"What a Lovely Day": The Radical Potential of Mad Max: Fury Road

05/19/2015 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

"Who killed the world?" asks Mad Max: Fury Road at various points in its runtime. It's a sweeping question and an essential one for the film's brutal beating heart, but unlike a question such as "who watches the watchmen?" there is very little ambiguity here. Rather, like everything that makes Fury Road so breathtakingly percussive, the answer to this question is sharp and never elided. Men killed the world, and now we must look for literally greener pastures.

Mad Max: Fury Road has already earned itself a fair bit of controversy for its willingness to level this charge, mainly from the Men's Rights Movement, which from its cave has charged the film with a feminist agenda for daring to examine gender roles in an action film. It's a silly, inane, and immature accusation coming from a silly, inane, immature movement, but the ferocity with which it has been leveled should compel viewers to search director George Miller's latest addition to his post-apocalyptic action saga for the sparkle of revolution it suggests. Whether or not Fury Road is, in fact, radical in the way it views the world, the potential for radicalism of both the emotional and kinetic sort radiates from every frame of the picture, giving it a wonderful electric gleam that revs unapologetically like the engine sounds that soundtrack the opening titles.

Miller's movie continues the story of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson who is now too radioactive for even this irradiated wasteland) an ex-cop wandering the outback desert in the wake of a vague apocalypse. He is haunted by those he failed to protect, hunted by savage feudal gangs, and reduced to the simple urge to survive. Though coming in the wake of Miller's three previous Mad Max films, Fury Road all but abandons the past events of the franchise. It is neither sequel, nor prequel and requires no research or prior knowledge on the part of the viewer. Rather it opens in what might be called medias res if the barrenness of Miller's world didn't seem so apathetic towards time or growth or decay. Max looks out over the desert, crushing a two-headed lizard beneath his boot, before chomping it down as it kicks between his teeth. After a moment, he dives into his trademark interceptor and races off into the distance, almost immediately pursued by a small cadre of whooping, howling men on bikes and in cars of their own. It is only moments before Max is captured, his car disabled by an explosive javelin that flips it in a peal of flame and soot. He is dragged from the wreckage by his assailants and carted off to the Citadel, where he is imprisoned.

Ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who previously played the sadistic Toecutter in the first of the Mad Max pictures), the Citadel is a network of mountains, springs, gardens, and dungeons. Its people are diseased and famished, held in sway through the rationing of water, which Joe doles out from a waterfall shaped like a horse-toothed skull. Like gasoline, water is precious and in short supply. It allows for movement and fertility. It keeps the fleshy engine running. Joe himself is a sight to behold: squat and toadlike; dappled with tumors that balloon of his white flesh; encased in muscled transparent armor that is gone yellow in the crevices from sweat and dirt. On his face, he wears a breathing apparatus meant to mimic the rictus of a skull, with two pipes that wind themselves around to an inflating and deflating lung that rests behind his head. At his disposal are the war boys: rail-thin, chalk-white fanatics who worship their leader as a God, pay homage to their cars as eternal vessels, and psych themselves up for martyrdom using the fumes from chrome spray-paint that they splash upon their lips and noses. If they die in the service of their general, they will meet him in "Valhalla." Max, held in a dangling cage beneath their city, serves as a blood bag, his back inscribed with his O-Negative Universal Donorship.

As the film's titular character remains disabled, the picture shifts towards Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) a bald, bionic-armed servant of Joe who drives a massive, phallic war rig between the Citadel, Gas Town, and the Bullet Farm to ferry supplies back to her masters. On her latest run, though, she diverts her course and it becomes clear to Joe that he has been betrayed. Stowed in her rig are his five Wives--bodies reduced to their ability to breed and carry his children. Furiosa plans to carry them to safety, to what she calls the Green Place, where they will all be free to the exploitation and violence of the men who tore the world to pieces and remade it sickly and perverse in their image.

What follows--in the hunt for Furiosa, and her eventual meeting with Max--is essentially one long chase scene: through swamps and sandstorms, under bright billowing flares of multi-colored smoke. Rigs and bikes, and VW Beetles spiked like sea urchins duel one another across the endless desert while soldiers leap from vehicle to vehicle, firing guns and hurling spears. Some bikes are equipped with Pole Boys: men strapped on long vaulting sticks that allow them to teeter above fray, bouncing about as they lob grenades. Another giant truck drags behind it a tower of amplifiers that serve as the stage for a blind soldier, shredding on a double-necked guitar the doubles as a flamethrower. It's a parade of gleeful punk insanity, as if Franz Kafka and the Sex Pistols were enlisted to curate a car show together.

Even for a film consisting entirely of action sequences, Fury Road is unrelenting and ferocious. It stuffs the frame with color and movement, without ever losing track of its many parts. It never feels overstuffed or undercooked. It is dizzying in its speed, but never nauseating. At one point, war boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) revs his engine as he and the rest of Joe's military convoy charge into a biblical sandstorm. As the dust engulfs them, thunderheads crack above the legion. Jagged strands of lightning reach down to dismantle unsuspecting cars. Still, despite the onslaught, each component feels perfectly calibrated: Nux's fanatical howling, the raging storm, the interweaving vehicles. It's symphonic in its chaos, an orgy of kinetic excess constructed with unabashed love, and painstaking attention to space. The result is one of the best action sequences of the decade, and one of the least impressive in Fury Road.

Atop this dazzling demolition derby, Miller has layered a tender keenly observed narrative of abuse and survival, one that connects Max and Furiosa without drawing the sort of explicit parallels that would hamstring the pair's organic development. The two share barely any dialogue, and despite Max's billing, much of the action centers around Theron's breathtaking protagonist. Both Theron and Hardy paint their characters with sharp unflinching lines, but Theron most of all locates a furious dedication and compassion that elevates her above the basic check-box template of the Strong Female Character. She is physically capable, intelligent, and unwilling to bend the knee, but she also carries a sense of loss. She is allowed fear and confusion and doubt, pain and defeat. As she struggles to dismantle the structures of male dominance that have forced women to the dark perimeters of the social order, she never becomes a pawn in a thematic end game, or a temporary heroine to be set aside in favor of a masculine savior (looking at you Matrix films). She is human, and because she is human, Miller's film is too.

In the wake of the snarky, ineffectual bloat of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fury Road accomplishes far more than anyone might have expected. It realigns the expectations of gender politics in the modern blockbuster. It creates spectacle that feels textured, unique, and gripping. It embodies a fusion of brains and brawn that catapults its frankly beautiful destruction into the stratosphere of action filmmaking. It challenges the muted expectations of the summer movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road demands more of blockbuster filmmaking, and it gives everything it possibly can. Who killed the summer movie? It really doesn't matter. George Miller may just have saved it.