In Search of Our Better Selves – Themes of Mad Max: Fury Road

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Mad Max: Fury Road was my favorite movie of 2015 and maybe my favorite personal experience in a movie theater of all time. It’s excellent on its own merits as an action movie, with George Miller having had spent nearly 15 years or so developing the plot, characters, and world of Fury Road, with an attention to detail especially for stunts, sets, costumes, and the sort of classic analog special effects that have been long supplanted by CGI in Hollywood movie making. The result is a very intense visual experience and a fully realized cinematic world that I think would stand on its own merits even if it were just that.

All that said, a common criticism of Fury Road is that it is seemingly threadbare in plot, little more than a giant, long car chase dressed up as a full-length movie. In reality, Fury Road is rich in symbolism and subtext, some of which is very blatant and in other cases more subtle. I think it’s worth-reviewing, so as I understand them, here are my summaries on some of the most important themes of Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Trauma and Redemption

The two largest themes of Mad Max: Fury Road are trauma and the seeking of redemption. These themes are typified specifically by the film’s two leads: Max and Furiosa. Both are characters who are reflections of each other. These characters start at polar opposite points in their respective lives, with both of them having chosen a different path to follow in order to survive their world.

When we first meet Furiosa, she is a tool of power and an enforcer of hierarchy.  She is an Imperator, a leader in the death cult society that Immortan Joe has established at the Citadel. Having obtained this role makes her a hardened and ranking member of what remains of post-apocalypse society. We are not given an extensive amount of Furiosa’s backstory or how she came to be an Imperator but from what we do know about her past, we can piece together a few important facts about who she is: Furiosa was originally born in the fertile land of the Green Place and kidnapped as a child, though we do not necessarily know by whom. We do know that at whatever point in time she came to reside at Immortan Joe’s Citadel, where she has stayed for a large part of her life.

The few women who live in the upper reaches of the Citadel exist to either bear Immortan Joe children, service him sexually, or to produce milk. Since Furiosa seems to have had no use as a mother for Joe’s children and is a warrior in his cult, there’s the implication that Furiosa is most likely sterile. Spared from being a member of Immortan Joe’s harem or one of his brides, Furiosa has become a participant in Immortan Joe’s society and hierarchy, distinguishing herself by doing his dirty work in exchange for privileges that allow her easy access to shelter, water, food, and prestige. She climbs and commands a place in the social hierarchy in order to escape the harsh life of the huddled underclass we see clamoring for water near the beginning of the movie.

Naturally, in order to maintain her position, she has most likely done terrible things. The world of the wasteland is harsh enough as it is, but in earning the title of “Imperator”, she has distinguished herself in an already brutal land. We know that, however, by the beginning of the movie Furiosa’s hardened nature has broken down once introduced to the company of Immortan Joe’s Brides. Her time guarding the Brides and observing their innocence and abuse reignites Furiosa’s guilt, own traumas, memories, and hopes for the future. In rescuing the Brides away from Immortan Joe and trying to find the Green Place, a nostalgic place free of men like Immortan Joe and their cruelty, Furiosa seeks to redeem herself for the atrocities she has committed and seen, she fights for her own absolution from a society that is unjust.

Max has responded to his experience of trauma, the loss of loved ones and the death of the world, by shedding society and other people as much as possible. Haunted by the failure of those he has failed to protect, he begins as a man reduced to a feral state, withdrawn, and solely focused on survival. He has lost a wife, a daughter, and countless others.

As is common with victims of trauma, Max disconnects and dissociates. He compartmentalizes. Getting close to no one means he can at least focus on something else besides old loss and the potential for new loss. Max falls in with Furiosa and the Brides initially with just the intent of preserving his own life, but as Max spends more time with Furiosa and the Brides and begins to join their hopes for a better future, Max’s own personal barriers break down. By finding something beyond himself to fight for, by allowing himself to have something to live for beyond his own survival, Max rediscovers (if only for a little while) his humanity and a sense of community that he has lost.

