Toxic Ideologies and Naval Tactics Rule the Wastes in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
This post-apocalyptic thriller is a masterpiece
The warboys scream across the wastes in their crude-guzzling high octane rigs. They seek a glorious death, to enter the gates of Valhalla and be witnessed by the Immortan Joe.
White dust coats their bodies, chrome gleams from their lips and excitement fills their eyes. These are the Immortan Joe’s shock troops, his orcish conscripts destined to spend their short half-lives fighting to prop up the toxic feudal system of a mad man.
Their goal is to capture Imperator Furiosa, the once loyal driver of Joe’s gas tanker. She’s made off with Joe’s prized property — his beautiful breeders, his sex slaves.
Accidentally in the mix is that wanderer of the wastes, that reluctant hero who is no hero. The stranger of the dead world whom people talk about in hushed whispers in the watering holes of the wastes.
His name may be in the title of this picture, but he ain’t the star. This is Mad Max: Fury Road.
I love the Mad Max movies. It’s one of my favorite franchises and the first film — Mad Max — with the original Australian accents, please, none of that terrible American dubbing — contains my favorite shot in movie history.
I’m writing all of this to explain how high my expectations were. This was a sequel coming 30 years after the last film and handled by its creator. Films such as these usually don’t go well.
Despite knowing better, I was excited. Every trailer for the film was like a little hype bullet crafted to pierce my cynical movie-going heart.
So I was nervous when I sat in the theater. I shouldn’t have been. Mad Max: Fury Road is incredible. Between this and John Wick, I feel as if I’m living through an action movie renaissance — a time when old masters return and new talents emerge to show us what we’ve been missing.
That paragraph at the top of this review about the warboys and the chase is all you need to know going in. Fury Road is a film that doesn’t let the plot get in the way of an amazing movie. It’s a two-hour long chase scene, and one hour and 45 minutes of that is pure action.
Writer-director George Miller only stops to let the audience recover from the constant visual and aural assault a few times and never for long.
But Miller crafted a fully realized and complicated world in the background of a thrilling action film. Just because the plot is simple doesn’t mean the setting is. Miller has pulled off something rare in film — he lets the audience do the world-building for him without relying on boring exposition and painful info-dumps.
The film’s villain — the Immortan Joe — runs a colony in the wastes of the old world. His city is a massive citadel built into several huge rock formations. Lush, green expanses of crops sit atop those rocks. His control of the water gives him control over food which gives him control over people.
He drops water onto hordes of irradiated wastrels like a Roman emperor showering plebs with bread and circuses. “Do not become addicted to water,” he cautions them.
Everyone in Joe’s citadel is his property. The film opens when his warboys capture Max and tattoo a lengthy contract on his back. Then, they brand him with a flaming skull — the symbol of Joe’s citadel.
The Immortan controls his warboys not only by controlling the food, but also by supplying them with a totalitarian ideology. The Citadel has its own myths, legends and beliefs.
The warboys believe they will die and be born again, in an endless cycle until the day they enter the gates of Valhalla. Only the best warriors enter the fabled gates of the afterlife and the best of them will sit alongside the Immortan Joe in eternity.
The horrifying effectiveness of this ideology is best revealed in the character Nux, a warboy who embarrasses himself in front of the Immortan Joe. When Nux fails and Joe sees it, it’s clear that the poor warboy feels as if God himself is disappointed in him.
The audience understands Joe’s grip on these people by watching Nux become disillusioned with these myths — only to rebuild himself. Nux has Fury Road’s most interesting character arc.
Joe controls the water and the food, but he needs bullets and gas to keep that control. He’s not the only warlord in the area and two other settlements — Gas Town and the Bullet Farm— rule the wastes with him. The three warlords control the area’s three most valuable resources and rule together as a triumvirate.
Got that? The villain of Fury Road has created a stronghold in the desert and controls his men with an elaborate religion whereby they are willing to die because they believe paradise awaits them afterwards.
