Furiosa: A Mad Max Tale

 Bristol Everyman

Could you make head nor tail of Ahsoka if you hadn't seen Rebels? Is Rings of Power a stand-alone piece of Dungeons and Dragonery, or could we reasonably expect it to have some point of connection to the timelines in the back of Lord of the Rings? Did you feel personally insulted when the main villain in Doctor Strange had already appeared in a Disney+ spinoff series?

I recently learned that the psychotic schoolboy in Lindsay Anderson's If... reappears as a character in his Oh Lucky Man, and again in Britannia Hospital, with specific call backs to the previous movies. You can be intertextual without being a geek. Even PG Wodehouse's support cast jump around between Blandings and the Drones.

So, I thought I would try an experiment. I have somehow managed to reach this point in my astonishingly geeky life without ever having seen a Mad Max movie. I know that they exist. I once played a Mad Max themed board game. I know that the original movie was an indirect influence on Judge Dredd, especially when he was in Cursed Earth mode. (Or, now I check the dates, maybe Judge Dredd was an influence on Mad Max.) I may have it mixed up in my head with a video nasty called Death Race 2000. But I have never seen any of the movies and have no idea what they were about. Furiosa looked intriguing from the trailer, so I thought I'd give it a go. Would I be able to make sense of it without having seen parts 1 to 5? 

Well: it is very clearly an origin story. There is a bit of media babble over the opening credits establishing that we are in the future, probably with a capital F, and society has collapsed, definitely with a capital C. This turns out to be all that we need to know. The action takes place in something called the Wasteland (there are lots of implicit capital letters) which is inhabited by tribes of ork pirate Native-American hells angels on motorbikes, impossibly evil and impossibly cool. Games Workshop is another thing the film obviously influenced or was influenced by. The Wasteland motor-thugs seem to scavenge the remains of vehicles from before the Collapse and reassemble them. Some of the vehicles look cobbled together; some of them look incredibly cool; most of them are somewhere in between. The anti-hero, Doctor Dementor, rides around on a Roman chariot pulled by multiple Harley Davisons. Add Ghost Rider to the list of sources. He's played by Thor, channelling Taika Waititi's Blackbeard only without the soft side. You know that medieval torture where they tie an enemy's limbs to horses and let them run off in different directions? He does it with motorbikes. But he's so cool and so funny that we can't help rooting for him a little bit, and the film flags whenever he is not on screen.

The protagonist is a young woman (a child for the first third of the movie) who is kidnapped from a fertile oasis and becomes a hostage or pet or surrogate daughter to Dementor. He wants to find out where the oasis is, and she isn't going to tell him. She is understandably very angry about everything, but it appears that Furiosa is her actual given name. Everyone has silly names: Scrotos, Rictus Erectus, Octobus. The story shows her growing up, escaping, falling in with different factions while plotting her vengeance on her kidnapper.

Since I happen to know that this film is a prequel, I take it that Furiosa is a major character in the previous movie. For all I know it answers lots of questions which have been hanging in the air since 2015. The final act begins with Furiosa acquiring a bionic arm, a shiny new motorcar, and chopping off all her hair; if you've seen the rest of the series, I imagine that carries some of the punch of Anakin donning his nice black armour for the first time in Revenge of the Sith. There is a cameo scene in which an Unnamed Male Figure observes her through binoculars: I now grok this to be the eponymous and/or titular Mad Max. But not knowing any of that didn't seem to impact particularly on my enjoyment of all the mayhem.

I am surprised how much I liked it. I am also surprised how much Sofa-Buddy liked it: she isn't generally a fan of extended chase scenes, and Furiosa is essentially nothing but a series of extended chase scenes. I liked the way that the world is evoked, rather than described or explained. I felt that I had been chucked into the narrative deep end; the world was up-and-running before I arrived and I had to figure out who were the baddies, who were the slightly less baddies, and who were the even worsies. The in media res aesthetic was, as I have often said, a major part of the appear of Star Wars in 1977. I don't know whether in this case it was a deliberate artistic choices, or merely a by-product of me arriving seven hours into an ten hour movie. There may have been some deeper world-building going on; but I think that setting is mostly surface -- mostly vibe. 

