‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ is a fitting return to the Fury Road

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Let’s face it, most people only care if Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is as brilliantly bonkers as Mad Max: Fury Road.

The short answer: No. It’s not.

The long answer:

With all its fire, chrome, explosions, and gun fights, Fury Road set a new benchmark for action movies. It is, to borrow a phrase from jazz, the intellectualization of the action genre, proving that action movies can have the huge stunts and setpieces and explosions and car chases and flamethrower guitars and screaming characters jumping to their eager deaths the audience demands while also having the character depth, thematic resonance, and emotional intensity that the audience needs. In my description of Fury Road as the best film of 2015 I wrote, “(Fury Road) made the summer blockbuster into critically-acclaimed art. After Fury Road there’s no excuse for an action film to be dull, safe, or merely enjoyable. There’s no excuse to be stupid.” Furiosa may not be the paradigm-shifting display that Fury Road was, but it more than meets the standard its predecessor set.

While Anya Taylor-Joy is the topline star, much of the early film centers on Alyla Browne.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

In the same way that Charlize Theron’s Furiosa paralleled and contrasted with Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky, their titular films serve as contrasting parallels to each other. Where Fury Road is streamlined and implied, taking place over a breathless 36 hours of in-world time, Furiosa is sprawling and episodic, consisting of the most formative events of 15 years worth of the character’s life. Yet, in both cases, we find the same will to survive, the determination to not let themselves be lost in the wastes of humanity, and, above everything else, the same kindness of character that has all but vanished in the collapse of society. For all their petrol-powered depravity, the Mad Max films have always been about one person – be it Max or Furiosa – choosing to care about something other than self-interest. In Furiosa we see the development of that kindness, the journey from survivor to savior, in much greater detail than we ever have in previous Mad Max films. Where Max comes to us as a fully formed character, Furiosa begins as a child who has to learn what it means to be kind despite years of injustice, abuse, and despair thrown in her way.

‘Furiosa’ lives up to the Mad Max legacy of amazing and utterly ridiculous vehicles.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Part of what made Fury Road so amazing was the visual storytelling in its character design. Here, of course, Furiosa excels with characters such as The History Man, the Organic Mechanic, and Chris Hemsworth’s appropriately named Dementus. While Furiosa offers more in the way of exposition than arguably any Mad Max film to date, Miller and his team once again prove that after forty years and thousands of imitators and tributes no one can ever hope to match the originator in both richness and impracticality of character design. Dementus himself is a testament to this with his moniker, unnecessary cape, and completely nonsensical three-motorbike chariot speaking to an obsession with styling himself after a Roman emperor (it’s only surprising that he would call his gang the Biker Hoard rather than Biker Legion). Beginning with a white cape as a sign of prominence in the dusty wastes, Dementus then shifts his presentation into whatever role he next desires until the cape itself develops layers of color like the strata of sedimentary rocks. It is entirely believable then that someone like him, as twisted as he is by years of the feedback loop of his own followers, would have a lackey conduct motorcycles like an orchestra as a demonstration of power. The catch, however, is that in explaining what was previous only offered visually, as Dementus does in the final act, Furiosa may also undercut some of its own impact.

Chris Hemsworth’s Dementus typifies the worst of masculinity.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Despite the lush abundance of The Green Place or Gas Town’s moat of oil or the Bullet Farm’s… big hole in the ground… it’s unclear whether Furiosa and the larger Mad Max mythos gains as much in showing these locations as Fury Road gained in not showing them. Of course, it would have been impossible to tell Furiosa’s story without ever seeing such places but after years of letting these locations exist as concepts in the audience’s mind, the actual payoff is a bit of a letdown. Logically we shouldn’t expect fortresses devoted entirely to the development of oil and bullets to be these wondrous, magnificent destinations overflowing with brutal technology, but it’s hard not to be a little disappointed with the lack of personalization given to these locations when compared to that of Furiosa’s many characters and vehicles. Even The Citadel, with its trio of enormous mesas and imposing steampunk machinery seems smaller and less developed in examination than when left implied. Though, in an expanse collectively referred as “the wasteland,” perhaps emptiness is the most fitting impression. None of this is to say that Furiosa’s visual storytelling is any less compelling than Fury Road’s, just that the world doesn’t seem quite complete now as it did before witnessing the emptiness.