The religion helps him control his warriors and allows him to secure a constant supply of bodies, bullets and gas. I feel as if there’s a real-world parallel …
Another brilliant aspect of Fury Road are the tactics of the Joe’s war party. Joe and the other warlords drive fast cars across a vast desert, seeking to stop a rig loaded down with armor and horsepower.
The chase doesn’t stop. Furiosa and Max fight, but they never stand their ground in any traditional sense. No, they fight their battles from moving vehicles. Warboys leap from their cars onto Furiosa’s rig. Fighters swing from ropes. Bad guys launch harpoons.
The tactics are naval. The fighting is like the battles between ships during the colonial era. It’s more Master & Commander than The Duel.
The wastes are like an ocean — one Furiosa uses to her advantage. Early in her flight, she steers the chase into a sandstorm with the hopes of losing her pursuers. It’s as if a rogue schooner pursued by the Royal Navy in the 1700s sailed towards a squall in the hopes it would survive and its larger pursuers would not.
One of the war party’s most bizarre members fits into this trope. It’s a truck rigged with dozens of speakers. Warboys sit behind the speakers, pounding on drums that feed through the sound system.
In front of the speakers is a skinny man wearing red pajamas. A rope covers his face and anchors him to the rig.
The skinny man holds a beautiful electric guitar. When he jams on it, flames spurt from the end. It’s insane and visually stunning, but seems impractical at first glance.
Except … not really. The guitar rig serves a couple of different purposes.
First of all, the drumbeats and guitar work up the warboys, urging them on in the heat of battle. It’s also possible that the drums and guitar act as a battlefield communication system, just like the drummer boys of the 19th century.
But more than that, the skinny man wailing on his guitar makes for a terrifying image. The human eye is drawn to the color red. The soldiers of any army going up against the Immortan Joe will see the noise car first, then the guitarist with his bright red PJs, grotesque face and flame-powered guitar.
Then, the discordant music and drum beats will hit them. It works to shatter the morale of the enemy. These tactics are akin to 18th-century pirates such as Blackbeard, who burned candles in his beard and launched shattered glass at passing merchant ships.
The black sails of the pirate flag, the fearsome and strange ammunition and the tales of butchery that preceded them all worked to frighten a pirate’s targets into surrender. It’s much the same with Joe’s noise car.
The tactics and world-building are impressive, but it’s Fury Road’s treatment of hope, belief and mythology that will keep me watching this film for years to come.
It isn’t just Nux and the other warboys who believe in fairy tales. Furiosa sells Joe’s slaves on escape with elaborate tales of “The Green,” a Utopian vision of a verdant valley beyond the wastes … and beyond the reach of the Immortan Joe.
Furiosa eventually leads the party of misfits to her people, but The Green has turned to a dead swamp. The wonderland of Furiosa’s youth is gone.
At this point, the protagonists have lost the myths that buoyed them. Only Max is immune. He’s a nihilist who barely speaks through the entire film. At one point he tells Furiosa it’s wrong to hope for something better. The world is only fire and blood.
But in these final moments of the film, as the other characters adjust to losing their religions, Max realizes the importance of hope and dreams. He stops the group from pursuing a suicidal plan with no guarantees and sells them on a suicidal plan that, at least, does contain the hope of something better.
He sells them a dream, helps them achieve it, then wanders back into the wastes that birthed him. “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves,” reads the final title card of the film. It’s a quote from The First History of Man, a fictional book that exists within the Mad Max universe.
It implies that humans continued on, improved and recovered to the point of writing books and chronicling their history. Max is sure to be in that history, but as a myth, not as a man.
“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore,” Max’s boss tells him in the first film. “Well damn them. You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes.”
“Do you really expect me to go for that crap?” Max replies.
He’s the wanderer of the wastes who appears when you need him, but he’s no hero. If you’re very lucky, Max will bring out the hero inside of you.