clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The violent, beautiful world of the must-see new movie Mad Max: Fury Road, explained

"Mad" Max (Tom Hardy) hangs out on the front of a car. Like you do.
"Mad" Max (Tom Hardy) hangs out on the front of a car. Like you do.
Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

From out of the wasteland of bad computer-generated effects and endless comic book adaptations, action movie fans' best hope for something truly original is ... Mad Max: Fury Road, a sequel to a movie series that saw its last installment released in 1985.

If you're not a serious cinephile, it's entirely possible you haven't ever seen a Mad Max movie. They don't replay on television endlessly, and their popularity seems to have waned over the years — which makes Warner Bros.' choice to bankroll a big-budget sequel to the original trilogy a little strange. But thank goodness the company did, because Fury Road is action movie perfection.

But even if you haven't seen a Mad Max movie, you've seen a movie influenced by a Mad Max movie — whether you know it or not. At the end of a recent screening of the film, director Edgar Wright (of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim fame) opined that modern cinematic dystopias fall into one of two categories: Blade Runner or Mad Max.

And it's hard to see how Wright could be wrong.

What are the Mad Max movies about?

Mel Gibson stars in The Road Warrior.

The original Max (Mel Gibson) walks the post-apocalyptic wasteland in The Road Warrior.

Warner Bros.

The Mad Max franchise is a throwback to the action heroes of the 1970s and '80s, where, often, the only continuing element between films was the protagonist. (Think of the Indiana Jones films, for instance.) And all four films are at least very good. This is one of the most consistent franchises in movie history.

"Mad" Max Rockatansky, played in the original trilogy by Mel Gibson and in Fury Road by Tom Hardy, is a drifter in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, emerging from the desert to visit the small communities where human civilization clings to life as fiercely as possible. The character and the Australian outback are the only throughlines that span all four films.

Mad Max (1979): Max is a police officer and dedicated family man in a world that is technically mid-apocalyptic. Energy shortages are causing some desperation, but society is mostly chugging along. Max even has time to go on vacation in the middle of the movie. What really drives the action are the car chases, which are fast, furious, and frequent. The film was produced on a minuscule budget in Australia, and it's a lean little thriller about cops in pursuit of the gangs who control the highways and one man pushed to his limit. Halfway through the film, Max experiences a horrific tragedy that haunts him throughout the rest of the franchise, and his behavior in the final third earns him the nickname "Mad Max." Official Vox rating: 4 out of 5.

Mad Max 2 (1981): Also known as The Road Warrior (the title I'll refer to for the rest of this story), this film is a nearly perfect action movie. The energy crisis has worsened to the point where fuel has become a precious, hard-to-find resource. Max, hardened by his experiences in the first film, comes upon a band of settlers and ends up helping them survive attacks by a gang led by someone known as "the Humungus." The film follows more of a Western plot structure, and there are some phenomenal chase scenes peppered throughout. Official Vox rating: 5 out of 5.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): The most divisive film in the series and the final to star Gibson, Thunderdome takes place several years after Road Warrior, with fuel almost completely gone and the growing desert (caused by an unspecified nuclear apocalypse) consuming everything. Max comes upon a place called Bartertown, where he's conscripted by leader Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) to destroy a threat to her rule. His later adventures lead him to a group of children who speak in a kind of deformed English (possibly influenced by the great novel Riddley Walker) and into one final, climactic chase. It's a bit misshapen as a movie, but it possesses great imagination. Official Vox rating: 4 out of 5.

These films were all wildly profitable, but they didn't make so much money that a fourth film was inevitable.

Summer movie graphics

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): Max is now played by Tom Hardy, and his backstory is established in a quick prologue before he sets off on a lengthy chase that consumes nearly the entire movie — with his new pal the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) by his side. Wild and imaginative and stocked with impressive thematic ideas, it's hard to imagine this summer producing a better popcorn movie than Fury Road. Official Vox rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Could you possibly explain the plots of these movies in terms of their action sequences/the number of vehicles crashed?

Yes. We can even do so in charts and graphs!

Mad Max chases graphic

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Just 32 percent? I thought you said Fury Road was one long chase scene!

It's more varied than you might expect. For example, is it technically a chase when Max and Furiosa's pursuers are far enough behind that they have time to discuss their backstories, but still close enough that they have to keep driving? Yes. We're skewing toward the conservative side here and only counting scenes where the characters are in the thick of a really contentious chase, where either side might prevail.

What's important is that Fury Road seems constructed out of pure momentum and speed. That makes it feel like it never lets up — even though it's very cleverly structured to give you brief respites from the action.

Can you also give me a sense of these movies in GIF form?

Of course!

This quick look at a chase scene in Mad Max should give you a great sense of Miller's hyper-kinetic editing style.

Mad Max car crash

A horrified Max observes a violent car crash.

Warner Brothers

Meanwhile, this moment from the climactic chase in The Road Warrior offers a quick taste of Miller's love of suggested gore.

Gross. The Road Warrior.