Similarly, Furiosa’s color palette, while larger in places, doesn’t have the same stark richness as seen in Fury Road. The wasteland is still a gorgeous background, however, it is hard for Furiosa to be equally striking after what we came to expect from the previous entry. Of course CGI played a huge part in making Fury Road look as fascinatingly barren as possible but the effects were only really obvious during certain action sequences. Sadly, Furiosa’s use of CGI is much more obvious when even the cars and motorcycles driving over sand dunes look less authentic and move in the over-articulated manner of animated effects. While it’s understandable, and almost expected, for modern action films to use CGI where practical effects would be more difficult (even The Fall Guy did that), it makes Furiosa feel a little less grimy, a little less tactile, when we can see the seams in the world. No one should expect a Hollywood film, or any other film for that matter, to blast its lead actress with an actual wall of fire, but seeing a monster truck climb a mountain at impossible speed makes even what could be more practical stunts feel less believable. Where Fury Road’s less obvious CGI made its more obvious effects acceptable, Furiosa’s obvious CGI makes us doubt how much of it is real.

Did anyone really expect George Miller to blast a wall of fire at his lead actress?
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Of course, none of this means that Furiosa doesn’t deliver as an action movie. It does. Oh, it does. Several times over. Chases through the desert and extended action sequences such as an attempted War Rig take over, complete with all the impractical and jerry-rigged contraptions imaginable, easily rival the action in Fury Road. (It also needs to be said that Junkie XL’s score continues to be mesmerizing.) While not quite equal in giddy, bonkers inventiveness, Furiosa reveals refinement in camera movement (adding tension to one dialog shot and amplifying it in a climbing sequence) and its handling of quieter, more intimate moments. Sure, some of the setpieces might be a bit silly but in a world running on steel, guns, and oil, and controlled by madmen who declare themselves lords, logic likely doesn’t have much value.

If there is one element in which Furiosa stands above all other Mad Max films, it’s in storytelling. Even with its barebones set-up, Miller and Nico Lathouris craft a story which truly lives up to the title of saga. Divided into five parts of varying length, the film feels very long, if only for the abundance of massive events equally stark and brutal as the last. Economy of dialogue mixed with extended (and spectacular) setpieces means that Furiosa herself goes for almost half the film without speaking, much as Max did in Fury Road. Between lack of speech and a plethora of face coverings, lead actresses Anya Taylor-Joy and Alyla Browne (as young Furiosa) have to act almost exclusively with their eyes. Yet, in contrast with Fury Road’s gruff and terse Max, Furiosa’s minimalist approach demonstrates the caution with which Furiosa must act, first in not revealing her home, then in not revealing herself.

Anya Taylor-Joy (and Alyla Browne) is easily the favorite for Best Performance By a Pair of Eyes.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Furiosa’s silence in many ways reflects that of women in our real world. Even when faced with the Mothers she is destined to free, Furiosa remains unable to speak up for fear of reprisal and punishment at the hands men who do not hesitate to demonstrate their power. As is far too often the case, Furiosa is forced to endure an unending barrage of demeaning, dehumanizing, and downright cruel impositions on her life and her choices, all at the hands of men who have decided that brutality equates to providence. She even has to cover herself as the mere knowledge of her being a woman places her in danger. It isn’t until she makes herself equal to a man when Furiosa becomes free to grow her hair and reveal more feminine features. Yet, even when offered this little bit of influence, Furiosa is still limited in her choices, only offered the freedom which her rulers are willing to grant her and her alone.

Dementus, meanwhile, exemplifies the worst of masculinity in the way that he views cruelty as power. His promises of shared abundance in his pursuit of The Green Place are almost immediately forgotten in his drive to enrich himself. Like most toxic men of our age, Dementus is less interested in making the world a better place for all than in fighting for control of the wasteland. In a time where large populations of the real world have shunned the idea of improvement – societal, environmental, educational, scientific – in favor of pure power over whatever ashes will remain, it’s impossible not to see Dementus as promising to Make the Wasteland Great Again by declaring himself above all others. With so many such men finding pride in stripping women of their autonomy, it’s clear that Furiosa’s primal anger is entirely justified. Contrary to what will likely be cries of “Mad Max is woke now,” Fury Road’s carried a similar undercurrent of female empowerment. Last time it came when women were threatened with losing autonomy. With that threat now fulfilled, perhaps it’s time for Furiosa’s full-throated vengeance.

Despite his bloviating and his cultish followers, Dementus is nothing more than a lost and lonely man pretending at power.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures.

So no, Furiosa may not be as good as Fury Road. Fury Road, it could be said, also had the easier path: a known property, a single film in an extensive journey, and a franchise which had been dormant for 30 years. Furiosa, meanwhile, has a lesser known character, an extensive journey in a single film, and an entirely new standard of action movie to live up to. If nothing else, the use of a narrator at the start and end of Furiosa pretty well confirms the theory that the Mad Max films constitute folktales told throughout the wasteland, complete with alternations to the characters and to individual stories. Thus comparing them would be like claiming that Hercules’s seventh labor isn’t as good as his third.

Like their title characters, and like men and women in general, Furiosa is not the same as the franchise which spawned it. And it doesn’t have to be. After all, one thing being great doesn’t mean the other has to suffer.

Rating: 4 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.