(This review was originally published May 15, 2015 on the Epic Film Guys Facebook page here. One spelling error, “Immortal” Joe, has been corrected to “Immortan” Joe).
Having never seen any of the prior Mad Max films, I wasn’t entirely certain what it was I was in for. The trailers paint a bleak but grandiloquent world poisoned with sun and radiation. Far removed from the de-saturated blacks and grays of most post-apocalyptic fare, Miller’s film is explosively vibrant, drenched in decadent orange and melancholy blue, with a heart-piercing soundtrack and action set pieces that dwarf anything in recent memory. This isn’t so much a film as it is a shotgun blast of incredible tension that keeps firing from the first fade in ’till the last fade out.
The film stars Tom Hardy as the titular Mad Max, who from the start of the film is hijacked by marauders and tattooed as a “universal donor,” making Max a valuable resource in a poisoned world. The action begins innocently enough, with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, as bad-ass as she has ever been) leading a convoy to neighboring settlements to barter supplies, but she quickly veers off-course and disobeys the leader of the Citadel, the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Thus begins what is essentially a two-hour car chase film in a post-apocalyptic desert, which begins with Max tied to the front of the car of extremely loyal zealot Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Fury Road isn’t necessarily dense on the plot side of things, this much is true. It’s as straight-forward as it gets, but herein lies Miller’s genius, buried in the subtext and pointing to grand themes of lust for power and war, of control, of sexism and brutal vengeance. There’s a lot of mindless jabbering going on between Joe’s faithful, to the point where it’s really not apparent that they’re saying anything at all. Much of it is unintelligible, but this is exactly the point. Joe isn’t so much a dictator as he is a cult leader, sating the appetities of his zealots with the faintest taste of hope before stealing it away. Meanwhile, he sits high atop a mountain surrounded by the only greenery in the film. Immortan Joe, sickly as he looks himself, is the representation of life and sustenance to his people, and they worship him slavishly for it.
As mentioned before, the color saturation that permeates the film is simply brilliant. Most of the desert scenes are washed with an orangeish hue, imbuing Furiosa’s journey with a sense of optimism and warmth and life. This bathes our protagonists and helps to pitch the tension with each passing second as their war rig tears across the endless wastes. Meanwhile, Joe’s zealots are a sickly white, and feel like illness and disease. At night, the entire landscape is painted a deep blue, and the film feels like a punch to the gut. It could have nixed all of the dialogue, and Miller’s themes would have seeped through every moment with as much intensity as they do here. Few films are such visceral, visual powerhouses, but this never misses a beat. Its emotional depth is so fully realized that it slowly pulls one forward, inch by inch, until they are falling off the edge of their seat.
This is even better realized with the fantastic music from Junkie XL, which is pulse-pounding, metal-grinding, and ass-kicking as any score ever put to an action film, but it gives the more emotional scenes a sweeping undercurrent that bolsters every moment of screentime. It isn’t like the forgettable scores of most action blockbusters, filling in for background noise or underwhelmingly and unsuccessfully trying to tug at heart strings. This music reaches into the chest cavity, grabs hold of the heart, and squeezes to make sure it’s still beating.
There’s so much more to say about the film, but words are hardly justice to pay to such a work of art. Like last summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this film transcends the normal summer blockbuster to create a blistering work of action-drama that tears up every moment of screentime and leaves the audience begging for more. One would be remiss, however, to fail to mention the strength of this film’s female characters, which was spectacular. It is the strength of Theron’s performance especially that realizes this, and it is her character that risks everything to free the others from slavery. Joe’s treatment of his wives is never explicitly shown, but enough of it lies in the subtext that it makes his character all the more despicable and sickening. Miller writes the wives and the other female characters admirably, turning roles that could have ended up being empty eye candy into strong characters that are willing to fight for their rights.
There’s still a lot of summer movie season left for 2015, but one would be hard-pressed to imagine a film in the upcoming slate that could even touch Fury Road. It is an unflinching masterwork of explosive action and fantastic drama, painted onto the screen in indelible moments of utter beauty. What a good day indeed. Ten out of ten stars.