Max takes care of some gang members in terrifically bloody fashion.

Warner Brothers

Finally, here is a quick look at the Thunderdome, because nothing is quite like the Thunderdome.

Welcome to Thunderdome, Max.

Two men enter; one man leaves.

Warner Brothers

Do I need to have seen the old movies to watch Fury Road?

Not at all. All four films tell self-contained stories, and everything you need to know about Max is conveyed in the first five minutes of Fury Road. Having seen the earlier films will certainly enhance your viewing experience, but it's not necessary to have a great time.

How much influence has the Mad Max series had on other films?

So much. Just the idea of a desert wasteland populated by nomads who occasionally do battle with motor vehicles didn't really exist pre–Road Warrior, and now it's essentially a staple of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Miller was building atop other post-apocalyptic scenarios when he constructed the Mad Max universe — the idea of small communities hanging on in the face of absolute devastation is a staple of the genre — but by melding that concept with elements of the Western (the aimless drifter who comes in out of the wilderness) and action movies (all those car chases!), he invented a new subgenre almost entirely on his own.

The Mad Max films also introduced Mel Gibson to the world and eventually made him a superstar. Indeed, Gibson was supposed to star in Fury Road — which was originally scheduled to shoot in 2001, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent collapse of the American dollar made it too expensive to film — but his age and controversial personal behavior eventually made it necessary to recast the role.

Finally, the Mad Max films are responsible for so much ephemera that has worked its way into the general pop culture subconscious. From the phrase "two men enter, one man leaves" — a gift from Thunderdome — to the way the apocalypse seems to give everybody license to wear lots of leather, every other scene in the first three movies will make you say, "Oh, that's where that comes from."

Can you tell me more about the mad geniuses who made these movies?

'Mad Max: Fury Road' - Press Conference - The 68th Annual Cannes Film Festival

Director George Miller attends the Mad Max: Fury Road press conference during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival.

Photo by Clemens Bilan/Getty Images

The primary creative inspiration behind Mad Max and its sequels is Australian director George Miller. Miller has made far too few films, but he's one of the great visual stylists and action directors of his generation. His movies teem with ideas and images. Even the low-budget Mad Max suggests a larger world than it can actually depict through cleverly chosen costume and set pieces.

Miller hasn't made a live-action movie since 1998 (he directed both Happy Feet films in the 2000s), and the first 20 minutes of Fury Road are a little exhausting, so much does he want to get all of his ideas up there on screen. There's a little person who sits in a tall chair to gaze into a telescope and survey the wasteland. There are "war boys" who cry out about entering Valhalla and spray themselves with chrome. There are lactating women whose breast milk feeds the leader of the compound where the movie's action begins.

Those 20 minutes, though, are a nearly perfect introduction to the way Miller constantly throws new ideas at the audience and doesn't pause to explain them. He simply trusts you to keep up, to grasp what's important and understand what's just there as a visual flourish.

Miller is also a great director of action. He knows the genre can't constantly push the pedal to the metal. It needs to have built-in points where things ease up — at least a little bit. To illustrate this, here's a clip from one of Miller's films that has absolutely nothing to do with Mad Max; it's from Babe: Pig in the City.

The chase sequence in this film is unrelenting and intense, particularly for a children's movie, but Miller understands intuitively that he has to underline the gravity of what's happening — hence the moment above, which is oddly forthright about death considering the target audience. Of course Babe lives to save the day, but Miller lingers in that moment when the character seems doomed and, more importantly, realizes he's doomed. That makes the ultimate triumph all the sweeter.

All of these qualities come together in the following fight from Thunderdome. Max is trying to defeat the gigantic Blaster, but Blaster's only weakness is high-pitched noises. Fortunately, Max has a whistle. But will he get to blow it in time? Miller expertly plays up that tension.

Miller has more on his mind than the qualities of action cinema. The Mad Max films are, on some level, about humanity's inability to properly manage resources, and both the third and fourth films feature some sneakily feminist moments. His two Babe movies (he wrote and produced both and directed the second) tackle prejudice in a way kids can understand. And he also made Lorenzo's Oil, a lovely family drama about two parents trying to find a cure for their son's debilitating disease.

The Mad Max films aren't all Miller, though — others have been key to their creation. In particular, George Ogilvie co-directed Thunderdome with Miller, while Byron Kennedy produced the first two. (He died after Road Warrior, and Thunderdome is dedicated to him.) Terry Hayes is the only writer other than Miller who's credited on more than one film (the second and third), while comic book artist Brendan McCarthy helped Miller draw up storyboards that served as a visual script for Fury Road.

What in particular makes Fury Road so special?

Tom Hardy stars in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Tom Hardy takes over the role of Max in Fury Road.

Warner Bros.

It's difficult to overstate just how meticulously and perfectly constructed this movie is. It's as if Miller took everything he knows about directing action sequences and applied it to the whole two-hour runtime. And because he knows how to relieve tension, the movie never feels as exhausting as it probably could have.

