturbed me no end; second, the design, the wondrous punk design, of cobbled together cars and clothes; third, the brutal sense of hope stripped away, the slightest sliver of it kept alive only through death and sacrifice; finally, the startling cinematography (in which the DOP and editor cut out several frames each second, to give it that startling jagged quality). As with Planet of the Apes, which I saw at a similar time (and also only remembered in fragments), it marked me.

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What then of Fury Road, which has been receiving rave reviews? It’s not often I see a blockbuster which doesn’t disappoint, and Fury Road is that. What interests me most, though, is that though I don’t much like action movies, and though Fury Road is pretty light on for story and characterisation (which it still manages to do nicely, if only in broad brush strokes), it still held my attention. How? The secret must be the film’s sheer inventiveness. Fury Road takes everything which is good about the early Mad Max movies, and pumps them up, as if on amphetamines. The avant-garde and punk sensibility shines, the design is magnificent, the set-pieces impressively imagined, when it stretches credibility (the metal-playing guitarist who hangs in front of one of the trucks, riffing as they drive through the desert; the scantily-clad collection of models, straight from some outback photoshoot, who Max helps escape) it manages to steer its lumbering, out-of-control, ramshackle story back onto the road. It’s loud. It’s brash. It’s over-the-top. It’s wonderfully mad. And best of all, it’s pretty openly feminist. We know this from two scenes: when Charlize Theron’s character Furioser uses Max’s shoulder to rest a rifle, proving herself a better shot than he; and when he washes blood from his face with breastmilk. No wonder the Men’s right’s Activists are up in arms. Indeed, there’s a good case to say that she’s the more central character to the story.

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If there are criticisms, we could agree with some of those mentioned by Erik Kain at Forbes, especially that Hardy can’t match Mel Gibson as Max, that The Road Warrior was more intimate and real, and that the ending of The Road Warrior was more messy and ambiguous. All of these are true, but Fury Road has its own consolations.

Post-apocalyptic tales are our lot now, because, of course, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Like with Children of Men, and The Road, the jury isn’t out on this one.

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