The Mad Max franchise’s lasting legacy is, first and foremost, one of post-apocalyptic scenario and style—not to mention vehicular insanity pulled off without CGI gimmickry. Australian auteur George Miller’s seminal series has paved the way for the past 30 years’ worth of after-the-fallout sci-fi, imagining a world of dust and grime, of chaos and mayhem, in which roving packs of animalistic marauders roam the land scavenging for necessities and raping and pillaging along their malicious way. Be it direct descendants like Neil Marshall’s 2008 Doomsday, or a TV show like AMC’s The Walking Dead, the notion of humanity fending for itself in a lawless post-civilized land has its roots in Miller’s Mad Max. That’s also true of the revved-up action of so many modern car-chase films, including the Fast & Furious blockbusters, although those hits employ a level of digital effects for which Miller has no use, a fact reconfirmed by the practical stunts of his latest opus, the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road.
And yet if the Mad Max films are best known for their aesthetics and attitude (and for making Mel Gibson a superstar), their lasting power is also due to something else: their potent allegorical topicality, which on the basis of this Friday’s newest installment and its hot-button concerns, continues to be the gasoline that really fuels the franchise.
When the original Mad Max burst onto the cinematic scene in 1979, its vision of a dystopian future was a clear byproduct of its own culture and era. George Miller’s tale concerns cop Max Rockatansky (a fresh-faced Mel Gibson, in his first lead role), who patrols suburban Australian streets—as well as those that stretch into the vast, forbidding Outback—that have been taken over by gangs of criminals driven by a hunger for anarchy and a thirst for oil for their roadsters and motorcycles. In its white-knuckle fetishization of blacktop carnage, Miller’s directorial debut taps into his native country’s then-prevalent car culture. But more universally, it’s portrait of a forthcoming world starving for the very energy—oil—that powers its infrastructure helped the film resonate on a grander scale, in that such a premise stemmed directly from the global gasoline calamity that had taken place only a few years earlier.
The 1973 oil crisis came about when OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) chose to punish the U.S. (and many Western allies) for their support of Israel by instituting a petrol embargo—a decision that led to vast shortages and, famously, serpentine lines of cars waiting for a few drops of precious fuel at nationwide refill stations. A stark reminder of not only our dependence on oil, but of how that dependence makes our society vulnerable in the event of political disputes, Mad Max preys upon fears that we might be one geopolitical disagreement away from calamity and ruin. And moreover, that in such a situation, it wouldn’t necessarily be the fittest who survived, but those who were able to acquire, or had access to, the gasoline that could provide them with the means to stay alive.
In that framework—also involving the larger concept that oil was a fundamentally exhaustible commodity which would eventually run out—Mad Max’s sci-fi wasn’t just thrilling and haunting because of its brutal highway crashes and rugged violence, but because it felt ripped from our own collective nightmares. When the director chose to return to this material, on a more Hollywood budget, with 1981’s The Road Warrior, he dug even more deeply into those phobias. Miller’s sequel opens with a newsreel-y recap of the prior film that, in effect, recontextualizes that earlier story as having taken place in an oil-starved post-apocalyptic world, thus setting the stage for a new adventure about Max competing with hordes of face-painted, spike-adorned psychos for the barren Outback’s last gallons of gasoline.
Even more than its predecessor, The Road Warrior plays as a terrifying what-if scenario about oil dependency, one in which Max agrees to help defend, and protect, a group of survivors and their precious oil pump from rampaging villains led by the face-masked Lord Humongous. Recasting Max as a reluctant Western-archetype hero, Miller’s follow-up operates like an ominous fable about how our continuing need for oil threatens to send us back to a more primitive age. Straddling the line between the past and the present, all while providing a slew of stunning images and set pieces the likes of which had rarely been seen before, it remains a classic of adrenalized allegorical sci-fi.
While the series’ third entry, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, boasts its own politicized ideas about capitalist enterprise and have-vs.-have-nots dynamics, its devolution into Peter Pan-style fiction renders it a moderately interesting misfire at best.
The same, however, cannot be said of Mad Max: Fury Road.
With his latest, the 70-years-young Miller confirms that he’s the undisputed maestro of auto-lunacy, delivering what amounts to a largely uninterrupted two-hour chase sequence full of more mind-boggling, startlingly visceral car craziness than just about any film in history. Directed with a precision and clarity that’s astounding, it’s a summer spectacle that truly must be seen to be believed—and to see it, one realizes that just as Miller has not lost his touch for road rage, so too has he not lost his interest in pressing political commentary.
Fury Road commences with news report soundbites about oil shortages blaring over its opening credits, thus firmly situating the film in familiar territory. Nonetheless, this fourth entry is ultimately less about shortages of oil than water, a rare element hungrily craved by the dusty sand people who live at the Citadel, a desert compound where the terrifying teeth-masked leader King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Mad Max’s original villain Toecutter), bestows occasional showers of H2O on his subjects from his personal reservoir. Such imagery—of dehydrated masses fighting for a few drops of aqua from those who control its dispensation—speaks so potently to California’s current, ongoing water-scarcity emergency that it immediately configures the proceedings as a subtle contemporary parable about the limits of natural resources, and the way in which a combination of environmental factors and human folly can create a drought situation of dire life-and-death proportions.
Yet even more than those undercurrents, Fury Road ultimately bolsters its gonzo vehicular warfare by turning its story into an all-too-relevant treatise on reproductive rights. Miller’s story renders Max (now played by the fearsome Tom Hardy) as something of a secondary character, with the focus more squarely on Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a Citadel warrior with a mechanical left hand who tries to secretly shepherd King Immortan Joe’s subjugated brides—one of whom (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is very pregnant with his coveted child—to an idyllic “green” safe haven. Her mission is one of rescuing female prisoners from their male owners, and in doing so, to re-imbue them with agency over their own lives and bodies. It’s a mission that draws the ire of King Immortan Joe, a paternalistic fiend whose interest in enslaving women as veritable baby-making cattle (and, in the case of his other captives, milk-producing cows) is presented as the future’s true evil, which must be combatted by both women and all those (including Max) who believe in female sovereignty of both a political and corporeal nature. He refers to them as “my property,” while their mantra is, “We are not things.”
Consequently, Fury Road functions on a distinctly feminist wavelength, championing feminine revolt against a society that would place control of reproductive rights in the hands of tyrannical men. And in the process, it turns its real heroine, Theron’s icon-in-the-making Imperator Furiosa, into the embodiment of the politically charged spirit that, decades later, continues to define Miller’s incisive Mad Max saga.