The plot, ultimately, is kind of bland. A major plot point hinges on the characters essentially making a U-turn, and the story is literally "travel from point A to point B." But that's not what watching the movie feels like. In the middle, it feels like the most exciting, most over-the-top, most spectacular thing you've ever seen. It redefines the adjective "eye-popping."

In particular, the film's use of color is exemplary. With so many current blockbusters looking washed-out and needlessly gritty, Fury Road is set in a world of vibrant, gorgeous color — even though it takes place in a wasteland. Look at the image above to see how Miller uses highly saturated blues and yellows.

What's most interesting is how Max is only nominally the main character. (At times, it feels as if Hardy is present just so the movie can have someone named Max in it.) Meanwhile, Furiosa is fearless, badass, and driven by a mission to free the young women that the film's chief villain uses as a harem; Theron is going to have dozens of people cosplaying as her at Comic-Con this year. The relationship that springs up between her and Max is built solely on convenience, but it's perhaps the most soulfully drawn partnership in the series.

And don't take just my word for this — Fury Road has an 89 on Metacritic. That's incredibly high for a summer blockbuster. Those reviews consistently point to two things that, ultimately, make Fury Road stand out: its practical effects and its dedication to feminist themes.

What is so unusual about this movie's stunts and special effects?

Mad Max gets into a fight.

The fights in Mad Max: Fury Road are built around practical stunt work, not computer effects.

Warner Bros.

In almost every case, if you see something happening on screen in Fury Road, somebody really went out and performed it. Computer-generated effects are mostly used for scenes that would simply be too cost-prohibitive to actually film on location, like the one involving a giant sandstorm that swallows the characters whole.

This gives Fury Road a palpable sense of reality that has been missing from too many action movies in recent years. When cars smash into each other, it's real. When characters dip from tall poles mounted into the backs of vehicles into cars beside them to snatch up passengers, that's also real. When a guy hangs from the front of a giant vehicle, playing rock riffs on an electric guitar that belches flame, that's also real — and it's sadly not a job you can apply for.

As an experiment, try watching an action sequence from Avengers: Age of Ultron (a movie I really like), and then watching one from Fury Road to see how concerned you truly feel about the characters. In the latter film, that level of concern will be off the charts. You may not consciously notice the difference, but your brain can subconsciously process the difference between actual people in actual (albeit heavily faked) jeopardy and bits of information tumbling around inside a computer.

There's nothing inherently wrong with computer-generated effects, but far too many movies use them as a crutch to depict absolutely anything at all. That means everything skews toward being as "awesome" as possible — and when that happens, nothing is.

What about Fury Road's feminism? Aren't people on the internet angry about this movie?

Charlize Theron stars in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa (right) might actually be the main character of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Warner Bros.

So-called men's rights activists are upset that Fury Road tells a story where a woman attempts to take other women away from a system that subjugates them, in order to establish some sort of matriarchy elsewhere.

Here's Aaron Clarey at the blog Return of Kings, in response to reviews pointing out that Furiosa is essentially the lead character in Fury Road:

[What's at stake] is whether men in America and around the world are going to be 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.

The truth is I’m angry about the extents Hollywood and the director of Fury Road went to trick me and other men into seeing this movie. Everything VISUALLY looks amazing. It looks like that action guy flick we’ve desperately been waiting for where it is one man with principles, standing against many with none.

Somehow, Clarey misses that the original films are Australian in origin and take place in futuristic Australia, but that's neither here nor there. The larger point is that Miller has turned what looks like a hyper-masculine action film into a larger treatise on how little room there is for women in hyper-masculine action films — suggesting that perhaps there's a better way, not just for post-apocalyptic societies but for our own. He even called in Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler to consult.

As Keith Phipps (whom I have worked with before) points out in his review at the Dissolve:

Rather than confining this element to the margins, Fury Road takes it as a primary theme, revealing Furiosa’s journey as not just flight from Immortan Joe, but a search for a safe place removed from the madness and tyranny of men. The question, "Who killed the world?" gets raised a couple of times, first as graffiti, then as a bit of dialogue, and it’s always a woman asking the question.

The larger point is that the Mad Max films have always taken place "a few years from now," in a world that is like ours, but twisted a few degrees to the right. People fight over increasingly scarce resources. They form tribal societies that suspect outsiders. They settle things through bloody but inventive combat. It feels a little like where we live, just heightened, as if we might descend into this situation at the drop of a hat.

Fury Road's feminist themes, then, don't just take aim at the hyper-masculine world of action films. They take aim at any time men mistreat women at all, then suggest that that mistreatment is fundamental in making the world a worse place. It's a bold tack to take in a film that is, on some level, about who can drive a car the fastest, but that's part of what makes Fury Road feel less like yet another sequel and more like the start of something new.

Great. I'm sold. How can I see these movies?

The original trilogy is available on DVD and for digital rental. Fury Road is playing in theaters everywhere, in both 2D and 3D.

WATCH: Breaking down the chaos of a Mad Max car chase