This review contains spoilers.
Even after two viewings, I feel as though I've only scratched the surface of Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller's action fantasy is astonishingly dense for a big-budget spectacle, not only in its imagery and ideas but in the complex interplay between them (Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips has aptly likened the movie to a symphony). In a sense Fury Road has been gestating since the late 1970s, when Miller first envisioned the character of Mad Max and the nightmarish future Australia he inhabits. The movie builds upon motifs from Miller's original trilogy with Mel Gibson—Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)—though it's not a sequel but a complete reimagining of the world in those films. Miller began planning this fourth installment as far back as 2001 and claims to have generated so much material during the unusually long preproduction phase that he already has a couple more stories ready to go.
Because of this long history (not to mention Miller's recent experience directing the children's animation Happy Feet and its sequel), every shot bustles with imaginative detail—the world of the film feels authentically lived in. Miller reportedly instructed his actors to devise a history for every prop they used, and many of those props appear to have been crafted by hand. Most of the film takes place over a few days, and much of the action consists of extended chase sequences (indeed Miller originally devised the film as one continuous chase). The story of Fury Road is so simple and the details are so engrossing that one can easily lose track of the characters and just get lost in the design. In this regard it recalls another audacious big-budget fantasy, Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967), for which the director constructed elaborate and highly detailed sets of a futuristic Paris.
Like the previous two Mad Max movies, Fury Road takes place in a postapocalyptic world of scarce natural resources. A tyrant named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the wicked Toe Cutter in the original Mad Max) has commandeered Australia's last remaining source of freshwater and uses this power to rule pharaohlike over the Citadel, a mountain community that's grown up around the water supply. In addition to hoarding most of the water for himself and overseeing an army that protects his interests, Joe keeps several wives in captivity to bear his children. The story kicks into gear when Joe's lieutenant, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), liberates the women and, fleeing Joe's soldiers, sets off with them across the desert to a fabled all-female utopia known as the Green Place.
Joe's soldiers—a race of bald-headed, white-painted grease monkeys known as the War Boys—are one of the movie's most ingenious innovations. Brainwashed into devoting their entire lives to the army, the War Boys power Joe's fleet of military vehicles literally with their own blood—in this future hell, bodily fluids are used interchangeably with gasoline. (This detail suggests a comic literalizing of the protest slogan "No blood for oil.") When we meet Max (Tom Hardy, taking over for Mel Gibson), he's in the process of getting captured by a band of War Boys, who plan to convert him into a human gas tank. He ends up powering a vehicle that's driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a dogmatic young man who wants nothing more than to die in battle for Joe. After Nux and Max get separated from the army, they come to assist Furiosa and the women, gradually recognizing the women as worthy peers.
Miller and cowriters Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris signal the end of Joe's reign—and the arrival of a more democratic society—in how they structure the narrative of Fury Road. For most of the movie's first half, Miller divides one's attention evenly between Max and Furiosa; the chase scenes in this portion are staged so that one worries about the survival of a single character (or in some cases, a single vehicle) being pursued by a murderous horde. After the men and women join forces, however, Miller and his writers expand their focus so that one cares about the survival of the entire group. The chase scenes in the movie's second half find the heroes not just fleeing, but combining their wits in order to outsmart their enemies. These sequences are more intricately plotted, evoking the visual intricacy of the Citadel.
Max and Nux learning to collaborate with the women is presented as such a victory that the group's triumph over Immortan Joe would feel like an afterthought if Miller didn't stage the final battle so spectacularly. At the beginning of Fury Road, Max is little more than an animal, a violent nomad struggling to endure amidst scavengers and War Boys. The character tells us in voice-over that he went mad after his wife and children were killed, and that his mind is too addled to comprehend anything greater than his immediate survival. In learning to work with others, Max reclaims his humanity—while Nux, who's never known anything besides war and death, discovers his. Played by Hoult as an impressionable, even cheery little boy, Nux is the heart of Fury Road, which improbably combines rousing action and fairy-tale idealism with moving results.
If Nux is the heart of the movie, then Furiosa is its soul, a hard-charging but sympathetic warrior committed to finding a better world. One of the big surprises of Fury Road, however, is that there is no better world to be found. The Green Place turns out to be nothing more than a myth, so Max convinces the group to journey back to the Citadel, overthrow Immortan Joe, and establish a more humane system of government. By the time the characters get back to this marvel of production design, you might be glad they've returned, since you have another chance to take in all the incredible-looking stuff. (I'm most partial to the band of drummers who play for Joe on rotating platforms hundreds of feet off the ground.) The intricate spectacle of the Citadel exists not for its own sake but for its deep thematic significance. The more invested you feel in Miller's fantasy world—or, better yet, our own real one—the more you want to see it saved from despots and violence. v