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Sacrifice and Community

Max and Furiosa’s traumas, guilt, and failures are their own. Their redemption is not. The focus Fury Road places on community and shared burdens is important and a message that can be taken to heart. Max and Furiosa do not absolve their inner demons alone. They overcome them by rejecting being individualized or atomized or focused solely on themselves and their own survival. They learn to cooperate. The struggle and emphasis of Fury Road is importantly a shared one, a communal one. This is essentially the story of a loose-knit family forged in the face of adversity and bonds between people who struggle together that make them willing to sacrifice themselves for each other.

Nux the War Boy spends the entire first half of the movie trying to win the approval of a society and a patriarch that sees him as disposable. The War Boys are actively encouraged to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Immortan Joe and personal glory. By the film’s end, Nux has indeed sacrificed his life but not for some personal Valhalla. Nux dies historic on the Fury Road and sacrifices himself not for the individual honor and glory that is encouraged by the society of the Citadel, but because he has found a group and a person (the bride, Capable) that mean more to him than the Citadel and its promises of immortality ever did. His death has only one witness and it is fittingly the only witness he could ever care about.

After sharing mutual distrust after first meeting, Max and Furiosa eventually come to build a respect and trust with each other. They risk their lives for each other and symbolically at the end of the film, Max literally bonds himself by blood to Furiosa, saving her life. In the emotional climax of the movie, after having given her his blood, Max movingly offers Furiosa the most intimate thing he has: his name. Their significance to each other is now permanent. The taking of the Citadel seems to be Furiosa’s glory but meeting Max is the most significant occurrence in her life thus far, changing everything. His presence allows her to build and succeed on his haunting failures.

Case in point: Fury Road is not a movie about individual heroics, it is a story about collective triumph.

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Gender and Hierarchy

Who killed the world? The question proposed by the graffiti scrawled in Immortan Joe’s lair seems to having a pretty damning answer: men. Or at least their societies. The nuclear war and the battles over resources have torn up the world and left a waste. The civilization that has emerged from the ruins is horribly oppressive and aggressively macho. The women in the society of the Citadel are generally stripped of their agency to serve its patriarch or they are among the huddled, thirsty masses below.  The men are drafted into a personal army that encourages treating your life with recklessness for the glory of a distant and uncaring father figure.

Fury Road lays blame for the death of the world at the feet of a macho, resource guzzling, war-mongering society.

Though feminist in bent, this is not a utopian or moralistic film. It is notable that the paradise that Furiosa sets out to find, a green utopia free of men, has literally wasted away by the time she arrives. The comments by the older women who stayed behind suggest that Furiosa’s dream was probably untenable or temporary in the first place before falling apart. Her escape attempt is pinned on vague hopes and nostalgia. Without Max’s knowledge, Furiosa most likely would have led her party to their deaths in the salt desert after discovering the dream she hoped to find was dead.

The solution that Fury Road does suggest is inclusive. Nux and Max prove themselves to be men that Furiosa and the other women can trust. Nux is by his nature, naive and young and preyed upon in his own way by the macho society that has raised him. Once he has shed his pretenses of glory, he is accepted into the fold.  Max earns their trust as he slowly humanizes himself. Furiosa’s crusade and society eventually becomes open to those who are willing to become participants. The societies of men may have killed the world, but the men themselves are not irredeemable.

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Hope and Empowerment

When Max stops Furiosa and the convoy from journeying off into the desert and suggests they take back the Citadel, it’s an important subtext. It is at this point that Furiosa must come to terms with the fact that there is no Green Place that she can run to. Max lays bare the fact that the world she is looking for has been under her nose all along. It’s just that it must be taken and built.

The message of Fury Road is empowerment. The resources and infrastructure to build the world you want are already there. The people who can help you confront your problems are closer than you think. And a better future may just be one or two rebellious acts away.

All of this applies as much to our own world as much as the apocalyptic one depicted in the film. As the epigraph of Fury Road questions: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” The world we inhabit now is its own metaphorical wasteland, filled with injustices. The hope is that we confront it.

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