Review by Emmet O’Cuana
Film | Mad Max: Fury Road | MA
When I was far too young, I was shown a film that featured horrific violence, death, fascist oppression and, ultimately, the end of the world.
The reason this was thought acceptable for young Emmet to watch was because the film in question, Russell S. Doughten’s A Thief In The Night, was part of a series of Christian apocalyse films from the US. It was considered a religious picture and therefore suitable viewing – despite that niggling detail of Catholicism not subscribing to the theory of the Rapture.
This was during the mid-80s, with the rise of the apocalypse picture a trend already 10 years in. These films were largely amateur productions that earned large profits due to church screenings. This was also the time of the dreaded video nasty, with British tabloids heavily promoting the idea that violence in films creates desensitised young hoodlums.
You can imagine my confusion. How was it the scenes of faithful Christians being callously guillotined in films like A Distant Thunder or Image of the Beast were less disturbing than, say, George Miller’s Mad Max. Miller’s apocalypse has no explanation, it simply is the end of the world and we are introduced to Australians still somehow surviving despite the collapse of civilization into barbarianism.
My generalised understanding of the purpose of religion as a kid was that it was meant to give life a sense of meaning. Meaning is heavily dependent on the ability to hope for a better tomorrow. What the likes of Doughten were marketing to church congregations across America and increasingly the rest of the world was religious fear.
This came to mind while I was thinking about George Miller’s latest film, Mad Max: Fury Road. Gibson has been replaced in the title role by Tom Hardy and the shoot took place in Namibia instead of Geelong, Victoria or Broken Hill in New South Wales. But this is still definitively a Mad Max film, retaining its Aussie sensibilities in the African desert.
It is also a film that questions the purpose of hope directly.
The plot, stripped back to the barest essentials, concerns a monstrous warlord called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who controls the supply of water to starving thousands in the desert. His army are legions of ‘war boys’, painted white and eager to die in his name in order to ‘enter Valhalla’. Furiosa (Charlize Theron), his most trusted lieutenant, helps his harem of wives escape in a reinforced truck. The film follows a deadly chase between the escapees and an endless horde of gibbering punks on motorbikes, drag cars and any other vehicle they can use.
One inventive scene involves a forklift.
Theron is the real star of the film, a determined guardian for the young women in her charge, smearing her face with engine oil before going into battle. Hardy, for his part, breaks from Gibson’s more laconic interpretation of the character. Here Max is a severely disturbed man, muttering to himself, subjected to visions of the dead, nerves so raw he visibly twitches.
He is a survivor, whose sole instinct is to run. The trauma of enduring this post-apocalyptic ‘Australian’ landscape has left him suspicious of any promised safe haven. He does not believe in a better tomorrow, but he also refuses to die. Largely uncommunicative for much of the film, one of his few conversations with Furiosa features the line “Hope is a mistake”.
And yet, it is Max, the non-believer fighting against the army of child soldiers eager to martyr themselves for Immortan Joe and his promised Valhalla, who makes the choice to help the escaped brides. The terrified young women repeat the phrase “We are not things!” Immortan Joe’s regime is based on controlling access to water, healthy blood – Aussie actor Angus Sampson plays a character called The Organic Mechanic – and ultimately, sex. It is also a regime based around a religion of fear.
The conflict in Fury Road is based on these two opposing forces, ultimate power and the freedom for an individual to choose.
While Max is afraid of hope, that is because he has experienced incredible loss. When pressed to it, he chooses hope over fearful submission to Immortan Joe. Miller’s film depicts a dying world, full of cruelty and suffering – but, in showing how these women and men continue to fight to survive, to have a choice in how they live even at the end of all things, Fury Road is oddly hopeful.