I’m a huge fan of all the Mad Max movies. I grew up in the 80s, and my introduction to the series was The Road Warrior. It’s one of those movies that I’ve seen too many times to count – up there with Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, and Aliens. Later I went back and watched the first Mad Max and appreciated it for its dark and tense downward spiral. And when I saw Beyond Thunderdome, I accepted the film’s campiness and loved it unconditionally because it extended the story of the wastelands.
So when George Miller announced the plans to release a fourth film, I knew I would see it no matter what. As the opening date drew closer and the previews appeared, I grew intensely hungry, and the morning of the release date, a Thursday, I bought tickets for me and my wife, to ensure we’d get a seat in the theater.
The hype had gotten to my head, it seemed: we arrived at the theater a good 45 minutes in advance to get a seat, and by the time the movie started, it was only one quarter full. This was more in line with my reality: my love for Mad Max is shared by many, but we are a fringe group. The movie blew me away. I couldn’t have been happier when I walked out of the theater, and took comfort that me and the other freaks that love this kind of thing got a film that was at least as good as The Road Warrior. The drive home was … hairy.
Then a weird thing happened. Other people saw the film that weekend. People with less predilection for wasteland violence than I were loving it. Were telling their friends how good it was. Blog posts were dropping into my radar extolling the virtues of this amazing film. People who have never seen The Road Warrior (or as I call them, the Unenlightened) went to see Fury Road and came away praising its glory.
So I took a step back from my fanboyism and looked at Fury Road through the eyes of the Unenlightened. What was it that storyteller George Miller and his team nailed so perfectly to enlighten them? What follows are just a few of the key story elements that I think contributed to the film’s success.
*** Spoilers ahead. ***
Characters with Backstory
Max Rockatansky: Sure, I know what happened to Max’s family because I’ve seen the 1979 original Mad Max film several times. But 99% of Fury Road‘s viewers did not. Without this backstory, Max would be another wasteland degenerate, with no motivation and no depth. In Fury Road what we get are glimpses of the hell he’s gone through, and more specifically, all the people he’s tried to protect and failed to. This is all done through flashbacks, showing us these ghosts that haunt Max at every turn. Their appearances are excellently timed.
Imperator Furiosa: We’re immediately curious about what drives the character that is easily the engine of the story. But we have to wait! When there is downtime, we learn more about her past: her capture as a young child, her upbringing. At one point she says that she and her mother were taken from their homes 7,000 days ago; but her mother died on the third day. That gap of about 20 years is enough – we don’t need to imagine what she’s gone through to know that whatever it was, it was horrible and long. (Side note: I love that it feels longer and harder when counted in days instead of years!) For example: we never learn is why she is missing an arm. All we know is that she’s missing an arm. Given the state of the world, she could have lost it at some point in her life, or she could have been born with it. But we do know that she’s learned to Kick Ass without it. Without over-explaining everything, we know she is capable of overcoming adversity.
The Storyteller Lesson: Give your main characters a rich backstory. Don’t tell all in one big dump of information, but find a way to parcel it out or hint at it; let the viewer/reader know that it’s there! Flashbacks work well for characters that are haunted by their past. Monologue works well for characters that have – to some degree – come to terms with their past. Whichever way you do it, remember: characters with history are much deeper than characters without.
Antagonists and Allegory
The villains of Fury Road represent the surviving evils of human society. The uncontrollable greed of mankind has always been the backdrop of the Mad Max films, but these guys are a whole new level. You can recognize them because they are all old white men of power: a personification that anyone on planet Earth can identify. They are the worst of man’s demons, the answer to the question that the Wives ask: “Who killed the world?”
The Bullet Farmer: Basically, Mars, the God of War. In the scarcity of the post-apocalyptic future, this mean old bastard is operating a working factory that makes firearms. His military might has made him overconfident, and he meets his downfall when Max and Furiosa out-tactic him.
The People Eater (Mayor of Gas Town): Not only does he have a grip on the only form of energy (oil and gasoline, something we’ve all come to associate with instability, economic inequality, and pollution), he rides around with a freaking accounting ledger, tallying up expenditures as they go. Bloated and driven by the bottom line, he is the personification of modern corporate greed.
Immortan Joe: Old and sick – breathing through a mask – he has a death grip on his power, like the others. But Joe’s power is one of pure exploitation. He maintains a harem of wives, and farms milk from the breasts of women. He pillages ancient Nordic mythology for his cultish legion. He controls the wasteland’s most precious resource, life-giving water, and distributes it sparingly (yet wastingly), while demanding worship. He is the embodiment of sexual, cultural, and economic exploitation.
The storyteller lesson: Using villains to symbolize the greater demons of our world – whether the world of the story is our world or an imagined one – is a powerful way to make them larger than life. This creates a level of dangerousness around them that ups the stakes, even when they are sick old men.
In a movie so driven by action, you might not expect much in the way of character growth. But Fury Road gives us arcs that are seamlessly interwoven with the action.
