Mad To the Max

Fury Road drives its metaphors to hell, and back

By Gordon Campbell

You have to like a film that begins with a guy stomping on a mutant two-headed lizard and then eating it, raw. Meet the hero. Equally adorably, this is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where people make the sign of the V-8 with their hands, as a kind of religious blessing. Surely, that’s because Mad-Max : Fury Road is basically a film about cars being driven at insane speed, down endless highways with lots of explosions, right ? Director George Miller has even said that apart from the human stars, the War Rig driven by Charlize Theron is the other main character in his film.

For the record, the War Rig is a Tatra with six-wheel-drive powered by two supercharged V8s, a 1940s Chevy Fleetmaster welded to the back of the cab, and a Beetle cabin mounted to the tanker. And it’s a beautiful thing. There’s fascinating stuff about the film’s cars and the car wranglers, available here.

Hold on though. Reportedly, the fourth Max Max movie is also a film with a not so hidden feminist subtext. Or ur-text, given that the film’s plot is –literally – about the overthrow of the patriarchy by a group of ‘breeders’ led with the utmost diligence by Theron, and with almost the same buzzcut that Sigourney Weaver wore in Aliens. It signifies that she’s a baad mother, in the good way.

Thirdly, that brings up the other thing the film is allegedly about, and that George Miller himself seems to be about. From a distance, it may seem strange that the same person responsible for four Mad Max films on one hand has also….well, he’s also made the two Babe films about the talking pig and the two Happy Feet films about the adorable penguins. How can such different kinds of films co-exist in the brain of the same auteur ?

Easily enough, it seems. In this excellent article on NY Vulture a case is convincingly made that every single film that George Miller has ever made – including Lorenzo’s Oil and The Witches of Eastwick – has been about the exact same thing : families. Nuclear families and extended families. Families lost and new families rescued from the ashes, with feral kids in tow. The saving of sick family members, the forging of new families, of better families…and that could be where the overthrow of the ruling patriarchy by a makeshift family of women probably fits in. At one point in Fury Road, one of the villains even mutters that the whole damn thing is really about a family argument. Max himself has flashbacks to the de facto family he failed to save, even as he tries his best to save this new one. A Dad’s work is never done.

Got that ? Mad Max : Fury Road is really a family movie.

With good reason, Fury Road has also been praised for its ahem, realism. Very little of this film is CGI. The action is almost entirely done by stunt work, and the athleticism involved looks amazing in every respect. Someone has already said that the long, bendy poles that serve as launching pads for enemy attacks are the kind of inspired device you’d expect to find in a Tex Avery cartoon, and they’re right.

None of that would work though, if Miller didn’t have such a clear sense of what is happening amid all this mayhem. Without any loss in the hurtling momentum you (almost) always know who is firing at whom, and who is being blown to smithereens. At a time when other action films can’t even film and edit a simple gunfight in a way that’s intelligible, the coherence of the battle scenes in Fury Road is pretty remarkable. And they’re very funny, at times. The dumb scion of the patriarchy’s ruling family for instance, is a muscle-bound dead ringer for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, called Rictus Erectus. On a more serious note, old people are neither patronized nor treated as comic relief in Fury Road. They’re depicted as capable. Maybe that’s one side-benefit of having an evergreen director who is over 70 years old.

The plotline is quite timely, too – given the drought in California and with an El Nino about to bring drought conditions to the east coast of New Zealand. Whereas previous Mad Max films were about the scarcity of oil in a post-nuclear world – and that still remains a pressing concern for the Rock Riders in particular – the really precious commodity this time around is water. It is suggested that if Theron, her “breeder” wifely allies and the remnants of the Vuvalini sisterhood do eventually triumph, they will make a socially equitable attempt to use that scarce water to make the desert bloom again. Evidently, that womanly caring and nurturing thing never lets up, either.

Famously, this film came under attack early on from men’s groups in the US. Allegedly, for sullying a red-blooded American male action movie tradition with women and their ways and needs and their feminist malarkey. You can read a pretty good AV Club account of the whole sorry/stupid saga, here.

This bit is pretty amusing :

Specifically, [ men’s group] writer Aaron Clarey believes men could find themselves “duped by explosions, fire tornadoes, and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda, while at the same time being insulted AND tricked into viewing a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their very eyes.” How, he asks, could Australian director George Miller have so ruined and rewritten George Miller’s creation in such a way that so blatantly disregards this Australian franchise’s proud American heritage? America is where men live.

And this :

While Clarey admits that he has not actually seen Fury Road—obviously not wanting to have his penis ripped off and replaced with a Betty Friedan book—he just knows that the film is feminist propaganda from seeing the previews, which prominently feature Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa, talking and doing things. “Charlize Theron sure talked a lot during the trailers,” Clarey laments, but even more egregiously, “Charlize Theron’s character barked orders to Mad Max. Nobody barks orders to Mad Max.”

Supposedly, Tom Hardy has signed up to at three, maybe four further Mad Max sequels. If so, it is to be hoped that Miller does follow up on that thing about making the desert bloom. If only because according to this recent story, the roots of gender oppression began with the birth of agriculture. It happened like this :

About 10,000 years ago, humans started forming societies based on food production which also led to the development of wealth accumulation and inheritance. It was these factors that resulted in well-structured hierarchies based on social ranking – with more wealth leading to more power. This organisation was also expressed at the gender level. The sex that could monopolise resources could also take charge of territories, wedding decisions, family life and was ultimately able to control the opposite sex.

Specifically, sex inequality – which is seen in most food-producing societies that evolved relatively recently in human history – meant that the powerful sex (most often men) could dictate alliances between the relatives they lived with. This increased the power of clans and facilitated wealth transfer over generations. The weaker sex (most often the women) as a rule had no choice but to follow their husbands and move with their husband’s family.

Well, we do not believe that this grim scenario is necessarily “natural”. Before food production started, we were all hunter-gatherers. And if the few hunter-gatherer groups living today are representative of our adaptive past, then our findings suggest that our ancestors were much more egalitarian, and sex-egalitarian, than we are.

That’s the risk. On the evidence of Fury Road though, if anyone can stop that pattern from being repeated in future Mad Max installments, then Charlize Theron is the woman to do it.