Mad Max: Fury Road
2015 • 120 minutes • Warner Bros.
If you know me at all, you know that I love the eighties. Specifically, I love a specific aesthetics associated with American pop culture in the 1980s—that peculiar blend of heavy metal, speculative fiction, absurd hair, and high camp that I have designated old school sf. I actually define old school sf as existing from Star Wars (its introduction into the mainstream) to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (its legitimization in the mainstream), but it’s that extra eighties boost that so often drives me over the edge into snarling joy. Maybe it’s growing up on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, or perhaps it’s the best marriage of my camp sensibilities and my love of speculative fiction. Nonetheless, it hits and satisfies a very pure and primal part of myself.
But I gave up, a while ago, any hope of seeing that aesthetic—that old school sf aesthetic that’s equally interested in being totally kick-ass as being speculative fiction—applied in a big way that didn’t exclude me. While I adore old school sf so, so much, it’s usually par for the course that I will find female characters or queer characters (if they’re even present) being treated not so great. And that doesn’t even include how it sometimes poorly handles or straight up ignores great swathes of people, like people of color or disabled folk.
There are, mercifully, wonderful exceptions. Gael Baudino’s Gossamer Axe is a queer pagan feminist rock and roll fantasy. Every episode of Xena: Warrior Princess features two very different women kicking butt, taking names, and being devoted utterly to each other. But they weren’t the norm and they certainly weren’t the stuff that turns into the big budget stuff that often define a year or even a decade in media. Since speculative fiction is an inherently progressive genre, it makes sense to for us to have left a lot of that behind in its continuing mission to reflect the diverse people who use it to explore their own experiences of the world and thereby expand everyone else’s. As much as I adore old-school sf, I have no shortage of selections from the past. I have always been ready to sacrifice it for the future of speculative fiction.
That should help you understand why watching Mad Max: Fury Road made me flee from my screening in pure, stunned joy, so much so that I had to sequester myself for hours to recover from such a wonderful experience. I had never even considered the idea that this seemingly inherently problematic aesthetic that I so adore could not only be rehabilitated and feature people like me, but also tell an inherently feminist story about the disenfranchised seeking agency not by repeating a problematic power structure, but by demolishing it and putting their own in its place. It’s as if George Miller specifically returned from his endearingly bizarre second career as a director of children’s films to say, “Yes, Clare, we can have it all.”
I can’t tell you anything about this film that you already haven’t heard. Yep, it’s as lady-focused and feminist as advertised (by word-of-mouth—my screening actually began with the trailer for the Entourage movie, which should tell you about the kind of dude-bro they’re pitching to). Yep, ninety percent of the effects are enthrallingly practical. Yep, Mad Max is an inherently reactionary protagonist (as he’s always been in the series) and Imperator Furiosa is even billed higher than he is. And yeah, it’s totally rad. From the title card (which found me nearly wailing in delight at its subtitle’s font) to its gleeful embrace of the dark, perverse absurdity of its universe. It does the latter without ever taking exclusionary shots at any group of people, which is how you do black comedy. The action is pulse-pounding, the very edits are camp (there’s one cut-out swipe that’s practically cackling as it occurs), and it shoots through you to your very core. Better writers than I have already tackled all of these elements in great detail.
But I do want to touch on how the film redefines masculinity. Like Interstellar, Mad Max: Fury Road defines a real man as someone capable of nurturing other human beings. And the only current socially acceptable masculine archetype that fulfills that definition is that of the father. Max’s previous state of fatherhood is integral to his character. His wife and daughter were, the film tells us in the prologue, killed, but this isn’t the kind of manpain to suffer stoically. It’s driven him, well, mad, to the point that it affects his ability to survival. He suffers constant hallucinations of those he’s failed, but the most common hallucination is that of his daughter. She berates him and encourages him and, at one point, saves his life. She’s also the only representation of the maiden in a film preoccupied by mothers and crones. Interestingly, that daughter was a boy child in previous films, but I don’t think Miller is being sloppy here. In a reductive but useful way, Max is only important to Furiosa’s narrative because of his relationship to a girl, although Furiosa and the Wives never know it. The reason Max only has to be brought back from the brink of madness (instead of going on a larger journey like Nux, the War Boy who becomes a real man via nurturing masculinity) is that he’s already capable of respecting, loving, and nurturing women. His climactic action is not dealing the penultimate blow to Immortan Joe, but literally giving his blood to someone so that might live in a warm, caring way.
It’s big. It’s stunning. And it feels like the way forward like few big-budget summer sf films have felt in years.
I saw this film in theaters.