If you only see one movie this summer, make sure it’s Mad Max: Fury Road. I haven’t enjoyed a movie so much in years, and I can’t remember any time that I’ve come away from a film with so little to complain about.
Fury Road begins with a short introduction to Max, but he’s shortly captured and taken to Immortan Joe’s citadel to be used as a blood bag. There’s a lot of worldbuilding going on here, and within he first ten minutes or so of the movie you get a pretty good idea of the post-apocalyptic world that George Miller envisions. Fans of his older Mad Max movies will recognize the aesthetic, which (refreshingly) avoids the gloom and doom that has become characteristic of the post-apocalyptic and dystopian genre (and, really, of sci-fi and fantasy in general) over the last few years. The darkness here is more akin to the surrealism of a Heironymus Bosch painting than the soul-crushing grimness of Game of Thrones or a Christopher Nolan film. While there’s not a lot of color (the palette sticks to shades of sand and black for high contrast) and there is a lot of dirt, Fury Road still manages to be full of light and warmth that endures even through night scenes.
The plot is simple, and the movie is light on dialogue. I’m not being facetious or hyperbolic when I say it’s a two hour car chase. It is literally two hours of car chase, punctuated with stops for repairs. It’s an incredible spectacle, made even more amazing by the knowledge that Miller prefers to eschew CGI in favor of stunts and conventional effects. It’s also notable that, while there’s a lot of violence, there’s very little graphic violence. Indeed, much of the film’s violence is only implied. People die, but there are no long, lingering shots on dead bodies. People are injured, but there are no enormous blood splatters. Women have been kept as sex slaves for breeding and for milk, but there’s no explicit sexual violence on screen. Most of the violence is conveyed through explosions and flamethrowers and cars with spikes ramming into each other, and it’s all set to the aggressive rock music provided by the Doof Warrior (pictured above).
Speaking of women, Fury Road is just full of them. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is an excellent hero, with an appropriate amount of depth of character for the type of movie she’s in. Immortan Joe’s five runaway wives each have a personality of their own, and all of them are shown to be tough and resourceful along with Furiosa. The Vuvalini of Many Mothers, who Furiosa and company meet in the desert, are also amazing and are part of the coolest fight/chase sequence in the film. At the same time, George Miller doesn’t shove any of these women into the normal Strong Female Character box that is generally reserved for women in action flicks. Just the sheer number of women included creates plenty of room for them to be different from each other, and in addition to being badass fighters and all around tough broads, the women of Fury Road get to be frightened, sad, kind, nurturing, and gentle as well as brave and defiant. Even Furiosa, who it would have been very easy to turn into a caricature-like collection of girl power tropes, doesn’t have to be an automaton of “strength” all the time, and it’s very nice to see an action heroine who understands the value of community and the wisdom of being able to depend on others sometimes.
What I love most about the women of Fury Road, however, is that none of them are grossly sexualized. The wives where diaphanous, skimpy white outfits, but there was never a shot that perved on their bodies–which is nice, since they are survivors of rape and reproductive coercion who are fleeing the man who abused them. There are no long, slow pans up from crotch to tits. There are no artfully posed bodies for maximized boner potential. There is no absurdly and inexplicably perfect hair and makeup in the post-apocalyptic desert car chase. Instead, everyone looks filthy and sweaty and slightly unhealthy, covered in dust and engine filth and definitely not packaged for male consumption.
All this said, there are a couple of issues with the film.
First, for me, the milking mothers were a bit of a sour note. I know that this is a post-apocalyptic world and all, but this seemed a little over-the-top, and it felt somewhat gratuitous and done for shock value. I think I would have felt differently if these women were given the same level of attention and agency as the wives, but we barely see them.
Second, for a post-apocalyptic Australia, everyone is awful white. It does seem to me that I saw some darker faces in the crowd scenes at Immortan Joe’s citadel, but I feel like I could have blinked and missed them. And I know that several of the women characters are women of color, but including a couple of women who are approximately the same color as the sand everyone is covered with maybe doesn’t count as diversity, especially when the main characters are all so, so white.
Still, Mad Max: Fury Road is an excellent film, with a strong (if fairly uncontroversial) eco-feminist message and a cast so full of women that the Bechdel Test need not even be mentioned as a metric to judge it by. It’s a big, beautiful action film with a great adventure and no romance. There are rad vehicles covered in spikes and enormous explosions and beautiful scenery and awesome fight scenes.
Mostly, it’s just great fun to watch, and when the movie ended I could have watched it again right away. I’m definitely looking forward to watching it over and over again at home when it comes to DVD/Blu-ray.