The world has totally gone to hell in Mad Max: Fury Road, and goddamn, does it look great. It's fitting that a week before the arrival of Tomorrowland, Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof's earnest argument in favor of hopeful futurescapes, the face-melting fourth installment to George Miller's franchise is gunning into theaters to suggest there's nothing like the flame-out of humanity for unprecedented spectacle. The movie makes a fume-drunk, totally convincing case for how thematically lavish and awesome-looking the apocalypse can be, as long as you don't have to live there.
It's not necessary to have seen the early Mad Max movies to get the gist of where things lie in the indeterminate future of Mad Max: Fury Road, though it's funny to look back at the Australia of the first installment and remember that it had diners and a court system and that its main character had something terrible happen to him while on vacation. Fury Road is so beyond those trappings of civilization that it's practically alien, taking place on an Earth that's all wasteland, a desiccated, dusty stretch as far as the eye can see. What survivors are left prey on one another out on the open road or by way of tyrannical tribal societies.
These survivors exist among the tattered remnants of mankind, in the kind of place that would drive a fellow insane. And the title character is pretty solidly off his rocker, though judging by the unsurprised reactions of everyone he encounters, this is not an uncommon condition. He's come a long way from the Max Rockatansky of the first movie, too, so far in fact that he's a new man. Tom Hardy, taking over for Mel Gibson, portrays Max as a feral animal, grunting out his few lines and, in the first moment we see him, chomping on an unfortunate lizard that happened to scurry by.
Even by the franchise's fuzzy timeline, Max should be getting on in years, so there's something reassuring and fantastic about the way the recasting suggests that, in the 30 years since we last saw him, he's barely aged. Like James Bond, he's become as much an idea as a person, wandering eternally into and out of the lives of humankind's remainders like the reworked, cataclysmic Western antihero he is. In Mad Max: Fury Road, he blunders into the path of Imperator Furiosa (a terrific Charlize Theron), who drives an amped-up big rig for warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the first film), and who's about to make a risky bid for freedom along with the man's five formerly captive young wives.
Mad Max: Fury Road, which director Miller wrote with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, is one gigantic chase sequence in which Furiosa and the women in her keeping make a wild run for a maybe-mythic sanctuary they call "green place," while multiple war parties chase them down. The details of what's become of the world trickle out at the sides of the action — there is, blissfully, no stopping so that someone can unleash an informational monologue about how Immortan Joe's warped excuse for a community works.
We understand that Immortan Joe has built a death cult with his War Boys, a set of young men with terminal illnesses who look interchangeable with their skull makeup and other scarification, and who chase destruction because of the promises of Valhalla. (One of them, Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult, manages to emerge from the nearly identical pack.) We also understand that Immortan Joe controls the only regular, non-toxic water supply in the area, doling it out to the hardscrabble crowd living in his shadow and cautioning them not to get addicted, as if the need for water were a matter of willpower.
Miller appreciates that every aspect of the world doesn't need to be explained for it to feel solid. Why provide an explanation when you can sear it into the brains of your audience with such savagely evocative imagery? This includes a series of escalating high-speed battles in which characters leap or are thrown from vehicle to vehicle, hurl spears strapped with explosives, and swing back and forth on poles like dangerous metronomes — Wacky Races as reenacted with flesh-and-blood people who are either crazed or desperate enough to take unimaginable risks. It's so richly detailed that you can read volumes into passing observations, like the fact that Immortan Joe rides with a decadent doomsday equivalent of war drums — a truck outfitted with massive speakers and a gimp-masked man playing a flamethrower guitar.
But more than the dizzying clashes on the road, Mad Max: Fury Road troubles the mind with recurring glimpses of human beings being harvested. Bodies have become the most important resource at a time when everyone's covered with tumors, sores, and deformations from their increasingly poisonous environs, not to mention scars and wounds from their encounters with each other. When Max first ends up in Immortan Joe's Citadel, it's only because he was unlucky enough to be spotted by scavengers. He's been captured to be used as a source of reenergizing bodily fluids for the more sickly War Boys.
Nux, who takes Max into battle chained to the front of his car like a hood ornament, refers to him, almost affectionately, as "Blood Bag." Women are shown getting milked like cows. Cannibalism may never be depicted, but it's the undercurrent of every grotesque glimpse of life in the compound. If the human species is going down, the strong are going to be the last ones standing, warming their hands over the burning corpses of everyone weaker. Conversely, one of the movie's most poignant moments involves a character willingly offering up blood to someone who's been hurt.
The bodies of the young women Furiosa is trying to rescue, played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, and Abbey Lee, are also commodities, ones Immortan Joe and his allies are willing to risk everything to retrieve — especially those pregnant with a possible future heir. He even demands from one the baby she's carrying, insisting it's his stolen property. That female bodily integrity has been torched in this testosterone-filled nightmare state isn't a surprise — what is, pleasantly, is the way that Mad Max: Fury Road refuses to let this be an excuse to also treat its women like so much meat. The wives emerge as distinct and disparate personalities, even if all of the time we spend with them is on the run. Splendid (Huntington-Whiteley) is defiant, while Fragile (Eaton) is so shattered by her experiences she tries to return to her abuser rather than risk making him more angry, and Capable (Keough) forms a wistful connection to an unlikely character.
These characters are not MacGuffins, not just objects over which the men can fight, and Furiosa is no sidekick. She's as much the protagonist of the movie as Max, with whom she at first comes to blows before settling on a cautious detente. The two arrive at a deeper understanding over the course of their journey, all without bothering to talk things out — they're just two fearsome survivors who recognize in one another some last flickers of humanity.
With her shaved head and her robotic arm, Furiosa has all the trappings of an iconic action heroine, but Theron channels her emotional performance through her eyes, which are steady but haunted beneath the black war paint. Furiosa knows she's probably going to die, and has decided it's worth it to chase one last bit of hope for a place that hasn't gone completely deranged. Sometimes you search for a home, and sometimes you have to make one. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the ultimate glory isn't in how extravagantly and brutally the world is being destroyed, with its explosions like blossoms across the desert, but in how its characters beat back those who are reveling in its destruction.