Mad Max: Fury Road is not only an homage to the original series, it’s also a clever feminist deconstruction of one of the most reactionary films of the 1980s, the openly fascist Conan the Barbarian.
If John Milius imagines Conan as the white muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Aryan avenger who restores a proper racial order by killing the black cult leader Thulsa Doom, then George Miller flips the script. The Temple of Set has become the Handmaiden’s Tale. Thulsa Doom has become Immortan Joe, a strange man who looks like he belongs on the cover of an Iron Maiden album. Thulsa Doom had a gaggle of brainwashed, white teenage girls. He occasionally orders one of them to kill herself just for kicks. Immortan Joe keeps a multi-racial harem of underwear models imprisoned under a skull symbol, a clear reference to the horrible American Sniper, but he uses them as brood mares. Surely it’s not much of a stretch to see him as a symbol of the anti-abortion movement. He also hordes all the water and the food. He’s a neoliberal tyrant for a neoliberal wasteland. His army resembles a group of Neo Nazi skinheads. Their promised reward? A one way trip to Valhala.
Conan the Barbarian did feature a strong woman, Valerien, played by Sandahl Bergman, who does save the hero’s life, but she’s a sidekick, not the heroine. What’s more, Conan does attempt to inspire an uprising of Thulsa Doom’s white concunbines. The kidnapped princess is tied to a stake, brainwashed, and plays no part in her own rescue. In Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, Max Rockatansky, and Imperator Furiosa not only work as a team — Charlize Theron resting her sniper rifles on Tom Hardy’s shoulder is indeed a striking image — they lead a group of rebels on a long march to a promised land. After the “Green Place” proves to be as much of a barren wasteland as the rest of their world, they return to Immortan Joe’s citidal, and, with the help of a ferocious group of old women called the Vulvalini, kill him Joe and liberate his slaves. Max helps restore the badly wounded Furiosa with his own blood. Mad Max: Fury Road, in other words, is a socialist feminist movie with a radical left-wing agenda that deserves all the praise it’s getting on soical media.
So why didn’t I like it?
Alas, as well-acted as Mad Max: Fury Road is, as much as I liked its politics, the film’s pacing is terrible. Fascist asshole though he was, John Milius at least knew how to stage an entertaining spectacle. After an illustrious career that included the original Mad Max, George Miller seems to have forgotten. The whole film is really just a long car chase with little or no dialogue or character development. What’s more, from the very first frame, Mad Max: Fury Road turns the volume up to eleven. Try to imagine the 1812 Overture cut down to the last 5 minutes, then repeated 20 times over the next two hours, or the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan bulked up into the whole movie. There can be too much of a good thing. After awhile, it just gets boring. I fell asleep twice before the whole thing was finally over. I did root for Max and Furiosa to escape, kill Immortan Joe, and restore the world’s balance, but it was my brain, not my heart that cheered them on. I wanted them to win, not because I liked them, or identified with them, but because I had read enough rave reviews on social media to know what they were supposed to represent.
It is possible, even likely, that as a 50-year-old man who prefers Mozart to heavy metal and Preston Sturges to video games, I’m simply not among the film’s targeted demographic. For people who grew up with iPhones and Grand Theft Auto, comic books, graphic novels, books, and a constant barrage of super hero movies, the pacing and the plot probably work just fine. I might be an old man who just doesn’t get it. I suppose I’ll run a test and watch it a second time, just to see if my expectations of a more traditional plot that never materialized short circuited my enjoyment of the film’s action, but, to be honest, if it weren’t for all the astroturfed publicity on social media, I’d probably just forget about it. I suspect that when all the hype dies down, Mad Max: Fury Road will be revealed as a good idea ruined by lousy execution.