Damsels in Dystopia
All things considered, it's not a tremendous surprise to find adverts for new Jurassic Park and Terminator movies hanging around the trailer portion of the cinema-going experience – these series both have the feel of studio cash-cows about them, regardless of how they appear to have been mucked about in a dubious attempt to make them appear fresher and more original. Slightly more unexpected is the first Mad Max film in thirty years, directed – as before – by George Miller.
For the purposes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Mel Gibson has – not surprisingly – been replaced by Tom Hardy. This appears to be another instance of that modern plague, the reboot, inasmuch as the events of the story seems to replace or overwrite those of Mad Max 2: Hardy starts the film in a costume clearly derived from Gibson's, and is driving a very similar car, but things take a different turn when he falls into the clutches of a post-apocalyptic warlord known as Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who of course played the main villain in the first Mad Max in 1979).
Things look bleak for Max as he is pressed into service as, basically, a source of medical supplies, but all is not well in Immortan Joe's kingdom, when his trusted lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes a break for freedom in a heavily-armed battlewagon, taking with her the warlord's harem of young brides (including Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley as the slimmest-ankled heavily-pregnant woman in history). Immortan Joe, following standard post-apocalyptic warlord procedure, mounts an energetic pursuit in a variety of peculiar vehicles. One of these is driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a young warrior whose need for regular medical fortification leads to his mounting Max on his car as a sort of hood ornament. Could this be Max's chance to make a break for it? Can he find enough common ground with Furiosa and the others to form an alliance? And what are the chances of Miller doing another Babe sequel?
Just to reiterate, there is a complete absence of Mel Gibson as far as Fury Road is concerned, and as his replacement Tom Hardy is... hmmm, well, we'll come back to that one. I can't imagine that anyone will miss Gibson too much, however, as all the other elements of Mad Max movies of years gone by have been reconstituted, albeit in a larger, glossier, and louder form. The central through-line of the plot is the same as that of previous sequels' – damaged loner Max reluctantly finds himself making common cause with a group of other survivors, and much vehicular carnage ensues' – and while it would be overstating things to say that Fury Road is basically just the final chase from Mad Max 2 stretched out to two hours with some of the weirder and more grotesque elements of Beyond Thunderdome drizzled lightly over the top, neither is this a completely unfair description of the film.
Certainly there is not a great deal of plot taking place here beyond an extended pursuit across some extraordinary, devastated landscapes, and what gives the film its drive and identity is the sheer raw energy of the thing, along with some strikingly bizarre art direction. There's a lot of inventive mutilation and mutation even before the bullets start flying, and the initial assault of the film' – its first act' – is almost oppressively relentless in the succession of over-the-top images and moments it delivers, never quite giving you time to assimilate them. It calms down eventually, though not by much, and you're never very far from something exploding or a gory death of some description. Did I mention that George Miller is 70 years old? This film looks like the work of somebody many decades younger.
Still, it would all look very much like a hollow sort of retread of past glories, were it not for the core of the story, which is something new and quite different for a major studio action movie, namely some of the most uncompromising sexual politics I can recall seeing in a mainstream release of any kind. 'Feminist' doesn't begin to do it justice: the plot is initiated and driven by the female characters and it's the women in the film who are presented as competent, sympathetic, and sane throughout – the men are all crazed, unpleasant, acquisitive fools obsessed with ideas of theology and possession. You could even argue that the whole film is ultimately the weirdest statement in favour of women's reproductive freedom in world history (a prominent scene has the harem clipping off their chastity belts with bolt cutters). Even Max, the ostensible hero, doesn't get very much to do in terms of actually shaping the plot: he's an entirely passive figure for most of the first half hour, for example. It's not really surprising that Theron, as Furiosa, shares top billing with him, as she is essentially the main protagonist of the film.
Perhaps my view of this film has been somewhat coloured by an early review I saw entitled something along the lines of 'New Mad Max movie is so feminist it made my nuts drop off', but I really don't think so. Nevertheless, as usual I can't shake my suspicion of any film which suggests that real feminism is about women acting so viciously and violently they are almost indistinguishable from men, and I do think the film is compromised by the fact that it is, even if only putatively, about a male hero. (Still, I'd be fascinated to learn more about Miller's creative process – did he decide to insert the political angle into a pre-existing idea for another Max movie? (This one seems to have been in development hell for at least a decade.) Or was it just that he wanted to make a film about these ideas and concluded that he'd have the best chance of financing another SF action film, rather than something more overtly political?)
Maybe I am overstating things, because even if you're oblivious to the ideas involved, the film has more than enough energy and grit and movement to be fully acceptable just as an action movie. After a slightly wobbly start, not helped by the fact he spends a fair portion of the film with some kind of gardening implement attached to his face, Hardy brings his customary charisma to bear and is an entirely satisfactory lead' – even if he arguably doesn't get the material he deserves. One could, perhaps, suggest that Hardy's accent goes on a wild geographical odyssey of its own in the course of the film (he starts off apparently attempting an Aussie accent and by the end seems to be doing the Bane voice again), but this is not really a serious issue for him or Fury Road.
I'll be honest and say that I didn't turn up for Mad Max: Fury Road with especially high expectations, mainly because it did just look like a karaoke version of the earlier films, with a vast budget taking the place of any real invention. Well, this is not the film that I was expecting, but something with a much more twisted and subversive edge to it. I still wouldn't say it was in the same league as either of the first two films, and it's obviously not going to have anything like the same kind of cultural impact, but it's still going to satisfy fans of both this series and action-oriented fantasy in general. The other SF revenants I mentioned at the top of the page look like being, at best, good Bad Movies. This is quite probably a Good Movie, full stop. Worth a look.