Mad Max: Fury Road is undoubtedly one of the best action blockbusters of 2015. It’s also one of the most progressive, subversive and openly political films to reach such a mass audience in recent memory. It seems a miracle that a film this… well… mad ever got made within the studio system; but does its message affect how we watch it? Or should we just sit back and enjoy the fireworks?
“My name is Max. My world is fire and blood.”
These opening words introduce the living hell which Max (Tom Hardy) wanders, alone and tormented. The snatches of imagined news footage that follow tell of people killing for gasoline, the water wars and thermonuclear chaos. Cut to Max surveying the flaming dry desert wasteland, beautiful in its desolation. That message is clear already; this could be our future, and the genius of Fury Road is in how that dystopia transforms into a land of progress and hope: a utopia.
The nightmarish endgame suggested by Fury Road is one where resources are scarce and far more valuable than most human lives. People are only worth what can be extracted from them: take Max, drained as a bloodbag to sustain the War Boys, or the Many Mothers, permanently hooked up to machines and pumped for their valuable milk.
Meanwhile, outside the citadel of the despotic leader Immortan Joe, ordinary people face drought while waiting for him to open the colossal taps that tower above them, releasing water like a gift from heaven. It’s clear who holds the power, and therefore who must also take the blame, in this dystopia. The script by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris isn’t afraid to point the finger at precisely who that is.
Immortan Joe rules over a patriarchy that represents everything wrong with contemporary masculinity and contemporary society pushed to its extreme. He keeps a harem of wives – or ‘breeders’ – literally locked away in a vault for his private use. Their predecessors are likewise held captive and milked. Aside from how Joe’s kingdom treats women, you can tell a lot about a society by the things it values most. Beside essentials like water, Joe and his War Boys worship gasoline, bullets and, most of all… cars. It’s a parody of toxic masculinity that would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.
Understandably, this acidic portrayal of the worst of mankind prompted a minor outrage from the knuckle-draggers of the MRA, upset at the male representation in the film. In their own words, they claimed the issue was “whether men in America and around the world are going to be duped by explosions, fire tornadoes, and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda, while at the same time being insulted.”
You know what? They’re not wrong. Fury Road is a film full of brilliant feminist ‘propaganda’, and yes, if you’re a member of the MRA who holds any of the views in that above post then they are insulting you. You know why? Because your closest equivalent in the film isn’t Max Rockatansky, it’s Immortan Joe.
Fury Road is such a progressive film because it lays out explicitly the ills of contemporary society via their exaggerated portrayal in this dystopia, and then shows us a better way to be. It’s in the leadership of women like Furiosa who are prepared to fight for freedom and against injustice. It’s in the collaboration of men like Max who face their demons and do what deep down they know is right. The film’s final scene with our triumphant heroes releasing the water to the desperate hordes below shows that the end result is progress for everybody.
But does any of that really matter? Fury Road is a thrilling, visceral action movie with some of the most striking visuals of any year you care to name. Would any of that change if its plot was more conservative? If the construction of the world and the ideologies of the characters weren’t environmentalist or feminist but a simple chase from A to B and back again with no additional meaning?
Perhaps the flares exploding above the rolling golden dunes would still have looked as majestic as they do now. Perhaps the oscillation of the lancers riding after our heroes through a wave of fire would remain as hypnotic as it is today. Perhaps the kinetic thrill of seeing fates decided atop battered vehicles, hurtling along at precarious speeds, would be just as strong. But if you believe that, then I don’t think you believe in the power of cinema. The best cinema, like the best art of any medium, is both populist and intellectual. It appeals to both the body and the mind, in the visceral power of its images and in the strength of its argument. Without something to say beyond its explosions, Fury Road would just be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The message of Fury Road is that no matter how desperately bleak things get, there is always hope. No matter how ruined the world you inhabit, how cruel the people who rule it, or how impossible change might appear – there is always hope.
That’s why Fury Road has inspired so many and made them believe that maybe blockbusters, Hollywood, cinema – maybe even the world beyond that silver screen – can be better. That’s why Mad Max: Fury Road is the best film of 2015.