The Summer Movie Season may have just begun, but with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road, the exhilarating fourth installment in George Miller’s apocalyptic franchise, the remaining blockbusters might as well go home and try again next year. It’s going to be pretty hard to top this brilliantly orchestrated cavalcade of twisted metal, which is not just a wildly entertaining action flick, but an ingenious piece of filmmaking; a carnivalesque thrill ride down the highways of Hell that’s more meticulously crafted than just about any mainstream motion picture in recent memory.
Thirty years have passed since the release of the third film, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and while some of the more recent resurrections of cinematic franchises have come off as hollow, uninspired cash grabs (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, anyone?), Fury Road not only rivals the quality of the first two movies, it might be the crowning achievement of Miller’s career. Better yet, even if you haven’t seen any of the previous entries featuring the iconic Road Warrior, this film stands alone as a singular artistic achievement. (It also happens to be much more of a reboot than a sequel.)
Earth has been obliterated into a desert wasteland, where the last remaining members of humanity are at the hands of the tyrannous Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a grotesque warlord who has gained control of the planet’s water supply and keeps it stored within his fortress known as The Citadel. Tom Hardy takes over for Mel Gibson this time around as the titular Max, a rogue ex-cop driven to the brinks of insanity by the ghosts of his past, but is still propelled by one simple motive: survive. Unfortunately, within the first few minutes, our hero is captured by Immortan Joe’s demented gang of goons and reduced to a human blood bag for one of his ailing War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Despite being the namesake of the series, Max isn’t really the true protagonist of this film. In fact, for a majority of the first half-hour or so, he’s helplessly chained up, and the story centers around the rebellious Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-armed driver of a gargantuan War Rig truck that makes trips to the nearby Gas Town for shipments of, you guessed it, ‘guzzoline!’ However, during this latest run for goods, Immortan Joe becomes outraged when he discovers that Furiosa has rescued his five imprisoned ‘wives’ (Courtney Eaton, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz and Abbey Lee), detouring along her usual excursion to transport them to a safe location referred to as ‘The Green Place.’ And with that set-up in play, the film basically evolves into one sustained, masterfully choreographed chase sequence that’s so kookoo-bananas it makes Furious 7 look like a round of bumper cars.
Any filmmaker can fill the frame with car crashes and explosions, but what makes Fury Road so electrifying is the Miller’s tight sense of control over the carnage. The film is edited with such keen precision, perfectly splicing together swooping crane shots, close-ups, and pans across the horizon of the barren wastelands. The frame-rate of certain shots are also occasionally sped up or slowed down to provide a visceral impact for the viewer amidst the collisions, perfectly coinciding with the film’s hyperkinetic style. Unlike Michael Bay’s wretched Transformers films, for example, where it’s impossible to keep track of who’s fighting who and where the characters are in relation to one another amidst the action, Miller’s accomplished a tricky balancing act where he’s found a way to visualize the vehicular onslaughts in a coherent fashion without ever sacrificing a shred of the film’s exuberant lunacy.
The images that Miller conjures up here are so outrageously, gorgeously absurd, with an eclectic assemblage of characters you’d more expect to see in a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film than a big-budget Hollywood production. A mutant-like figure rides atop a vehicle comprised of amplifiers, armed with an electric guitar that spews flames into the sky as his riffs echo throughout the desert for our protagonists. Members of Cirque de Solei portray masked antagonists who swing from tall, slender poles throwing bombs onto the various cars. Even the one CGI-heavy set-piece in a film comprised mainly of practical stunt work, in which our cast of characters drive straight into the middle of an infernal sandstorm, is so extravagantly visualized and intense that you can’t help but squeeze your armrests with sweaty palms.
When examined as a piece of technical bravura alone, Fury Road is an outstanding achievement, but what’s equally invigorating to me is its empowering of female characters. This isn’t so much Max’s story as it is Furiosa’s; a woman who’s fighting back against a society dominated by a male antagonist who objectifies her gender for the sole purposes of ‘breeding’ and harvesting breast milk. Theron not only gives a phenomenal performance as the most badass action heroine in years, she’s legitimately the heart and soul of the film, with the ability to convey pathos merely through a look in her eyes. She and the rest of her female companions are never sexualized or demoted to love interests for their male counterparts; they’re instead given their own paths to follow, and end up kicking as much ass as possible in their battle against oppression.
In an Age of Ultron where a majority of summer blockbusters are rudimentary, repetitive, and lack strong female characters (see what I did there?), Mad Max: Fury Road is something of a revelation. It’s an idiosyncratic cinematic vision unlike anything so far this year, roaring past the suspected clichés of its genre that are hoping to hitch a ride in favor of providing viewers with a no-holds-barred action bonanza with brains behind the wheel.
Director: George Miller
Release Date: May 15, 2015
Film Length: 120 minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures