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some tentative thoughts on mad max: fury road

May 23, 2015

Just saw Mad Max: Fury Road and still processing what I think about it. For starters, it lives up to its name. It’s non-stop action from the word go, most of it taking place in, or on, nitrous-fueled hot-rods of terror in a bleak, repressive, post-apocalyptic world of scarcity and barbarism (likely the result of nuclear holocaust and/or environmental degradation due to ‘end-stage’ capitalism). But in this action-packed world, it’s the class and social issues that really take centre stage.

The main plot involves the escape of five women from the Citadel, the base camp of a group of brutal, war-worshiping neo-Vikings. The women are part of Immortan Joe’s harem, the leader of this wasteland stronghold. Through a cult of personality and control over a seemingly abundant source of water, Immortan Joe controls the people. And in this male-dominated world where women are mostly treated as property and ‘breeders’ (except for Furiosa for some inexplicable reason), death in battle in the service of Immortan Joe guarantees a place in Valhalla.

In A History of God, Karen Armstrong argues that religion is in many respects something we create for ourselves, and for it to survive, to be useful, it must be practical. In this twisted world, however, the faith of Immortan Joe’s War Boys is one of war, violence, and slavish devotion to the state and an ideal, both personified in Immortan Joe, who holds the means of their material reproduction (natural resources) and their spiritual salvation in the palm of his hands. It’s a faith not unlike that of today’s Jihadist suicide bombers or the bushido of Japanese soldiers during WWII.

But just as Armstrong demonstrates that, when one idea of God is no longer tenable or useful, it fades away to be replaced by one that does, a reformation/new ideology emerges due to the struggles of a band of unlikely and, initially unwilling, revolutionaries. Through their struggle, they not only take on and defeat patriarchy, but a ruling class that accumulates and hordes resources while the masses survive on the scraps thrown to them from above.

One of the things that I liked about this movie is that Furiosa, not Max, is the main protagonist. She’s the real star of the show; and her mission, to free these enslaved women and bring them to the safety of the “Green Place,” her childhood home, is the main focus of the story. In that sense, I think, this can be seen a feminist movie: it’s the story of one woman trying to free other women from the oppression of patriarchy; and Max, rather than being the hero, is merely one of two reluctant male allies swept up in that struggle.

That doesn’t mean the movie is without its flaws. Max’s character is flat, as is Tom Hardy’s acting. There are huge plot holes and unanswered questions (e.g., how did Furiosa get to be one of Immortan Joe’s lead general in the first place?), not to mention cliches, throughout. And the five wives of Immortan Joe are thin and scantily clad, catering to the ‘male gaze‘ no doubt. But I find it encouraging in that such a message found its way into an action-packed blockbuster, the stronghold of cinematic male chauvinism. In some ways, I see it as a more action-packed version of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.


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