Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.
When I first heard that another version of the Mad Max story was in the offing, I wasn’t terribly excited. While I am, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction (being obsessed with the anthropocene and with the ways in which humanity seems fixated on its own imminent destruction), there was just something about the way this film was advertised that made it seem like just a bunch of stuff getting blown up without much more than that behind it. Not that there’s anything wrong with scenes of wanton destruction per se (Michael Bay has practically made a career out of it), but it’s not my personal cup of tea.
But somehow, Mad Max, either in spite of or because of its particular mix of narrative sparseness and excessive visuality, manages to reach a level of operatic viscerality that seems all too rare in our age of blockbuster cinema.
Throughout its two hours, not a great deal happens. Max (Tom Hady), the titular character, becomes enslaved by the minions of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who utilize him as a “bloodbag” for Joe’s “War Boys.” After Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escapes with several of Joe’s enslaved wives (who bear with them the possibility of flawless children), the enraged dictator sets out with an enormous war band to reclaim them. A lot of bloodshed, violence, explosions, and thunderous music occurs, and in the end Joe is slain by Furiosa who, along with the wives, reclaims Joe’s colony for the people.
Of course, I would have gone to see the film for no other reason other than that it seems to have aroused some MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) to heights of apoplectic rage typically reserved for feminist reading groups. While I’m still not quite certain what about the film aroused such fits of spleen (other than the fact that it features female characters that have agency that can fight as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts), there was much else about the film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Indeed, despite some initial reservations about the film, I finally just gave in to the power of the image and the sound and embraced this raw experience of cinema.
However, while the aesthetics and affect of this film do rely, for the most part, on intensity, there were a few genuinely touching and soft moments thrown in, such as the steady conversion of War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who gradually finds his thirst for blood replaced by genuine affection for the escaped women. The fact that he ultimately gives up his life so that others may live gives his presence in the film a certain poignancy that serves as a nice counterpoint to the more laconic and hard-edged presences of Max and Furiosa.
As in so many dystopian films of the anthropocene, our future is a bleak one, with a landscape blistered by hot sun and scarce water, many of our descendants deformed from the damage that we have so willfully inflicted on our planet. However, as with most dystopian tales, there is also a strain of utopianism, an expression of a desire that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world after all. And, in this case, that means that the waters of the Colony will be made available to all, and women’s bodies will no longer be subject to the sexual whims of a deformed and diseased dictator with the effrontery to position himself as a savior.
Overall, there is something disorientingly and perturbingly bizarre about the mixture of technology and the primitive that is a central part of the film’s aesthetic. This sense of the bizarre and the almost unthinkable, I believe, is key to the film’s general appeal. I’ve begun to wonder recently if there is still room for awe and wonder, awe, or shock in our modern world and especially in our explosion-ridden cinema. If anything approaches that possibility, I argue that it is Mad Max. While on the surface it appears to be just another action flick, there is a lot more going on here than at first meets the eye.
Through its narrative leanness and its startling and sometimes horrifying visuals, Mad Max pricks us with the fatal and dark reminders of our own hubris and vanity. If there was ever an era when we needed those kinds of reminders, when we needed to be shocked by the powerful nature of the cinematic image, it is this one.
Let’s just hope that we can finally take heed.