Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph on every level. It may well be the best film of 2015. Granted, it’s still early in the year, but to have a gauntlet thrown down like this in May makes me excited not only to watch Fury Road again, but for the prospect that any film could come close to matching it. Thirty years after George Miller took us Beyond Thunderdome, he has returned to the wild, wonderful wasteland he dreamed up all the way back in the original 1979 Mad Max. This time around, hope is in even shorter supply than water and gasoline, a fact which evil men seize upon like vultures circling a dying animal. The film is a white knuckler for nearly the entirety of its run time, rarely pumping the brakes on both the narrative and the tricked out cars that populate it. With such incredible momentum, visual spectacle, and vibrant world-building, Mad Max: Fury Road is a nearly perfect viewing experience, especially for those longing to return to Miller’s uniquely inspired slice of scorched earth.
Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky this time around, taking the mantle from Mel Gibson. Make no mistake; this is the same character you know and love, and Hardy smolders amidst the mouldering, desiccated desert hellscape with a steely gaze and a clenched jaw. Though he doesn’t speak much himself — not that Max ever has — his actions speak volumes in this epic life or death revenge saga. Matching him pound for pound is Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, a one-time war chief who goes AWOL to save a group of exploited women from living out the rest of their lives as a cruel dictator’s personal playthings. With her bionic arm, smear of grease as war paint, and deadly accuracy, she is a formidable foe and reluctant ally to Max. Trust and respect are hard commodities to come by in the world. Rounding out the core cast is Nicholas Hoult as Nux, a sickly War Boy (more on them later) who starts out to impress his master for a glorious death and an eternity of paradise in Valhalla. His evolution from blind follower to a young man carving out an identity and a life all of his own makes for a fascinating character arc, aided by Hoult’s gleefully unhinged performance.
As was the case with Miller’s past films, there is a rich mythology to the world of Mad Max: Fury Road. Though it can seem daunting at first blush, it is all explained in due time as the story unfolds. Here’s a little bit of what you need to know: In a massive settlement that evokes a post apocalyptic Castle Greyskull, the Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original film), who looks like a sort of jury-rigged desertpunk Darth Vader, rules from on high with an iron fist over a colony of survivors. Down below, the common folk live a hardscrabble existence, deifying the Immortan Joe as a vengeful god who grants them life-giving water at his whim. Indeed, with the flick of a switch, he can unleash a torrent of much-needed H2O, but he prefers to keep his subjects reliant on him, well and truly under heel.
At his beck and call are the War Boys, sickly-looking, pale, hairless zealots who serve him as footmen, soldiers, and bodyguards. They revere steering wheels as holy symbols, praising Immortan Joe and the power of the V8 for granting them speed and strength in battle. Behind the wheel of their tricked-out, armored vehicles of war, they happily driving like maniacs to achieve the ultimate reward of dying in combat, hoping to join the Immortan in Valhalla. They use kidnapped travelers and scavengers as human IV drips, feeding the sickly soldiers a stream of healthy blood to keep them going. It’s all quite morbid and makes for a fairly effective takedown of cults and systems of fanatical belief as the story unfolds.
Our story kicks into high gear when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of the leaders of Immortan Joe’s war bands, hijacks a war tanker (a highly militarized big rig) and makes a beeline for enemy territory. Now, if Furiosa were simply making off with a truck full of gasoline, that would be one thing, but she is smuggling the Immortan Joe’s wives, a harem of women whom he keeps like prisoners in the hopes that they will bear him a suitable heir. In response to this perceived treason, Immortan Joe unleashes the full might of his automobile armadas to give chase. Of course, coming along for the ride against his will is Max Rockatansky, who has been captured and turned into Nux’s personal blood bag. After a freak accident and a frenzied fight, however, Max and Nux find themselves reluctantly joining Furiosa and the Wives. Together, they must escape Immortan Joe and the War Boys or face utter annihilation.
The film is essentially one long chase sequence, a bold choice that pays off in spades as the tension steadily accelerates. At first blush, this would seem like a difficult narrative conceit to maintain over the course of two hours, but Miller manages to pull it off with inspired set pieces, quiet character moments, and an evolving visual gradient that serves to communicate both the passage of time and a sense of distance. Filmed in a 1,200-mile expanse of desert in Namibia, the movie has an otherworldly quality to it that is at once welcoming and alienating. In fact, Miller originally intended to make the film in the Australian Outback, but unprecedented rainfall transformed the landscape into something far too verdant for Fury Road’s purposes. That being said, each location lends a level of beauty and character to the proceedings, creating an odd dichotomy between the landscape and the wanton destruction taking place.
Speaking of which, what sets Mad Max: Fury Road apart from its competitors is the jaw-dropping, fist-pumping nature of the automotive acrobatics that Miller and his stunt team were able to pull off practically. This reliance on using practical effects over CGI lends a level of visceral grit and authenticity to the film that makes the events on the screen truly breathtaking. When cars crash or a guitar turns into a makeshift flamethrower (seriously), it looks incredible because they actually pulled off the stunts in the desert. Seeing all of the Avengers fight off an army of Ultrons was fun, but the ballet of destruction that Miller and company pull off so seamlessly and artfully here is almost frustratingly impressive. Perhaps it is a result of the film’s meticulous storyboarding (the first iteration of the script consisted of 3,500 storyboarded images, creating a comic book-like visual tapestry), but it is deeply satisfying to see the physical wizardry pulled off by cinematographer John Seale, who came out of retirement to shoot this for Miller.
In a recent Q&A, Miller revealed that the editor, Magaret Sixel, who also happens to be his wife, had never edited an action film before Fury Road. Granted, the fact that she is married to Miller probably helps, but Sixel is largely responsible for the way in which Fury Road flows so well. If I have one complaint about Mad Max: Fury Road, it would be that its mythology sometimes feels too dense for its own good, and often doesn’t stop to explain itself to the viewer. However, the series has never been particularly adept at that, preferring to drop viewers into the thick of it to parse meaning for themselves. For viewers wanting more of an explanation or to see more of the backstory that didn’t make it into the film–and there is a lot of it–Miller teamed up with Vertigo Comics to release a prequel comic, and more are on the way.
It is stunning to me that the same man who gave the world Babe and Happy Feet is also behind a film like Mad Max: Fury Road. But such are the complexities of George Miller, a matrix of unexpected qualities that he diffuses into his work. Mad Max: Fury Road feels like the distillation of a lifetime of filmmaking, a meticulously plotted, carefully choreographed, and lovingly crafted paean to visual splendor. Yet, Fury Road isn’t just a series of spectacles; there are larger themes and societal dissections at work here. As has always been the case with the Mad Max series, though, Miller lays it all out before the audience, letting them dig as deeply as they like. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that merits multiple viewings not only because of the depth of its content, but because it never slows down, and in this case, you won’t want to miss a thing.
Rating: 5 out of 5 burritos
Mad Max: Fury Road is in theaters on May 15, 2015.
Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of 100 Things Avengers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. You can follow him on Twitter (@Osteoferocious).