Weirdly, I found myself connecting it in my head with Dune (and not only because of all the sand) and thinking "This is what I would have liked Rings of Power to have been like." A huge collection miniatures and toy trucks and action figures and cos-play costumes which somehow seem to belong in the same universe.

The action, of course, is relentless -- we're only a few seconds into the movie before the little girl is dangling from a motorbike, being dragged across the desert, trying to cut the fuel line. There are hardly any pauses for breath. In the Stan Lee era, one used to think that, fight-scenes were a ballet that friend and foe alike used in lieu of conversation. The Mad Max universe is one where people express their emotions by crashing motorbikes into eight wheel trucks. Yet there is a surprising amount of characterisation, even if it mostly smoulders inarticulately. Furiosa begins her relationship to the closest thing there is to a love-interest by pointing a gun at his head. It's very violent and very bloodthirsty: the reason our heroine has a bionic arm is that she chopped her own off to escape a shackle. (The map to the oasis was tattooed on it, which was a shame.) Some rather disgusting medical maggots are applied to the would. But it never feels sickening; there few moments that made be want to cover my eyes, as I did in some of the torture sequences in Game of Thrones. I think this is because the violence is dialled up, rather than down: yes, we see severed limbs; and yes, severed limbs are gross' but at the same time we know from the start that they are not real severed limbs. The BBFC felt that it was okay for over 15s to see. 

It's hard to put my finger on a single favourite moment. Dementor parleying with Immorten Joe, leader of the Citadel; him with his hoard of motorbikes in the valley; them at the top of a sheer cliff, surrounded by weird, bald, white humanoids. Furiosa riding through the aftermath of the "forty day war", a jagged inferno, Mordor reimagined by Kurosawa.

I grant that my attention flagged in the middle (it's a very, very long movie). After Furiosa is handed over to Joe as a bargaining chip and grows up, there is a long sequence in which she races paragliding motorcyclists in a big chrome lorry along what may possibly be the titular/eponymous Fury Road. I slightly lost track of who was who and why I cared in this sequence. But once Demento returns to the fray in the final section, I was thoroughly re-hooked. Kudos to the director for allowing the final climax to consist of Demento and Furiosa alone in the desert; and for the dark, stylish fairy-tale ending -- told by a presumably unreliable narrator.

One day I shall write an essay about what Dune, Foundation, New Gods and Le Morte D'Arthur have in common, and why I seek out books which possess that particular quality. Quasi Shakespearian universes in which vast emotional back stories are expressed through huge implausible physical action; heroic narratives dancing on the tips of historical icebergs. Very deep is the well of the past, as the fellow said. Mad Max: Furiosa is anything but deep, but it is fabulously engaging and engrossing. I want to be in that world. Play an RPG in that world. Own an Airfix snap together kit of that world. There are five other movies to catch up on and probably one more to come and we live in an age of streaming. 

I have also never seen Terminator.

If you can afford it, please consider becoming a Patreon, by pledging £1 or more each time I publish an essay on the main blog. (I don't charge for these little reviews.) 

Pledge £1 for each essay.

Make a one-off donation on Ko-Fi


Paul King said...

The Cursed Earth - just - predates Mad Max (and was rather obviously inspired by the film version of Damnation Alley)

Gavin Burrows said...

To me ‘Dune’ had more of a David Lean epic historical sweep feel to it. The Mad Max films remind me more of Serigo Leone, grandiose but gritty. A villain who talks too much and a hero who says almost nothing, that feels very Leone.

You mention pirates and it seems to me to also be a pirate film, just with vehicles instead of ships. Larger-than-life characters constantly getting into skirmishes which seem as much about upstaging one another as getting booty.
‘Fury Road’ was probably the better of the two films. (There’s no real link to the earlier ones.) It did better at having a structure that made it feel like it wasn’t just one long car chase, even though it was just one long car chase. Perhaps there’s an inherent problem with this sort of film needed to cover a long period of time. Perhaps there’s a difference between “then there was another car chase” and “then, ten years later, there was another car chase”.

It also has to convey Immortan Joe as the Big Bad Guy without making him the focus of the film. But it does a reasonable job of this. In his scenes with Dementus, Joe mostly leaves his sons and underlings to do the conversing, as if the task’s slightly beneath him. We’re nudged to believe he’s dealt with multiple Dementuses before now.

Gavin Burrows said...

Blogger had me select squares with motorcycles. Does that count as an irony?