Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth of the Mad Max films, all directed by Greek-Australian George Miller. It has more in common with the first pared-down 1980 movie starring Mel Gibson, without some of the bloated action and sentimentality that marred the next two installments: The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome.
It’s also an updated 21st century version in terms of themes and sensibility. In the post-apocalyptic dystopia of Fury Road we’re clearly dealing with a world that has felt the ravages of catastrophic climate change. Access to Aqua Cola (water), as it’s referred to in the movie, is carefully controlled by Immortan Joe, who runs an empire built on slavery, sexism and demagogery. His resemblance to any number of modern CEOs is entirely intentional. One need only think of Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and former CEO of Nestlé group, who talked about NGOs “banging on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.”
Max in the new movie is played by Tom Hardy. But he is more sidekick than hero. That role is taken by Charlize Theron who plays Imperiator Furiosa, the real road warrior of this movie, a woman with a buzz cut, piercing eyes and a prosthetic arm, who is a truly formidable foe. She is valued by Immortan Joe for her bravery and ability to fight the warring hordes to get what Joe needs for his colony, The Citadel.
It turns out that under the guise of serving Joe she is actually planning a kind of underground railway and getting five women (used as breeders by Joe) to safety. In this venture Max becomes an unwilling participant. He has been enslaved by the colony to act as a human blood bag for one of the War Boys and is taken along for the ride when Joe and his varied minions ride out after Furiosa to get back what Joe refers to as his ‘property’.
The movie is straightforward in terms of the minimal plot and storyline but it’s really the action and the heroism of Imperiator and her band of women that keeps us engaged, along with their male sidekicks – the taciturn Max and one of the War Boys (actor Nicholas Hoult), who eventually realizes what a dupe he has been to follow blindly after Immortan Joe.
In fact, there are echoes here of the follies of war and imperialism, which should have a resonance with the audience after the disasters of Iraq, Afghanistan and the ongoing crisis of ISIS and bombing campaigns in Syria and Yemen. The war boys in the film, who sacrifice themselves for the profits and power of Immortan Joe, die willingly, fed on the lie that ‘I live to die and live again’, smearing their lips with a shiny chrome substance as they head off to battle.
No wonder that Stephen Colbert, in a recent commencement address to university students in the US, called Fury Road a ‘documentary’ and advised them to fight racism and climate change if they want to avoid the future that is pictured there.
The strong feminist plot is also a welcome addition to the action genre. Particularly Charlize Theron, but also the women she is rescuing who morph from a scantily clad band that look worryingly like a Playboy shoot at the beginning of the movie, to a group of women determined to control their own fates. This is a movie that’s not afraid to put women in the driver’s seat, both literally and figuratively.
On the road they encounter a group of older women, the Vuvalini, who help them give Immortan Joe a taste of his own bad medicine. No wonder so-called ‘men’s rights’ groups have been blogging about this movie, calling for a boycott. One of the prominent men’s right blogs called Fury Road “feminist propaganda posing as a guy flick.”
Horrors! Men might be tricked into going to a kick-ass action movie where women play a leading role in trying to save the world for ordinary people. It seems, however, that the blustering by the reactionary men’s rights folks is having the opposite effect: women (and men) are going to see Fury Road in droves.
This is a movie that delivers on several levels: effective and non-CGI generated action sequences, the creation of a credible and frightening brave new world not that far from our own, and the hope offered by the rag-tag band of women and men who go hurtling through the desert with their guzzoline-fuelled salvation machines, hoping to find the ‘Green place’ and another better future.