George Miller’s kinetic visual audacity springs from his gift for pageantry. In the Mad Max films, one is supped up, ready to get off, before the central set pieces are even sprung. The last third of The Road Warrior’s running time, for instance, is composed of a series of interlocking action stanzas that cumulatively yield one massive, astonishingly coherent set piece, yet it’s the little ceremonial details one remembers. Particularly the prolonged shot of a leather-clad psychopath screaming as he pulls an arrow out of his arm, staring at Max as he does so, while Brian May’s operatic metal score intensifies the mood of sadomasochistic nihilism. Miller’s a stickler for detail and tactility; he drinks in his apocalyptic vehicles before they jump into action, charging up and circling one another, as the filmmaker understands that a fight of any sort must be reveled in, built up, transformed into theater. Breathtaking landscape shots are populated with gonzo warriors who steer their prehistoric insect-like vehicles into elaborate parades and promenades that include the flipping of switches, the clinking and clanking of chains and firearms, the beating of drums, and the elaborate assemblage of ludicrously amazing war-crafts. This strutting, marching fetishism has never been more pronounced than in Fury Road, which occasionally suggests the royal elaborateness of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra if it were to be retrofitted as gear-head porn.
In Fury Road, one most immediately and explicitly responds to Miller’s pronounced exhilaration to be working on such a vast scale to mount what’s, at heart, a cult film. This is the Lawrence of Arabia of highway-demolition movies, abounding in tableaus that could only be hinted at in the prior installments of the series. The desert wasteland glows with an unruly, painterly neon heat that resists the dull, dusty visual clichés of most future-shock films, and the patched-together vehicles that humans use to battle one another wreak of obsessive absurdity. In some scenes, there are cars that resemble porcupines, with great jutting spikes that appear to be impractical for the driver (how do you get into it?), but deadly for prospective opponents. One “war machine” is a made-over bulldozer, another a convertible that sits atop a tank—and then there are the usual fully armed tractor-trailers, made for transporting the “guzzoline” that will be familiar to fans of the prior Mad Max movies.
The humans are no less finely imagined, often outfitted to suggest the French Revolution playing out in the bombed-out Outback. The villain, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the “Toecutter” from Mad Max), has a huge shock of white, mad-scientist hair, a respirator that resembles the jaws of a skull, and a rotting body that literalizes the notion of patriarchal corruption and hypocrisy gone to hell. One of Joe’s henchman wears a metallic nose to replace an appendage that’s certainly crumbled away, and a hero, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), with her elegant close-cropped dome and greased battle paint, is understood to be a Joan of Arc waiting in the wings to redeem this debauched society. Joe’s soldier-boys, brainwashed by a religious code that recalls that of the knights of the Crusades, spray their mouths with chrome before they’re to stage acts of kamikaze sabotage.
There’s a head-spinning amount of visual information in Fury Road. Like Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City, it has a real suggestion of mad grandeur, particularly in the images that paint the central society, the Citadel, as a throwback to the decadently grand cities of Cecil B. DeMille’s Bible epics, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and even D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. One’s always drinking things in, whether it’s the specifics of the human blood bags or milk-producing women, or the ruined, crow-infested swamps of the “Green Place.” When Immortan Joe stands above his people to claim their admiration for his suppression of them, we see, from the former’s point of view, the terrifying, exhilarating largeness of the area he rules, from his high, rarefied vantage point. The action scenes, wizardly chain reactions of cause and effect, aren’t staged in a conventional one-after-the-other progression. We see five of the greatest action sequences in the history of cinema unfold simultaneously throughout the film, merging into one another in viciously inventive ricochets of mechanic swashbuckling set atop drag races, suggesting a fusion of the Mad Max series with cubism with The Wages of Fear with every 1940s-era pirate movie ever made. One can look at a different part of the frame each time one watches Fury Road and see an entirely different movie.
Initially, the viewer may miss the dangerous, feral sexuality of Mad Max and The Road Warrior, but that’s proven to remain in Fury Road, subsumed within the aesthetics. The fussy specificity of this world—the set design, the wardrobes, the physical gestures—is intensely sexual, knowingly reeking of attempts at fastidious distraction from the denial of carnal satisfaction. Sex is understood to be an instrument of power in this film that’s wielded by the few over their slaves, and so the common citizenry has no idea what to do with sex when faced with freedom; in the past, for them, it has embodied oppression, though they have these biological desires to contend with nevertheless. The vehicular promenades are foreplay, the warfare is vaguely equalized fornication, and the uncertainty of the more-or-less optimistic conclusion signifies what exactly? What comes after the rehabilitation of patriarchal perversity, and are there dominating portions of that sensibility with which one’s hesitant to part? Can kink and personal health cohabitate?
The image is hyper-textural: Every tire iron, spear, car, grain of sand, or speck of skin comes through with distinct clarity, whether it’s in the far background of the frame or up front in a close-up. The colors are magnificent, elaborating on the film’s refreshing diversion from post-apocalyptic epics that reliably, boringly emphasize monochromatic grays and browns. Here, there are surprising bursts of red, green, and blue, which point up the hallucinatory aliveness of the world that’s under siege, and which register in this transfer with an element of vividness that surpasses theater exhibition. The detailed English 7.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD Surround track is even better, particularly the visceral bass of the vehicular mayhem, though there are hundreds of subtler details, such as the finely differentiated sounds of the varying weapons and devices. Junkie XL’s score, as intense and startling as Brian May’s work on The Road Warrior, is also invested with sharp, multi-planed agency.
The featurettes cumulatively run about 90 minutes, mixing the usual friendly artist testimonials with evocative footage of the film’s staging and shooting. The material pertaining to the action sequences and the set design is unsurprisingly the most interesting, allowing the audience to pour over the mythologies of many fleetingly glimpsed vehicles, which sport names such as "The Excavator" (the bulldozer thing) and "The Doof Wagon" (the moving stage with the guitar player). One diverting featurette is devoted solely to the film’s aesthetic theme of repurposing objects, which would suit the desolate, bombed-out setting (Max’s muzzle, for instance, is made of a garden fork). One wishes there was a George Miller audio commentary, and there’s filler among the vignettes, but these pieces offer a solid behind-the-curtain portrait of the film. The deleted scenes are entirely skipable though.
The most unexpected great movie of 2015 arrives on home video with a gorgeous transfer that fully honors its distinctly amazing road-fever aesthetic.