Any doubt that dystopian movies are prologue to today’s increasingly bleak reality—the future that was depicted in the early nihilistic films—is erased with Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in a motor gang quasi-snuff film series which opens as news breaks of motor gangs gunning people down to death.
Series director George Miller’s highly praised fetish-action film is economical in depicting a straight death chase featuring near-silent leads Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) as slave pen refugees on the run. That previous sentence is the essential point of all I have to say about this action-packed movie. The rest of this is a review born of cultural observation and commentary. Some readers might say my reviews are all like that. This one is more so.
I saw the new Mad Max movie in Hollywood’s fabled Cinerama Dome, where I’ve seen the comparatively worst (Avatar) and best (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, How the West Was Won) pictures, which always enhances a moviegoing experience. Mad Max 4, as I call it, is not an exception. Every explosion and gunshot is exaggerated in the dome. Mad Max 4, which begins with a short narration by Hardy’s Max character, a mentally damaged character to the extent he’s a character, is a sensory assault based on the most primitive characterizations. The world is going and has gone primitive, in reality and on screen, so the faith-laced Mad Max series comes full circle in terms of life imitating art.
What once was like an odd blend of sexualized violence, Mad Max (1979), taking off as a cult film on cable TV at the peak of the punk rock era, when nihilism seemed a quaint, distant notion, became popular with subsequent sequels (The Road Warrior, Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome) and influential with an entire genre that, with each Terminator or other death premise picture, became insidiously more realistic. While the death premise genre’s dystopianism was irresistibly recognizable, fueling the realism and popularity, audience response to the plots—which grew more callous and desensitized in proportion to the dumbing down of the plots—assured that more such empty, bloated vessels would get made and released. Mad Max 4, a tidy piece of psychotic punk nostalgia, finally achieves critical and commercial success as much as it represents the rise of freakish death culture that loomed a few decades ago.
The death cult’s future is here, tracked by this final cut of Wagnerian rock opera with touches of Planet of the Apes and every other Mad Max movie—with nods to its many inexplicable symbols, marks and horrors—with Miller’s same vacant philosophy intact. As Hardy’s mentally singed Max meets Theron’s avenging heroine, and they bond over a quintet of supermodel types held as birthing vessels for a dictator, the ensuing chase as the tyrant seeks to recover his breeding slavemistresses is the type of cleverly conceived, nonstop, overwrought action of the other movies, mostly reminiscent of The Road Warrior though any of this could be cut from any Fast and Furious film, with spikes, flames and gussied up cars, trucks and bikes added.
The bad guys have faith in the dictator-deity, who keeps the masses under control by treating water as a scarcity, and they’re eager to sacrifice themselves like mujahadeen for the sake of going to an afterlife. The good guys have been reduced to physically or mentally deficient pieces of flesh fighting for survival, with no real values at stake, though a few cling to boxes of material possessions from bygone days. They, too, usually end up maimed, dying or dead. Mad Max: Fury Road is, in this sense, like an anti-movie movie; the opposite of a Cecil B. DeMille epic with grand ideals and larger than life sets, characters and action. Its ideas—faith, hope and a weary sense of charity—are as ancient as the barbarians are primitive. But the big sets, hyped up action and relative intelligibility of the plot have everyone, critic and audience alike, treating this nihilistic fare like it’s as good as King Kong (1933).
It isn’t. But when the cineplex choices in a dying civilization are navel-gazing movies such as Birdman or idiotic movies like Avengers 2, and the world is busting out with mass murder every other day, including today’s motorcycle massacre in Waco, Texas, Mad Max 4 seems suddenly relevant and pretty close to reality. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which, judging by the mindlessness of the audience response at the Cinerama Dome, goes unabated until the lights finally go out. Mad Max 4 is a skillfully made two hours of pictures about nothing but shopworn slogans and hardcore primitivism for a public that seeks to escape its descent into mass murdering death cults by seeing movies about mass murdering death cults.
I realize that the fanboy is likely to breathlessly object: ‘But, but, but Mad Max refuses to submit to being branded and he’s, he’s, he’s like really like a hero.” But the hyperventilating critic, or fanboy, as usual, is wrong. Mad Max—the character, the franchise, the new movie—is as empty as he was when he was introduced by George Miller in 1979. The world has simply plunged during that period of time to the point that most people no longer know the difference. What was parodied as primitivism 36 years ago is dramatized as primitivism today and closer than ever to becoming reality.