It has been almost exactly thirty years since George Miller released what all presumed to be the final film in the saga of a post-apocalyptic anti-hero named Max. Miller hasn’t exactly been prolific in the decades since, but his filmmaking journey has definitely been interesting. He helmed a fairly unlikely John Updike adaptation and demonstrated that a movie about disease could bypass typical dewy-eyed piousness and instead be shaped by uncompromising emotional brutality. Maybe most surprisingly, he took a turn towards family fare with a deceptively dark sequel to Babe and a couple of computer animated efforts featuring dancing penguins. Nothing really indicated he was anxious to return to the character that launched his career. Watching the new reboot Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s easy to imagine Miller being told how much money was available for any film with an established brand name that studio heads could forecast as a potential franchise and simply responding, “Oh yeah, I know how to make a new Mad Max.” The short answer as to how is “with wild abandon.”
In telling the tale of Max (Tom Hardy), a taciturn drifter only interested in survival who nonetheless becomes deeply involved in the escape efforts of a cadre of exploited women, Miller builds the biggest, grandest, most audacious big studio movie seen in ages. The plot is simple as can be and yet also carries political punch: a woman marvelously known as Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, absolutely perfect) attempts to free a quintet of lovely young women who’ve been held in sexual servitude by a vile despot called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Toecutter in the original Mad Max), eventually being joined by Max in this effort, the batch of them racing across the desert wasteland with hordes of menacing fiends in pursuit. It’s not the story, it’s the execution, with Miller staging kinetic marvels that, unlike most modern action-orientated films, studiously obey the laws of physics even as they warp the imagination. Working collaboratively on the screenplay with Nico Lathouris (another Mad Max actor) and deliriously inventive comic book creator Brendan McCarthy, Miller comes up with a film that is relentless in every way, including the deployment of motorized mayhem-makers that look like the kind of stuff Leonardo da Vinci would come up with if he were a modern day metalhead sketching out his brainstorms on the front of Mead notebook.
Amazingly, the images Miller puts on screen never descend into chaos. There’s always a clarity to the sequences he presents. Miller brings a tremendous focus to the material, taking obvious delight in driving his big themes home with sheer genre movie braggadocio, simply a version of it writ so much larger than has ever been conceivable before. Watching Mad Max: Fury Road is one of those rare stirring experiences so wondrous that I’m left torn about future repeat viewings. Much as, say, the long closing action sequence virtually demands to be seen over and over again, savored for its fearlessness in conception and execution, I instinctively want to preserve the intense discovery of my first experience, like that mosquito frozen in amber in Jurassic Park, best left undisturbed. Having this sort of exhilarating, exhausting moviegoing experience once is already a blessed gift.