It was clear from the start that the Australian writer/director George Miller would be influential. His wildly successful 1979 debut, Mad Max—to be followed by Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)—created a vision of postapocalyptic punk dystopia that was dustier and more barren than the one Ridley Scott would put forth a few years later in Blade Runner, but just as inspirational. (The trilogy has influenced everyone from Guillermo del Toro to Hype Williams to the creators of the Saw movie franchise, who say they took their stomach-churning premise from a scene at the end of the first Mad Max movie in which a character is forced to contemplate cutting off his own foot in order to escape.)
The way the world ends, for Miller, is not in overpopulated high-tech megacities slicked with film-noir rain, but in something like the polar opposite. Miller’s nightmare of the future posits the planet as a parched desert landscape against which the world’s few remaining humans scratch out a meager, violent existence, equipped only with the salvaged remains of mid-20th-century technology. It’s that future that, 36 years after Mel Gibson first put the pedal to the metal as Max Rockatansky, is looking more like the one we may be leaving to our own survivors—which makes the now 70-year-old Miller’s decades-later entry in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road, opening Friday, feel like less of a reboot of glory days past than a prequel of scary days to come. Miller was always influential, but we didn’t know he would turn out to be an environmental prophet.*
That same Max Rockatansky—now played by Tom Hardy, the fine English actor best known to American movie audiences as the dapper Eames in Inception (since he was all but unrecognizable as the masked Bane in The Dark Knight Rises)—is the first human we encounter in Fury Road’s moisture-deprived but color-saturated world. He’s sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere, making a meal of a two-headed lizard as he catches us up on the state of things in a terse philosophical voice-over: “As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy—me or everyone else.”
Shortly thereafter, the answer to at least that question becomes clear: There are plenty of people in Fury Road who are considerably further along the insanity continuum than Max, beginning with the despotic god-king Immortan Joe. Played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who portrayed the sadistic villain Toecutter in the 1979 original, this grotesque figure—the lower half of his face concealed by a mask that appears to be fashioned from a human skull—has somehow managed to gain control of the world’s remaining water supply. Below his cliff-top cave the desperate populace waits, rusty buckets upraised, for him to pump when and for whatever length of time he pleases. Immortan Joe also seems to have cornered the future’s market on good-looking, fertile young women. He keeps five “wives,” dressed in diaphanous white and looking cleaner and better-nourished than anyone else in sight, as prisoners in his well-defended fortress, the Citadel. Led by the warrior-gone-rogue Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), these young women—at least two of whom are pregnant with the warlord’s longed-for heir—manage to escape in one of the Citadel’s tricked-out salvage vehicles.
Enraged at the loss of the royal harem, Immortan Joe and his minions give chase in a convoy of even crazier-looking cars, many of them consisting of multiple chassis welded together in towering piles. Max and the melancholy white-painted War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) join Furiosa in her mission to find a safe haven for the fleeing women, at first out of an instinct for self-preservation and, later, with a sense of true solidarity. There’s a mythic land known as “the green place”—don’t all apocalyptic movie futures share such an idyll?—where Furiosa intends to deliver these five supermodel-gorgeous sex slaves, or die trying. But does the green place still exist? And even if it does, is there any hope of reaching it while being chased across the salt flats by a fleet of vehicles so freakishly elaborate that one of them includes an electric guitarist suspended from its front as a living hood ornament, shredding away as the dusty miles fly by?
Miller has said that he likes to envision all the Mad Max movies as films that could play anywhere in the world without subtitles, and Fury Road could almost function as a silent film, albeit one with a deafeningly loud soundtrack. (The score is by the Dutch music producer Junkie XL, the sound design by Christopher S. Aud.) Essentially, the story is one extended, spectacular car chase, which changes directions mid-movie to retrace its own footsteps as the stunts grow bigger and more outrageous with each passing mile. Dialogue is minimal, flinty and brusque—sometimes effectively so, but equally often not. The fleeing wives are generally indistinguishable in their catalog-ready prettiness (though Zoë Kravitz stands out as the marvelously named Toast the Knowing), and Hoult is a sweet, otherwordly presence as the once-fanatical War Boy turned love-struck peacenik.
Then there’s Theron’s grimly determined Furiosa, her head shaved, her forehead blackened with axle grease, and one arm digitally severed near the elbow and replaced by a prosthetic metal hand. Furiosa manages to come across as a real and touching character despite being given very little backstory. In fact, if the movie has a central protagonist, it’s Furiosa, not Max. Hardy’s character remains more indistinct, perhaps because he’s usually (sometimes comically) placed in positions of extreme passivity; for instance, he spends most of one long chase sequence suspended upside down from the window of a moving vehicle, his ankles secured only by Furiosa’s metal-enhanced grip. A late encounter with a pack of elderly female warriors brings the film’s feminist subtext to the fore: This is a story about rescuing beautiful damsels in distress, yes, but most of the characters doing the truly competent rescue work are women too.
Most of all, though, Mad Max: Fury Road is about the cars, the costumes, and the generally whacked-out production design (by Colin Gibson, who also worked as art director on Miller’s underrated 1998 live-action animal tale Babe: Pig in the City). The sheer variety of bizarre conveyances on display brings to mind a perverse update of Richard Scarry’s Busytown, with its cars made of pencils, pickles, and toothpaste tubes. One grandly imagined war rig has the shell of an old Volkswagen Beetle mounted whimsically to its top; another is a porcupine-like solid mass of metal spikes on wheels; yet another seems to be a Chevy Chevelle mounted on tank treads. The undercarriage of a petrol tanker is decorated with rows of rusted skulls, barnacle-like encrustations that look as if they grew there on their own. One gearshift—Furiosa’s—features a knob made from the top of a human femur.
These design details, executed with wit, imagination, and care, gave me something to appreciate even when the adrenaline from the nonstop virtuosic car stunts started to run dry around the 45-minute point. It may be the case, as Miller has claimed, that the majority of Fury Road’s effects were done without using CGI, but even so, the onslaught of action is so fast-paced and overpowering there’s little time to appreciate Miller’s analog artistry, and the feeling of being inside a video game—a sinking sensation familiar from less carefully orchestrated action movies—sometimes takes over. There will be viewers—including many with no connection at all to the old Mad Max trilogy—who will thrill to every pulse-pumping, fuel-tank-exploding second of Mad Max: Fury Road. I wasn’t one of them, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the septuagenarian Miller’s boundless energy and investment in a film franchise that’s older by a few decades than many of its most enthusiastic audience members are likely to be.
Correction, May 15, 2015: This review misspelled the character of Max Rockatansky’s last name. (Return.)