If there’s a word that sums up Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s ‘orgiastic’. Grandiose and intimate, George Miller’s return to the post-apocalyptic world of Max Rockatansky (here played by Tom Hardy) feels more eschatological than before. Where his original trilogy, made between 1979 and 1985, was designed in response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, Fury Road reframes itself around a different precious commodity which threatens to both envelop and abandon us: water. Fury Road is not a remake or a reboot – if anything, it’s a resurrection. It resituates us within the far-flung Australian deathscape Max roams, this time revolving around The Citadel, a massive structure built into rock housing Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his legion of chalk-faced War Boys. Beneath him, a populace begs for access to his prized water supply, which in true despotic style, he brutally withholds from the people given no choice but to gravitate towards him.
In the film’s pre-credit sequence – a prologue of sorts – Miller reintroduces us to Max as a figure and an icon. A lone wolf and an ex-cop, Max has long been defined as a pop cultural figure by his reticence and stoicism. Fury Road begins by showing us what happens when his nomenclative Madness is caged. Plagued by memories of his failure to protect his wife and young daughter, he finds himself imprisoned the in the Immortan’s kingdom. He hangs upside down with a metal mask covering his face – a vampire bat with a severe case of vocational irony – functioning as a ‘blood bag’ for ambitious War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Max’s inevitable escape from these circumstances, after a failed attempt early in the film, comes about thanks to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Furiosa is the driver of the Immortan’s hulking war rig, in which she transports the franchise’s previously most-treasured resource – petrol – from nearby Gas Town. Fuel is still currency in Fury Road, and it’s just as frivolously expended in pursuit of more, as it was in the original films. But Furiosa has repurposed her fated trip, which coincides with Nux’s suicidal aspirations and Max’s bid for redemption, to carry a different kind of cargo.
The five stowaways who emerge from the war rig were Immortan Joe’s concubines; captive women used as ‘breeders’, raped and abused. Their good health means they can produce unafflicted children – a rarity in a world wracked by scarcity and suffering – as opposed to the toxic War Boys, who sap the blood and energy of others in order to stave off a pestilent disease which causes boils, weakness and ultimately death.
It’s how we’re introduced to the Five Wives, as they’re known, which is so important. After a tremendous, cosmic dust storm, Max rounds the corner from behind the War Rig to find the women dressed in rags, which are more bandage than brassiere, using water from the truck to clean themselves. It’s a prototypical damsel in distress fantasy, until Miller and editor Margaret Sixel pointedly cut to a close-up of one of the women cutting off a chastity belt which has spiked teeth embedded over the crotch. In that shot, fantasy becomes reality, no matter how heightened the latter may be.
Because Miller is a highly visual storyteller – the Fury Road script was reverse-engineered from storyboards and ideas Miller conceived with the help of Nico Lathouris and cult comic artist Brendan McCarthy – the film demands an attentive eye. A great deal of the characterisation of Max, Furiosa, Nux and the Fives Wives is accomplished wordlessly; after Max happens upon the War Rig, he and Furiosa hold a terse exchange that steadily devolves into a fistfight. Miller and cinematographer John Seale have found grace and fluidity in the maelstrom and it makes all the difference to these scenes where action and narrative go hand-in-hand.
Unlike conventional blockbuster fare, Fury Road feels little imperative to spoon-feed the audience. Its strength is its ability to be weird and not need to spend the next chunk of a reel ensuring the viewer knows the full who, what, when, where and why of its oddest flights of fancy. Colin Gibson’s production design is richly detailed, elegantly constructing the film’s universe in as many small gestures as grand ones, including the grandest: the mind-searing wall of truck-mounted amps where The Doof Warrior (iOTA) plays his flame-throwing, double-neck guitar. Because what could produce a better battle cry for a psychotic desert tyrant?
In these moments, Fury Road becomes a glorious metal surrealist fantasia, but it’s rooted in very real concerns. Furiosa’s connection to the Five Wives – The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntingon-Whitely), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) – is as spiritual as it is empathetic, and as the film progresses, they, as well as Max and Nux emerge from the crucible of their ongoing death race bonded by a shared history of trauma.
Fury Road is heavier on atmosphere and texture than it is on narrative beats, and as such it will inevitably dodge complaints of plotlessness and mindlessness. The modern blockbuster – unlike superior examples such as Furious 7 – teeters under the weight of origin stories, concurrent and overlapping conspiracies, and a dire need to constantly self-critique the nobility of its causes. If there’s a recent film Fury Road feels connected to, it’s Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, a film more about finding a centre in chaos than finding its source and trying to tamp it out. Edwards’ picture was similarly compositional, more semiotic than superficial; he and Miller display a mindfulness that has been steadily eked out of studio tentpoles by brand-aware homogenisation.
But if Godzilla was the monster mash equivalent of a tasteful Annie Leibovitz nude, Fury Road is a mid-production porn still from an all-kink-inclusive fetish website – lubed up, leather-clad and languishing in bodily fluids. It’s back-of-the-skull, groin-grabbing entertainment, a thrumming joyride to a destination unknown – and if it ends up at oblivion, then the devil may care. Even its quieter moments – of which there are only a few – vibrate with the adrenaline it kicks into your system as you watch. The score, by musician Junkie XL, reaches a height of epic extravagance that rivals that of Howard Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
That it exists at all feels like a minor miracle. So far adrift in time from the preceding films and having weathered delays and stop-start production, Mad Max: Fury Road arrives to show everyone how it’s done. It’s simply a glorious cinematic experience, and an equalising one too; the film features the most women actively engaged in action sequences in a blockbuster in as long as this reviewer can remember. Theron’s performance is powerfully composed, to the point where her path to redemption elicits a deep-veined emotional payoff. Hardy, stepping in the role since Mel Gibson aged out of it and into anti-Semitism, is taciturn and wary – his Max barely speaks, but his actions are an anthology of intent and implication. Fury Road is sumptuously colourful and giddily propulsive, a slice of sui generis lunacy as raucous as it is intoxicating.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.