2015 was quietly a banner year for science fiction cinema with the release of four films that should be considered landmarks for the genre. Alex Garland’s superb Ex Machina explored male entitlement through the relationship between man and machine; Ridley Scott’s The Martian celebrated human ingenuity and perseverance and the nobility of NASA’s mission; most prominently Star Wars: The Force Awakens marked a return to quality for the Star Wars series; but the real masterpiece was director George Miller’s return to the series that gave him his start, Mad Max: Fury Road.
Like The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road is a “reboot-quel,” meaning it is a sequel to a previous film but it is meant to restart the series with a new arc. For example Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (also a sci-fi film released in 2015 but not on the same level as the other films) is a “reboot-quel;” it is set in the same world as the first three Jurassic Park movies and its plot is affected by the events of the earlier films, but it introduces a new characters and story arcs to the world. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is, in a way, less of a reboot-quel than are The Force Awakens and Jurassic World in that the Mad Max series, Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), have never been particularly serialized; the plot of one film does not seem to affect the plot of the next, it is only the character of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) that the films have in common. Max is like The Man With No Name of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or, pre-Daniel Craig, James Bond, he is a character to be placed into new adventures who doesn’t seem to have been affected by the events of his last adventure. So Mad Max: Fury Road is only ostensibly a sequel, and the “reboot” element only comes into play in that Max is no longer played by, the now-tainted, Mel Gibson, but by the hulking master thespian Tom Hardy, which, considering where the two men are in their respective lives and careers, could only be considered a trade up.
In Fury Road, Max finds himself aligned with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) a truck driving warrior of the post-apocalyptic wasteland who has absconded with the “wives” of the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). It is Furiosa who is the film’s central character, the one who drives the action, Max, for most of the picture, simply finds it expedient to ally himself with Furiosa and her group of colorfully named women: Toast (Zoë Kravitz), Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo (Courtney Eaton). This is not a film about a man rescuing endangered women but about a group of women forcefully freeing themselves from a toxic (it is no coincidence that nearly all the male antagonists are slowly dying of radiation poisoning) patriarchy. In one the opening scenes, Immortan Joe is shone being prepped for a public appearance, a piece of plastic armor used to mold his sagging, boil-covered flesh into something that resembles a well-muscled physique. Miller portrays patriarchal power as an illusion masking decrepitude, with men only able to seize and hold power through corrosive violence. If the film is not the perfect feminist action picture (it probably isn’t), it was decried by a number of loathsome “men’s rights” websites, which, for all right-thinking people, should be all the more reason for right-thinking people to embrace it.
The most compelling reason for movie fans to embrace Mad Max: Fury Road is because it is as perfectly-realized a cinematic vision as you will ever see. Every frame is gorgeous, Miller is the master of creating beauty out of grotesquerie, and each character and setting is perfectly costumed and made-up to complete Miller’s portrait of the post-apocalyptic future. The movie is, essentially, one long chase. That is, in no way a knock against it; while it is thematically rich it is structurally lean, and the action crackles. Miller stages action scenes taking place between dozens of characters in movie vehicles, scenes which, in the hands of a lesser director would be incoherent, with astounding clarity.
The result is, perhaps, the most manifestly kick-ass movies in recent memory. What could have been another disheartening effort to cash in on name recognition for a much-loved franchise is, in fact, the best film in the franchise (sorry Road Warrior acolytes). If this trailer doesn’t do anything for you, nothing will.