Mad Max: Fury Road shows us how blockbuster movies can work, stripped of all the usual bullshit. The story races onward, unfattened by weightless videogame CGI or Campbell-inspired plot lard. There is violence, insanity and the baking post-apocalyptic Australian desert. There is no romance, no rape, and no reason to look away. It is fast, fun and weird.
It clocks in under two hours and sticks with you all the way. Tom Hardy's is a more sympathetic, actoring Max. Charlize Theron is so at home in close-cropped Imperator Furiosa that there is never the slightest question about the authenticity of her character. These two badasses are both damaged before the movie's timeframe begins, in symbolically different ways, but they come together to orbit its surprising moral center, a constellation of escaped slave girls in tow.
Warlord Immortan Joe is cruel and magnificent, easily the most deranged nutter yet to grace the Mad Max bestiary. And the camera sympathizes with everyone, even him, without dipping into pathos or excusing shortcomings. This film, to which so many expectations could apply, just doesn't give a fuck about anything beyond its own way of seeing things.
In Australia decades hence, oil wars leave the world stripped of order and prosperity, but not quite of hope. Loner Max, beset by troubling memories of his family, drifts too close to Joe's territory and is captured. Put to use as a ritual blood donor, Max ends up a literal figurehead, mounted upon a buggy to "nourish" its driver, Nux, an eager but particularly sickly member of Immortan Joe's brigade of hairless warboys.
Joe rules his community from behind a terrifying horse-teeth mask (concealing his respirator), crude legends of his immortality, and the safety of an industry-encrusted mesa. Introduced a la Harkonnen under the care of doctors and minions, he collects young, beautiful slave "wives" to incubate a cadre of offspring. Furiosa, a trusted lieutenant, is tasked with an important supply mission to a nearby community, but uses the opportunity to free the wives and make a bid for freedom. Spotted too soon, she is pursued by Joe and his allies. Nux, and therefore Max, joins the war party. Amid dust, blood and fire, Max and Furiosa find themselves dangerously at odds, but circumstances make them aware of shared aims—and brings them together as the temporary parents of five vulnerable but hardened young women.
They set out for a "green place" that may well be mythical or misremembered, and their journey is a relentless pursuit yarn from beginning to end; even darkness and mud can't stop the action. The pace is lightened only by symbolic reversals and returns, and the weird Miller-world moments of familiar charm (an old lady's seed collection, Joe's sons' concern about "dad", and the bickering, fraternal perversity of Club Warlord) that sustain and subvert the nihilism surrounding it all.
Fury Road's looks embody and embellish Miller's minimal apocalypse. War parties communicate using colorful flares, erupting like desert flowers over the sand. Settlements, built around control of vestigial infrastructure, wink at one another using elaborate arrays of mirrors and optics. Bizarre cult religions—spray your face with Krylon, become chromed in the afterlife!—inspire the childlike warboys. It is all lost on common folk, controlled not by Immortan Joe's inane mythology but the water he magnanimously dumps upon them.
Aside from a nightmarish sandstorm scene, where Fury Road briefly loses its bearings, the film is sparing with CGI effects. The world's weights and measures are our world's weights and measures, and a lot of beautiful customized vehicles (and, surely, stuntmen) were harmed in its creation. When convoys of armed, spiky death-mobiles converge on and surround a redlining target, it all seems there, and it makes a huge difference to the film's illusion of space and speed.
And that's more or less it: enjoy the ride! Notable for being absent are things we wouldn't even notice were we not programmed to expect them served up with the old Hollywood ultraviolence: think impossible acrobatics, sad villain backstories, and female objectification. Especially in the latter case, you won't miss these things, unless they were the things you came to see.
That's not even to agree that Fury Road is the feminist empowerment fantasy that so terrifies the men-dorks of the manosphere (even if, in its portrayals and performances, it contains more female agency than just about every prior post-apocalyptic movie put together). This is simply what happens when vanquishing irony is applied to sexist tropes that have outstayed their welcome. Its achievements in that regard will eventually be hard to spot, and it'll still be a great film.
Even the suggestion of a romantic interest between two supporting characters is, more truthfully, maternal and necessary—a moment of emotional growth seized by adolescents infantilized by Immortan Joe's insanity. It's amazing that this relentless action movie not only bothers with this sort of thing, but presents it both as an essential manipulation (Nux is dangerous and must be turned) and the spiritual truth of the moment. It's like Robocop shooting at baby food or Ripley returning into the Nostromo to fetch the cat: you're allowed to find it risible, but they did it all the same and a lot of people will like it more for it.
R-rated in the US, Fury Road may be watched by unaccompanied teens in the UK, and I think the certifiers there got it right. The violence, while relentless, isn't dwelled on in torture-porn fashion and is often craftily obscured. To have seen this as a kid would have made my decade.