If Mad Max: Fury Road was just a dumb action movie it would still be one of the best in years. But Fury Road is smart, really smart. In the midst of the explosions, heavy metal, and vehicular mayhem, director George Miller shows us the beating heart of humanity in a desert wasteland.
From the very beginning Mad Max: Fury Road is bristling with absurdity and mayhem. As the film’s central chase begins, Max is strapped to the front of a car, with a chain-wrapped IV running from his neck to the car’s driver, who is in need of a transfusion. Within the first half-hour ofMad Max: Fury Road, a large fleet of vehicles, battling each other with harpoons, machine guns, and grenade-tipped spears, and supercharged with V8 engines boosted with nitrous oxide tanks, drives into a nuclear powered storm swirling with multiple tornados. The movie’s action builds from there.
Though Max (Tom Hardy) lends his name to the film, it is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who knocks over the first domino, setting the film’s plot in motion. On what is meant to be a routine fuel run, Furiosa takes the armored tanker she drives into hostile territory in an effort to escape warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).
Immortan Joe breathes with the help of a leather and metal mechanism strapped to face and is covered in tumors, likely due to radiation from a nuclear apocalypse that occurred before the film began. His deformity has been passed onto his sons, who are similarly grotesque in appearance and behavior and are enhanced by mechanical apparatuses of varying kinds.
Doing the bidding of Immortan Joe are the War Boys, the hyper aggressive soldiers who drive and shoot with religious fervor. Their cars become the object of worship for the War Boys, who, upon their death, dream of Valhalla where they will be made shiny with chrome. Before carrying out a suicide attack they paint their mouths with chrome spray paint. In lieu of uniforms the War Boys cover their bodies in tattoos, brands, and a coating of white powder topped with black paint covering their eyes and forehead.
Immortan Joe glorifies the mechanical, and this leads him and his followers to treat people as objects to be abused, exploited, and owned. Here is where the real conflict of Mad Max: Fury Road lies, in the struggle to be human against the dehumanizing treatment of Joe and the boys.
Dialogue is sparse for all characters, but Max is particularly laconic. There is perhaps one scene where he strings together more than five words in a row. Miller prefers to show struggle instead of having his characters talk about it. One of the ways this is accomplished is through the rituals of the War Boys and band of women, called the Vuvalini, which we encounter half way through the film.
Another aspect of the mechanical worship comes in the War Boys’ sign of respect. To show devotion, the War Boys bring the outstretched fingers of both hands together to form a triangle with their arms above their heads. This directs the War Boys outward, symbolically emptying them of their humanity.
In sharp contrast, the Vuvalini have ritualized a filling with humanity. Where the War Boys have no regard for either their lives or the lives of others, the women memorialize past lives lost and those who die in the present with a simple gesture. When Furiosa mentions her late mother, each woman reaches a hand out, about a foot from her chest, closes it, and brings her fist to her heart as if to incorporate the lost life into her own.
The question that hangs over the movie is “Who killed the world?” In the world of Mad Max, we are shown the way men contribute to the world’s death through the dehumanization of others, using women as breeders and sources of milk. It is no wonder that these men, deformed and grotesque from radiation, can only breed deformed and grotesque children.
For the film, the answer to the dehumanization of Immortan Joe and the War Boys is not pacifism. Indeed, Furiosa and the Vuvalini are just as dangerous and deadly as any of the men in the film. Furiosa nearly beats Max in a fight, is smarter, and a better shot than he is. Instead, the rituals of the Vuvalini suggest that the proper response is the humanization of the other, to the point that we see each person as a part of ourselves and each death (when necessary) as a loss of self.
This counter way of being is not just for women. Mad Max begins the film a loner whose only instinct is survival, haunted by hallucinations of his dead wife and daughter. By the end of the film Max regains a sense of his own humanity through recognizing the humanity of others. The way-of-being that George Miller presents through the women of the film is not an invitation to be woman-like, per se, but rather a better way to be human, a way that sees all humanity as valuable and, at times, worth fighting to protect.