not in our stars, but in ourselves
20/52: A movie that was filmed* this year
You know that moment, in movies and books, when the lead character – who’s been looking for the man/woman of their dreams, to no avail – suddenly locks eyes with The One, and, in a glorious coup de foudre, feels that their entire life has been leading up to this person, and to building a new universe with and around them? Reader, that is how I felt as soon as Mad Max: Fury Road began. The conviction deepened throughout each passing minute. This is the action movie I’ve wanted all my life! This is what I’ve been waiting for! This batshit-crazy postapocalyptic summer blockbuster is everything I’d hoped it would be, and much more.
In a desert wasteland – all that’s left after assorted wars for resources and mutually assured nuclear destruction – Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is doing his best to survive not only a hostile environment, but hostile fellow humans (to say nothing of the post-traumatic stress-induced flashbacks he experiences of the people he wasn’t able to save along with himself). He’s captured and brought to the Citadel, a sort of city-state presided over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and protected by Joe’s War Boys. They patrol what’s left of the world in elaborately souped-up cars and dirt bikes, high on promises of Valhalla as well as spray paint. Max is used as a “blood bag”: since he’s blood type O, the universal donor, he’s hooked up in a cage upside down to provide blood to ailing War Boys. Meanwhile, we see Joe in action: despite the fact that the Citadel has lush gardens, food, and water, he presides over the starving and diseased people of the Citadel like a cross between the Old Testament God and the Wizard of Oz. He lets them have a trickle of water from time to time, to prove that he can – but that’s it. Watching all of this coolly from her war rig is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She’s going to lead a convoy – so Joe and the rest of them think – to Gastown a few miles away. When she’s driven far enough away to ensure that Joe and his War Boys will have a hard time catching up to her, she turns east into “hostile territory” (how can anyone tell the difference?), using the other War Boys in her convoy to defeat (and die at the hands/cars of) assorted scavengers in the outback. Joe unleashes hell when he realizes what she’s done: she’s taken five of his “brides” – which is to say, five young women he keeps locked in a cell, where he rapes them in hopes of fathering a male heir – to what she hopes will be a life of relative peace and autonomy. He leads an army of his War Boys in pursuit. This includes Max, fixed to the front of a car as a figurehead, while Max’s blood keeps sickly War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) alive long enough to get to Valhalla. In the course of some fierce fighting, Max and Furiosa realize that their aims – freedom, whatever it means, for Max; redemption for Furiosa – interlock in some mutually beneficial (and, thanks to George Miller’s evident disdain for tired old clichés, never romantic) ways.
I’ll get to the parts of Mad Max that made me just about stand in my seat and cheer momentarily. First of all, however, I must tell you all that this movie is an absolute masterpiece of action set pieces, in execution and in editing. You may have heard by now that all of the cars and bikes in Mad Max were real: nothing generated by CGI. This sounds impressive. It looks absolutely astonishing. My boyfriend said that Mad Max basically consists of three sequences that could have been the (utterly thrilling) climax of any other movie – and he’s right. Consider that they did all of this with real cars, real bikes, real people, and only a little bit of digital retouching (to remove cables and harnesses and the like, for the most part) – and the aptly named furious pace of the chase sequences becomes a marvel of movie-making. It’s not just spectacle for the sake of spectacle, however, even if that would have been fine by me: these wild and crazy chases advance not only the plot but the character development of Furiosa, Max, and Nux (who turns out to be much more sympathetic than he probably believed himself to be). Think about some of your favorite action movies. For me, they’re things like Indiana Jones and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. As impressive as the big, whizz-bang sequences may be, they’re usually…well, not superfluous, but they’re spectacular, and that’s sort of it. That’s fine. Mad Max is interested in doing a little bit more than your average popcorn flick, however – and I couldn’t be happier.
Yes, that brings me to the cheering: this is an honest-to-god feminist manifesto. I notice that many (not all! Brian Tallerico’s review is very good) of the male reviewers I’ve read so far – even those who loved the film – tend to miss just how revolutionary and brilliant this movie is for women. The female reviewers, on the other hand, get it. We know. We know how extraordinary it is to center an entire film around a stone-cold badass like Furiosa. She’s not a badass because she’s just a dude with tits, as too many action movie “badass” women seem to be. She’s a badass because she’s smart, she’s strong, she works hard to protect people she cares about – and she happens to be one hell of a driver/weapons expert/hand-to-hand combatant. We know, too, how remarkably rare it is for a mainstream movie not only to point out how utterly destructive the patriarchy is for almost everyone except a teensy percentage of men, but how much better it would be for everyone if a more, shall we say, matriarchal world order existed. That last point gets into some spoilers, so I’ll drop it for now, but let’s talk about how terrible the patriarchy is!
For one thing, people are dying of thirst and hunger in the Citadel, all while clinging desperately to the one thing they have: Immortan Joe, their tyrannical cult leader. He’s just like every other power-mad dictator in history. Even though he’s an absolute ruler, he is, as usual, supremely paranoid and vindictive. Does it ever occur to men that if they didn’t rule like that, they perhaps might not need to fear constant reprisals from their own people? It certainly doesn’t occur to Joe. We also see that, contrary to his Wizard of Oz theatrics, all intended to present him as a fearsome warrior, he’s actually a sick old man – covered with boils and constantly hooked up to a respirator. What’s that about rot starting at the head? It all reminded me – decidedly not a student of classics, but passingly familiar with some of the more popular stories and tropes – of the rotten old Roman emperors, who would bewig themselves and powder themselves and prop themselves up to inspire awe in their people and terror in their enemies, even if they were actually dying of syphilis. (Indeed, Joe’s army of War Boys is led at the front by a car manned by “Doof Warriors”: an insistently pounding percussion section and a blind guitar-playing slave, chained to the car and occasionally shooting flames from each of the two necks of his instrument. If this isn’t Roman-style pageantry in some near-future postapocalyptic state, then I don’t know what is.)
For another thing, beyond Joe, we see the effects of a toxic patriarchy on that other half of humanity: the women. The men might get a little bit of power, or at least the comforting belief that they’ll die and go to Valhalla, but there’s no redemption for the women in the Citadel under Joe’s reign of terror. The attractive enough women are imprisoned as “breeders” – the term for them when Joe isn’t feeling sentimental and referring to them as his “brides”. That’s right: they’re literally reduced to their biological function as baby-makers. When they’re younger, possibly before they become pregnant, they’re scrawny little waifs. When they get older, after they’ve had a pregnancy or two (possibly failed pregnancies, considering Joe’s compulsion to issue an heir), they’re kept fat and immobile, constantly pumping “mother’s milk” for Joe and his inner circle of most-trusted War Boys. In both cases, they’re deprived of personhood. This is the logical conclusion of every men’s rights activist’s argument: a world in which beautiful, scantily clad women are kept in a rape dungeon until they get too old and fat for the MRAs to want them anymore. You probably heard, too, about MRAs’ anger stemming from Fury Road‘s very existence. As we’ve discussed: no one likes to be told that they fucking suck and are wrong about everything.
This is, in short, the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. I forget who, but some critic or other said that if Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t the movie of the year, then it’s going to be a hell of a year for movies. It’s almost embarrassing how much better it is than other action movies of a similar style and genre. And boy howdy, does it do laps around that piddling Avengers movie. Fury Road is to Age of Ultron as Mozart is to Salieri: there’s just no contest. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s revolutionary – and it’s about as much fun as you can legally have in a theatre.
*Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m being disingenuous to include this as a film made in 2015. The thing is, the only movies that have been shooting this year that are likewise slated to come out later this year all look extremely uninteresting. Cut me some slack, Jack.