From 1979 to 1985, Australian director George Miller wrote and directed three films set in a post apocalyptic wasteland, the original Mad Max films featuring Mel Gibson as the loner anti-hero in a brutal Australian landscape where roving gangs kill others for as little as a tank of gasoline. After Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Miller had a hand in writing, producing, or directing a diverse set of projects, including Dead Calm, Babe, Babe Pig In The City, Happy Feet, Happy Feet 2, Lorenzo’s Oil, and The Witches Of Eastwick. The notion of making a fourth film in the Mad Max franchise dates back to 1998, and is now out in theatres, with a new actor in the title role.
The distant future where civilization has collapsed is the setting for the story. Max (Tom Hardy) has fallen into the hands of the War Boys, a group of bloodthirsty soldiers working for the ruthless zealot Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). One of the War Boys is Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a soldier suffering from illness and seeing Max as a way to prolong his life- Max is a universal blood donor, so Nux is using him as a permanent living blood bank, strapped to his car. The other key player is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a driver working for Joe, ferrying fuel. However, she’s changed course, instead taking Joe’s five wives to safety in a heavily armoured rig. Joe regards the women as his personal property, feels the fact that they are gone is a personal affront, and sets his forces to hunt them down. Along the way the paths of Max and Furiosa cross, and the reluctant loner finds himself drawn into helping others.
The road to making the film was an exceedingly long one. Miller mused upon the idea of human trafficking as a central theme in the film, but 9/11, logistical problems, and then the troubled issues in Gibson’s life thwarted the film for years. Many thought the film would never get off the ground, and considering how many issues got in the way, that would be understandable. Finally filming got underway in Australia and Namibia, done in an old school style strongly based in real action and less reliance on digital effects. The storyline is rather like a Western, with the villains brutal and ruthless, and the reluctant protagonist drawn out of his own shell and back to doing the right thing. Bringing in a fellow protagonist who’s just as strong willed was a deft touch- Furiosa is fierce and determined, seeking some measure of redemption. In striving to save these women- and bringing Max out of his post traumatic shock- she’s the driving force of the story in a way that is more compelling than if we had Max on his own saving the lives of the women. That would have been the typical man saves the women in distress story so typical of a traditional Western; written this way, a strong willed woman takes the initiative, and it makes the story all the better for it. There's also social commentary amid the furious breakneck speed chases- the notion of zealots willing to sacrifice themselves in pursuit of an afterlife in paradise rings true to the state of the world today.
Miller’s filming style for the original films returns here as well. Digital effects are used, but used only when needed- Miller has said why special effect a scene when you can do it for real, and that reflects itself in the way he shoots furious action, dynamic cross country races, and the ferocious energy of the film. Camera angles are at strange angles, showing us people seemingly inches from death (one wonders how the insurance people signed off on this). Cinematographer John Seale, whose resume includes Witness, The Mosquito Coast, The English Patient, Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, and Dead Poet's Society, came out of retirement to shoot this one, and his camera work is astonishing. Such is also the case with the look of the film. The general look to the War Boys fits the zealot-cult aspect of the story, as well as the marauding biker gang theme of the films. The customized vehicles have such a rich variety in their looks- dangerous vehicles in many ways, very fitting with a post apocalyptic kill the other guy first world.
The cast are all well chosen. Hugh Keays-Byrne played a role in the first Mad Max, and his new role is a fierce one. Immortan Joe is a madman, a ruthless monster with no shades of grey. A zealot and a tyrant, he takes any measure of disobedience personally, which drives him throughout the movie as he seeks to reclaim what he believes belongs to him- those five women who he seeks to breed a male heir with. He's also charismatic enough to get people to believe in the afterlife he promises them- all so he can use them for cannon fodder or human shields. Monster though he is, he does make for a formidable villain.
Nicholas Hoult is unrecognizable largely as Nux, but the character changes through the film. The actor, who's turned up in the last two X-Men films as the young Beast, starts out as a loyal soldier, though things change, and he switches sides, an interesting turn of events. The reasons for the shift in loyalties ring true, though, and the character's compelling to watch. Hoult conveys the aspects of the character in just the right way.
Charlize Theron is in many ways the driving force of the film as Furiosa (I love that name). She seeks redemption by saving the lives of these women, even though that puts her in direct peril. The character is haunted by her own demons, yet still pushes forward, willpower driving her on. It's such a strongly written character, and Theron works wonders with her, making her a character the audience can't help but be drawn to. She's a lot like Max- anti-hero, scarred and damaged, and while the characters don't fall into the romantic or even friends angle that a different director would take, the two work well together.
Hardy is an inspired choice to take on the role of Max. He spends the first part of the film wearing a partial mask (echoing his performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises), and doesn't say a lot. He's isolated himself from society, and we can pretty much see that this is a man who's dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Max has lost a lot, seen horrors on the open road, is reluctant to help- and yet has a conscience that makes him help. Furiosa draws him out of his shock, back into doing the right thing. He fits the role well.
There's a moment of conversation that stands out for me. Max tells Furiosa at one point that "hope is a lie." It's understandable given what he's been through, and yet not quite fitting with who he is. As dark and bleak as the world of this post-apocalypse is and always has been in these films, there's also been the sense to them that there is something better out there, over the horizon, far from marauding gangs. It's a contradictory moment... but full of meaning. It's been thirty years now since the last Mad Max film, but Fury Road was well worth the wait.