Max’s arc is all about redemption – but he has to get there. If it were up to him, he’d have left the movie early. Instead, he’s thrown into shackles and a mask that bars his mouth and he’s chained to the front of a vehicle to force him into the story. He’s reluctant all the way, but as the film progresses, he’s driven more and more by the flashbacks of his past.
Furiosa has a more challenging arc, because when we meet her, she’s already a fair amount into it: she’s defied Immortan Joe and begun a rescue operation! We can see that she’s a trusted soldier, so we know there was an arc for her to reach this point. However, the biggest turn for her doesn’t come until she has to make a decision: continue to run or risk it all to turn back and exploit Joe’s hubris and free the others from his reign.
Side note: My favorite “arc moment” for both Max and Furiosa is when he hands her the sniper rifle with one shot left and lets her use his shoulder to steady her shot. He sacrifices his hearing, and she has to accept her own limitations (her claw) and trust him enough to “lean” on him.
Nux the war boy has an arc as well: he goes from blind worship of Immortan Joe to a moment where he realizes that something’s just not right. It’s like finding out Evil Santa is just something your mom made up to keep you from hunting leprechauns. When it dawns on him though, he very quickly changes sides. It’s when one of the wives shows him affection that perhaps he realizes under Joe’s reign, a half-life war boy such as himself has never known a mother or a lover, and in her, this woman who takes pity on him and stands up for him, he sees something worth switching sides for.
The storyteller lesson: If you want characters to feel real and the audience to have a stake in them, then they need to demonstrate change. Show us who they are and then challenge that same notion and force them to become something new.
Themes and Symbolism
There is a lot of symbolism in this film, much more than you may have gotten in the previous stories in the series. I could probably go on and on with this subject, but I’ll just touch on two key themes:
Fertility and reproduction: Ultimately, the core conflict is about control over reproduction. Immortan Joe starts with all the control, and the children he’s fathered lead his army of War Boys (who are also his children, having been more or less adopted). The women are life-givers and their struggle is to regain the power over how and when they give that life. One gritty symbol of this struggle is seen when one of the wives falls back into Joe’s hands, injured beyond help. They attempt to save the baby by cutting the fetus out of her corpse, but it does not survive. Rictus (the biggest of Joe’s children) holds the child up and declares he had a brother and he was perfect in every way. He fails to see is this stillborn represents the death of the control Joe and his War Boys once had over the reproductive process.
After meeting the Vuvalini of Many Mothers, one of the ex-wives curses the baby she is carrying, afraid it will come out like its father. A Mother reminds her, “It might be a girl,” suggesting the reversal of power in this theme. This same Mother carries bags of seeds that she has been saving and attempting to plant every chance she gets; again, showing the control over fertility that the women fight for.
The Road: What does a road represent? A journey, the passage of time, decisions. As I mentioned before, there is a major decision for Furiosa around changing direction on the road. Earlier on though, when Max asks her how many times she’d made the trip, she replies “Many, but now I have a war rig.” See, this is the first time she’s made the trip down the road in reality, but she’s traveled down it in her mind many times. In this way the Road represents what she believes her fate to be, her destiny – her path.
The storyteller lesson: Never underestimate the power of a good theme. Most people won’t pick out all the connections, but the fact that they are there unifies the story and makes it strong. Quality themes are a foundation – in fact, one writer told me she think of themes as a lighthouse. They guide the story when it’s lost; without them, it wanders along with less purpose.
Scope of Story
Last but not least, one of the most successful things about Fury Road is how intentionally limited the scope of the story is. After the first movie, Max becomes a traveler, someone who drifts along, just surviving. When he finds major conflict, it’s not his own, and he’s forced to pick a side. Fans of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome recognize this Max. New fans are not burdened by explanation of who he is and why he is here in Fury Road.
Meanwhile, for all those other characters: think of their lives as a house; for this film, we’re looking through one window. In this way, the viewer is a lot like Max. The benefit is that the movie doesn’t drag us down with details about their lives. It gives us just enough – scraps of detail – and from those we write the rest of the history in our own imaginations. We the viewers get to participate in the telling of the story. As an added bonus, we don’t have our intelligence insulted by having to sit through a bunch of unnecessary exposition.
The storyteller lesson: A story is most successful when it has that perfect balance of giving the audience just enough data to compel them to make the investment in the story and the characters while leaving plenty of room for their brains to be active participants in the experience.
There’s so much more to Fury Road, I could talk about it all day long. But I’m going to shut up now and turn it over to you: what do you feel worked so well about this film?
Other great Fury Road articles and resources:
- [The Mary Sue] Review: Mad Max: Fury Road Is a Lovely Orgasm for Your Eyes
- [L.J. Vaughn] My Reaction to Mad Max: Fury Road and the Utter Perfection that is Imperator Furiosa
- [Tor.com] We All Agree that Mad Max: Fury Road is Great. Here’s Why It’s Also Important.
- [Observation Deck] The Vuvalini: What people are missing
- The Mad Max Wiki – for helping me get the names spelled right!