Mad Max: Fury Road
The Long and Winding (Fury) Road
Who would have thought, twenty years ago, that people would one day be nostalgic for the apocalypse?
– George Miller
Mad Max: Fury Road was in the works for a long time. George Miller announced it as “going into production” in 2003; moreover, he related at the time that its central premise had “come to him while crossing a road” in 1987, and was subsequently fleshed out in a “hypnagogic state” (David Lynch style!) during a 1996 plane flight.
Designer and graphic novelist Brendan McCarthy, one of the two script collaborators eventually credited (dramaturg Nico Lathouris, who appears as a mechanic in the original Mad Max of 1979, came on board later), was on the job by the end of the 1990s.
Indeed, when my book The Mad Max Movies appeared in 2003, almost every person from the Australian film industry with whom I serendipitously crossed paths whispered excitedly to me about the pre-production work they were doing for Fury Road.
Then came the delays and the revisions – most dramatically, Mel Gibson’s announcement that he wouldn’t be involved (because then it would have to be retitled Fat Max!), and his replacement by Tom Hardy. The world’s ever-changing, geo-political situation wreaked havoc with location shooting plans.
And, with each passing year, the digital technology which, in Miller’s mind, finally made this fourth instalment possible, became more sophisticated – yet he also made the counter-intuitive but entirely inspired decision to integrate as much “old fashioned”, physical effects work as possible.
But there is another factor in the long gestation of Fury Road that is easy to overlook. 2003 was, after all, only two years after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Many filmmakers – Jim Jarmusch among them – were plunged into deep doubt, in that immediate aftermath period, about the prospect of making films based on violence (sensationalist or otherwise) in the wake of this social trauma.
2003 may have been far too soon to unveil an escapist fantasy of bloodthirsty road carnage and tribal warfare – even one couched in Miller’s preferred mode of timeless “modern medievalism”, a species of fantasy-drama telling the Great Tale of corrupt power, resistance, hope and redemption.
That extended passage of time from initial idea to completion and release was extremely kind to Miller: Fury Road is a masterpiece. Why does it work so well? How does it manage to abstract itself away from all the tricky real-world turbulence of our times?
Back in the mid 1970s, the Cahiers du cinéma critic-turned-director Pascal Kané proposed a model of classical narrative cinema which, when I first read about it, struck me as a little odd. Kané asserted that Hollywood films tend to offer an interplay of three central characters: a hero who is “passive, impotent, castrated”, positioned between an all-powerful villain (who also happens to be the director’s alter ego) and another, positive figure who represents the “law or super-ego”. The source of his model was, primarily, Fritz Lang’s movies, both in Germany and the USA. (1)
Whether this is true of most Hollywood movies, it turns out to be very true of the output of George Miller (which, moreover, shows many traces of Lang’s influence). Max Rockatansky, like Babe the “pig in the city” (in the 1995 and 1998 films) and Mumble in Happy Feet (2006 & 2011), is not a conventional hero. Borrowing the words of Jean-Loup Bourget (speaking of another Australian-born icon, Errol Flynn in Michael Curtiz’s films), he can be seen as “a rebel in spite of himself. Driven into apparent rebellion by his deeper loyalty to the order of things, whose legitimacy has been temporarily disturbed, his aim is ‘revolutionary’ in the etymological sense – to restore the natural, and hence just, order of things”. (2)
So here (to return to Kané’s schema) is Max – completely passive, tied up, drained for his blood, and at the mercy of every object flying through the air during the first act or “movement” of Fury Road – caught between Immortan Joe (Miller’s glee at re-casting his villainous alter ego, Hugh Keays-Bryne from the original Mad Max, is palpable), and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the political conscience (super-ego) and main-mover of the plot.
Of course, Max’s position changes, but not really all that much – he gives some crucial advice, offers his blood, utters his name, and (in a bold move on Miller’s part) disappears off into a fog for a while to perform some unseen action-heroics. But essentially, he remains, at the end, the blank slate he has been in every Mad Max film – a slate we can expect Miller will want to write on again, with another inventive “re-imagining”.
Revisiting the original Mad Max of 1979 today, one thing is strikingly obvious: almost every guy in it – except, of course, our ambiguous hero Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) – is pretty queer. And on both sides of the law, too: the extravagant, bare-chested Fifi (Roger Ward) who is police chief behaves almost as outrageously with his officers as The Toecutter (Byrne) does with his gang members. It’s a largely male, homoerotic world, with (as Susan Dermody observed at the time) “women and children targeted as the victims”. (3) And it’s the traumatic loss of those heterosexual loved ones that turns Max mad – and eternally celibate as well, it seems.
