We are a LONG way from the University of Melbourne car park that served as an essential location in the first Mad Max film. In fact, it seems we have transcended time and space altogether. Within seconds of the film’s opening, we are in the Wasteland.
Tom Hardy plays the titular hero, a man so rugged and independent that he survives the entire film eating nothing but a mutant lizard and drinking nothing but a few mouthfuls of water and breast milk (in one of the film’s less bizarre scenes). Charlize Theron plays Imperator Furiosa, and it’s her rebellious streak that drives the film both emotionally, and – for the most part – literally.
Furiosa is charged by evil overlord Immortan Joe with stealing supplies from other settlements in the Wasteland, a place in which water and gasoline are the most prized assets. It doesn’t take long for that streak to surface, her instructions to be discarded, and all manner of supercharged, pimped-up hell to break loose.
Constantly dwarfed by the incredible desert and rock formations, Fury Road’s characters look so weather-beaten as to be almost knocked comatose. Red and brown dust only makes way for the blackened vehicles, blue and green are almost totally absent from the film. What little dialogue there is is almost subsumed by the near permanent sound of revving engines and functional plot-shifting statements like ‘I brought the guzzoline’, and ‘fang it!’.
When people commend an action film it’s usually to compliment the way the director incorporates characterisation into the scenes separating testosteronic battles and explosions, their ability to make us care about them. Miller has little time for this. From the opening sequence the entire film barely pauses for breath. Relentless car chases with impossible stunts, seamless CGI, bursts of colour and ingenious design with no more than a perfunctory nod to motivations explode over a bizarre dystopian Australiana. Every move is about that most basic drive of all, survival.
It’s a film that does exactly what it says on the poster: There is a big hellish desert, cars chasing each other over it and stuff blows up. By means of background, Max (who is decidedly not mad) is an ex-cop troubled by his past. Within the opening minutes Max is captured by a warlord and used as a ‘blood bag’ by a ‘half-breed’ soldier called Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult. Nux, along with several hundred other warriors, is charged with punishing Furiosa’s rebellion. Furiosa is the emotional core of the film, Theron’s character is one of many women whose plights are treated with the same efficacy Miller and his co-writers bring to the action scenes. When he’s not concerned with demolishing excitingly inventive cars and war-mobiles, it knows exactly what to do to make encounters engaging. Fury Road even passes the Bechdel test.
Despite Hoult’s character being bent on imminent martyrdom, a very prescient use of water as a precious commodity and a possible humanitarian message, Miller seems to have made Fury Road to indulge his own personal love of action. Not ‘Action’, but action; bursts of kinetic energy. Using striking colours he and co-creator Brendan McCarthy have created a gripping film that bypasses the familiar. Reviewers of Fast and Furious 7 extolled the film for its diverse casting. Miller takes diversity to a whole new level. We have striking Coen Brothers-expressive faces, geriatric women with guns, key characters missing limbs, wheelchair-bound protagonists, a United Nations worth of multiculturalism and what seems to be half of NIDA’s graduating class of 1967.
That a film this singular and compelling can be realised to the tune of $150 million is a rare triumph of the studio system. That Miller has not only made the film he wanted to the way he wanted to – by flying the entire cast and crew from its intended location of Broken Hill to Namibia – is a shining testament to his work ethic. And at 70, there’s no reason to think he hasn’t got more films this good in him.