I was eagerly anticipating Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth movie in George Miller’s series. I’d enjoyed the first three films, and this fourth looked like, well, somethin’ else: Raccoon-eyed Charlize Theron, metal face masks, cars porcupined with rusty spikes, a gigantic dust storm, bald men pole-vaulting around on crashing big rigs, Tom Hardy in all his wackadoo glory – what was not to like?
I was even more delighted after reading a brief interview where Hardy described meeting Mel Gibson, the original Max: “He was bored with me. He said, ‘All right, buddy, good luck with that.’ Bless him. I made him a bracelet. And then we talked for a couple of hours about all kinds of stuff.”
Can I repeat: “Bless him. I made him a bracelet?!”
So I went and saw the movie, and was not disappointed in the least. Fury Road takes the gradually-apocalyptic degeneration of the first three Mad Max films to a whole new level: almost unrecognizable, undeniably creative. Water, instead of fuel, is the new scare resource, and the world (or at least Max’s part of it) is ruled by Immortan Joe, a completely bonkers, mask-wearing, polygamous overlord who has created an under-class of warriors to defend his Citadel and his dubious life within it.
Enter Furiosa (Theron), one of Joe’s Imperators who, on assignment driving his wives from one place to another, suddenly goes rogue, diverting her small caravan in a rash bid to reach the Green Place, the land where she was born. She hopes to save herself and, in Max-like fashion, bring a few others up along with her. Joe is seriously pissed, frantic even, and sends his war boys after her. This is the battle he has been waiting for.
Poor Max, who only wants to survive, is caught up in all this, chained to one of the war boys’ trucks and serving as a human blood bag to give an ailing fighter energy for what must be a death mission. There doesn’t seem to be much hope for any human connection in all this mess, but somehow, Max and Furiosa come to an understanding. He never even asks her why she is wearing so many damn belts.
There’s something to be said for the whole world-building fun of fantasy or science fiction. When you enter a world like the one Miller has built in Mad Max, the learning curve is so high that there’s a built-in sense of satisfaction in the viewing. It doesn’t matter that you’re learning something that is not “real;” you are quickly acquiring a vocabulary, a code, outside of the one you normally live with, and that’s the only code that applies to the story. Even more than in regular fiction, there’s more of that brain-scramble each time a new character or entity arrives on the scene: Wait, who’s this? What’s HE about? Why is he doing that and how does it fit in with what the rest of them are doing?
I’m reminded of the first time I read Jose Saramogo’s Blindness or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: that sense that I was entering something complete and entire, which would be going on without my participation but which I could pick up and join in on if I wanted to make the effort. Suspend your disbelief: yes. With Mad Max you have a slightly nutty garble of vocabulary: there’s an Immortan, his Imperators, the Citadel (not the military college in South Carolina!), warboys and war pups, human “blood bags,” and the Vulvani (sorry, but ew, and that’s coming from a woman). This isn’t quite Riddley Walker-level word-riffing, but it says from the outset that what you know only partly applies here.
Immersive fiction requires your participation: you need to be willing to meet the story halfway, or else there is no way it’s going to be for you. You’re trying on the story even more than in a straightforward narrative; will it fit? You’re saying, Does this person’s imagination jibe with mine? If it does, it’s all the more satisfying.
Fury Road opens with Max, as ever, alone, hanging around his V8 Interceptor and looking more like a grubby wild animal than a person. He’s quickly captured by some of Immortan Joe’s guys and dragged back to the Citadel to hang upside-down in a glorified fruit basket and live a twilight existence as a human blood bag for the aforementioned cancer-riddled war boy named Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult). Bald, scarred up the wazoo, with stitchy-looking lips, manic eyes and twin clavicular tumors named Barry and Larry, Nux’s sole ambition is to end his “half-life” in a blaze of glory, sacrificed for the war effort. (“What a day,” he shouts ecstatically, “what a lovely day!”) I did not expect Nux to win me over whatsoever, and in fact I rather hoped he’d die soon so that Max could go free.
Max does escape Nux (in a well-played sight gag), but Nux perseveres, and his character development was (for me) one of the pleasures of the film. It also speaks to the relevance I chose to take from the movie’s skewy but resonant moral compass. You can pick and choose your causes from Fury Road at will – environmental destruction, global warming, commodification of the body, “toxic masculinity,” go for it – but what I watched with particular interest, given this blog and the niche reading I’ve done over the past couple years, was the Spartafication of Max’s society. You’re pretty much hit over the head with this, so I’m not claiming any breathtaking insights, but I chose to take some of Miller’s directorial decisions as references to our recent wars and the people who’ve fought them.
Immortan Joe is, obviously, a profit-obsessed despot with a comical lack of human affection for anything other than his fave wife and his unborn son. He hoards the one resource that should be most readily available to all – water – and keeps an entire class of men at the ready to give their lives for him. He’s not a religious man, but his war boys are fundamentalists, and their religion is him.
As fundamentalists, then, they operate by a whole separate subset of rules and allusions that is incomprehensible even to Max, and Max is pretty freakin’ weird. There were details that I thought were just brilliant: the insinuation of chemical warfare, whether decorative or destructive; how the war boys would spray-paint their teeth silver before leaping into the fray, a way of marking themselves ready for sacrifice; their constant supply of drugs – some kind of gas pumped into their vehicles — when they needed to really tap into their kamikaze ethos.
I was reminded of reading David Bellavia’s harrowing House to House, in which Bellavia, as a young Marine in the infamous and terrible Second Battle of Fallujah, describes insurgents being kept so amped up on pure epinephrine that they could be shot seven or eight times and their hearts would keep on beating. Cornered insurgents would stab themselves with syringes of adrenaline and advance to their dooms, hoping for nothing much more than to take out some Coalition forces with them – transformed into mere bodies for the war effort. It sounds a bit like fighting zombies, except for when Bellavia is forced to kill a man with his bare hands – a man who’s been desperate enough to try to literally chew Bellavia’s balls off right there in a shot-up house – and has to confront what he has taken on this one, individual level. The tear Bellavia witnesses sliding from the insurgent’s eye (whether emotional or some physical reflex of release) came back to me while I was watching Nux on the screen. (This is not to say that I really empathized with the man Bellavia was trying to kill, but Bellavia in some way, in those final moments, did.) “It’s just a war boy at the end of his half-life,” as one of Immortan Joe’s wives says.
Am I reading too much into it by connecting Fury Road and Operation Phantom Fury? Yeah, probably – because after all, Furiosa’s “fury” is not a negative thing. But I still think Miller is making a reference to the recent wars, to a fundamentalist mindset, to sub-classes of people marked only for lives as fighters ready to die. Given Miller’s leanings, he might extend this criticism to our own side of the fight as well (as do many writers of these recent wars). And maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.
In the end, though, Fury Road is about big action, a big world, big entertainment. Don’t ruin it by over-thinking, the way I always do. Grab a cold Coke and some popcorn and just revel in all the weird, kinetic, material energy, and if you feel so inclined, clap at the end like I (and a few others in the theater) did. Because it’s huge. And it’s fun. And it’s strange as all hell.