By the time of Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior, 1981), Miller and his creative collaborators had developed a theory to rationalise this all-pervasive queerness: in the kind of world he is showing, “people wouldn’t have time for recreational sex. There’s no time for a woman to have a baby, to nurse infants, etc. It’s very unlikely that a pregnant woman with a child could survive”. He did add, however, that for the second and third film in the series (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, 1985), men and women could easily switch roles, because they are “simply interchangeable”.
How different is the world-view offered by Mad Max: Fury Road! Now, having babies – preferably with a harem of carefully groomed supermodel-types, and preferably male babies – is the main thing on the mind of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne back with a vengeance). This classical dream of life-giving fertility and patriarchal lineage is contrasted, with grotesque splendour, to every kind of physical deformity and morbid death-fanaticism – all the way to a spectacularly gruesome scene of a Caesarean still-birth.
In the eyes of many Mad Max fans, the second in the series remains the classic, with Fury Road already fast claiming its status as second best, very near to the top. (Myself, I believe this fourth may be the best, with the first as its prime competition – but remember, we are now comparing a little B film made for 380 thousand dollars with a super-blockbuster costing an estimated 150 million.) Fury Road certainly returns us, as co-writer Brendan McCarthy promised, to the goldmine of an extended chase, a world locked in conflict, and the “raw, kinetic assault” of “manic Mad Max mayhem”. (4)
But, unexpectedly, Fury Road also obliges us to look back, with more sympathetic attention, to Beyond Thunderdome, the most maligned of the pack. If Miller’s latest triumph fulfils everything he originally wanted to do in Mad Max 2 – now with the help of the most advanced digital technologies, which he integrates and coheres with awesome skill – it also revisits the loftier ambitions of Thunderdome. For that was (in Ross Gibson’s words) an “incontrovertibly mythic” project – a folly, to many – about the grand theme of Civilisation: its tyrannical rise, bloody fall, and hopeful reform. (5) Now, however, the drama is most crucially concentrated in its strong, female characters.
Fury Road eschews any reflective dialogue or contemplative symbolism (of the kind that marred Thunderdome), and channels everything into its thrilling journey away from, then back to, the Citadel.
It achieves what Miller has long dreamed of: to make a film set nowhere, only in the cinema-land of our dreams, for circulation in the world’s globalised “hyperculture”. (And how many “event films” these days so successfully launch themselves in so many countries – plus Cannes – on virtually the same day everywhere?) Even Miller’s homeland of Australia seems a distant memory along this Fury Road.
Yet, like Bong Joon-ho’s underrated Snowpiercer (another film closely allied with comic-book style), Fury Road (we could rename it Sandpiercer) is a movie that shakes us not only with its shocks and speed and cinematic inventiveness, but also with its grand, Metropolis-like vision of an entre society teetering on the edge of an abyss. It’s a therapeutic apocalypse.
Mad Max: Fury Road won the FIPRESCI (international film critics association) prize as the best and most notable film of 2015, and I was asked to publicly justify that decision. Speaking as only one of the illustrious 493 voters, I’ll tell you why.
Because it represents the resurgence of a kind of a film we love, and always (publicly or secretly) long for: a completely personal, brave, achieved and inventive auteur film that is also, at the same time, immensely popular with a vast audience. And it does this to an extent that Avatar, Inception and all the rest (whatever else we can value in them) do not.
The event of Fury Road activates a dormant cinephilic wish. Don’t we crave to go back in time, to the 1950s – but staying just as enlightened as we are now – and be able to give FIPRESCI (or similar) awards to Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Preminger for their populist masterpieces? You may complain: George Miller is not yet Ford or Hawks! But he is at the level of Aldrich, Walsh, Siegel, Fuller. To twist that Tina Turner theme song from Beyond Thunderdome: we do need another hero!
1. I quote George Lellis’ summary of Kané in “A Year of Film Study in Paris”, Screen, Vol. 16 No. 4 (Winter 1975/1976), p. 135.
2. See Curtiz dossier in Positif, no. 635 (January 2014).
3. Susan Dermody, “Action and Adventure”, in Scott Murray (ed.), The New Australian Cinema (Melbourne: Nelson, 1980), pp. 81-93.
4. See my The Mad Max Movies (Sydney: Currency Press, 2003).
5. Ross Gibson, “Yondering”, Art & Text, no. 19 (October-December 1985); reprinted in his essay collection South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992).
© Adrian Martin May/September 2015