I often find myself watching summer blockbusters and wondering if we’re approaching some sort of event horizon, at least where cinematic spectacle is concerned. Now that budgets routinely soar past the $200 million mark and visual-effects technology has caught up to the ambitions of our most wildly inventive filmmakers, where can we go next?
The new Mad Max film, appropriately subtitled Fury Road, has the answer: We go back the way we came, and we do it with imagination, conviction, a few hundred tons of grinding metal, and a flamethrower guitar.
There’s spectacle to spare in the fourth installment of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic fever dream—the entire movie is essentially a two-hour climax—but it doesn’t traffic in the kind of amped-up global peril and intergalactic kerfuffles that keep superheroes in business. Fury Road is a lean, stripped-down chase movie that, in spite of its bloated budget, argues for a back-to-basics approach to action: likable characters running for their lives while loathsome villains pursue them. The road is the world, and it’s dangerous enough.
Those themes of regression and return are keen stylistic choices, but they’re also integral to the plot. It helps if you’ve seen the previous films, but no worries if you haven’t. Fury Road begins with an amusingly terse introduction to Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy instead of Mel Gibson this time) and his grim world, a literal wasteland where gasoline is more valuable than human life and women are imprisoned as breeding stock. A devastating energy crisis and the ensuing “oil wars” have reduced the world to a primitive patriarchy, and Max quickly runs afoul of a masked warlord called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the first Mad Max film). Don’t sweat Max’s backstory if you don’t already know it; once you’ve seen a guy stomp and then eat a two-headed mutant gecko, you pretty much know all you need to know about him.
Besides, Max isn’t even the main character of Fury Road. That honor, to the glorious chagrin of sexist idiots everywhere, goes to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a no-nonsense road warrior with a dark history and a rococo mechanical arm. She goes from being Joe’s most trusted general to his most hated enemy when she orchestrates the escape of the Wives, five women who have been kidnapped, imprisoned, and forced to bear Joe’s children. As soon as Joe realizes what Furiosa has done, he dispatches a fleet of his War Boys—feral young men who think their highest purpose is to die in battle—to kill her and bring back the Wives. For much of the film, Max is literally just along for the ride, strapped to a car and serving as a mobile “blood bag” for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy whose story is one for the movie’s greatest pleasures. Max eventually recovers some agency, of course, and casts in his lot with Furiosa and her charges.
To say that Furiosa’s betrayal kicks the film into high gear is misleading, because it implies that Fury Road has any gears that aren’t high. The film barrels forward so relentlessly that motion almost becomes a new stasis. It’s not enough that 90 percent of the movie sees its characters hurtling through the desert at top speed, gnashing at each other’s bumpers; they also have to be crawling along the underbellies of their rigs, or clinging to the hoods of souped-up muscle cars while spitting gasoline into their engines, or flinging themselves at neighboring vehicles while lashed to giant, swinging poles.
What really makes the movie such a success, though, is that it takes as many chances with its story and characters as with its stunt performers. There are moments that almost feel as if I imagined them. Did I really just see Max wash blood off his face with breast milk? Did an action-movie icon just volunteer to become a human tripod for a woman who’s much better with a rifle than he is? Am I really watching a movie that pits biker grannies against paint-huffing albinos while a guy called the Doof Warrior bangs out heavy-metal riffs on a flamethrower guitar? Yes, yes, and yes.
The beauty of it is that, in spite of its baroque imagination and wildly kinetic imperative, Fury Road achieves a clarity that eludes most action movies these days. The entire thing is a redline spectacle of flight, pursuit, and collision that feels at once manic and carefully measured. What’s happening onscreen is almost always ludicrously over the top, but it’s so impeccably staged, shot, and edited that you can almost feel the grit without getting lost in the chaos.
April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
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