Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review of Mad Max: Fury Road: Fierce Furiosa and the Lessons of Dystopia

As this review from Jen Yamato says, Mad Max: Fury Road will melt your face off.  I’ve seen it twice in as many days, and I plan to go back for a third fix soon.  You need to see this movie.  If you like the original Mad Max movies, or even if you don’t or haven't seen them.  If you like action movies, even a little.  If you like thoroughly constructed dystopian worlds.  If you like sci-fi movies in which women are portrayed as human beings with their own thoughts and goals.  If you like movies that pass the Bechdel test.  If you think action movies don’t have to be mind-numbingly stupid (cough, Michael Bay).  If nearly universal critical praise impresses you (it’s currently 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).  If you like movies.  You need to see this movie.

And the pièce de résistance of the symphony of awesomeness that is Mad Max: Fury Road … 

I cackled maniacally every time this was on screen (quietly, though - I was in a movie theater)
.... this truck outfitted with a flame-thrower/guitar/bass, stack of amps, and drums on the back!  This is exactly what I would have if I were a post-apocalyptic warlord!  How did we ever imagine a dystopian wasteland without this? 

As the above trailer hints at, the movie should really be called Fierce Furiosa rather than Mad Max, because Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is the real star of the show.  Max (Tom Hardy) is quite literally along for the ride.  A lot of reviewers have praised the movie's feminism.  Furiosa’s on a mission to transport a group of slaves (known collectively as the Wives) to freedom from their warlord owner, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the guy who played Toecutter in the first Mad Max movie).  

Along the way they meet the Vuvalini, a group – motorcycle gang, really – of tough-as-nails women, most of whom are over 70 and would eat you for breakfast.  Director George Miller consulted with Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame) about the real life experiences of sex slaves around the world in order to capture the experience of the Wives.  Also, each Wife has her own personality.  My favorite is Capable (Riley Keough), who brings a few moments of human kindness in the midst of overwhelming brutality.

No wonder this movie has gotten under the skin of so-called “men’s rights” groups.  This headline says it all: “Mad men mad at Mad Max for having mad women.”

The one criticism I have is that, aside from Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) and a few extras, the future looks pretty white (although it's often hard to tell who's under the make up and costumes).  While it's great to see the women here, it would be nice to see more people of color as well (see my post on diversity in science fiction and philosophy for why diversity is important).

Did I mention that the scenery is beautiful?  Namibia was standing in for Australia (apparently the Outback had too much rainfall for the apocalypse).  And then there’s the character of Nux, who develops in ways you won't expect (he’s the one who says, “What a day!  What a lovely day!”).  

And the haunting blue tinted scenes with people walking on stilts.  And the giant sand storm.  And did I mention the flame-throwing guitar?

I could go on about all the things I loved about this movie.  If you want more in the genre of standard movie reviews, some good ones are here, here, here, and here.  But let me move on.

The Lessons of Dystopia

Amidst all the flaming guitars, car-crunching destruction, and face-melting action, you’d think it would be hard to find a philosophical moment.  At first, it is.  I find that the best philosophy is done in moments of quiet reflection or free-flowing dialogue.  You don’t get much of either of those in this movie.  But once the credits started rolling and my pulse died down, I thought about dystopias.
Max in a moment of reflection
Furiosa in a quiet moment
As I noted in a post on Interstellar, dystopias are all the rage these days.  Everywhere you turn in the science fictional zones of popular culture, things are looking pretty bleak for human civilization (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Walking Dead, etc.).  I’m not entirely sure what this says about the current zeitgeist.  Maybe it's a fear of the breakdown of social order, or giving up on the idea of progress and the public good?  Maybe it's a symptom (or cause?) of the petty selfishness that's infecting many aspects of life in the 21st century?

Whatever it may say about the zeitgeist, a lot of people almost relish the idea of living in a dystopia, as the t-shirt slogan below suggests.  Or at least people like to imagine that they’re tough enough or smart enough to survive the downfall of civilization. 

That’s all fine, I guess, but I don’t have these survival fantasies.  I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t last a day on The Walking Dead before becoming zombie chow.  I’d be one of the War Boys’ blood bags in Mad Max: Fury Road in about two seconds if I got within ten miles of the Citadel.

For me, the real lesson of dystopian science fiction is that we should defend, cherish, and celebrate civilization.  We seem to have forgotten that dystopias are supposed to be horrific, even if they're as thoroughly entertaining as Mad Max: Fury Road.  And by “civilization” I don’t mean some insidious, coercive force of homogenization that erases all differences and disagreements.  A true civilization could celebrate diversity and encourage debate (my favorite example is the Culture of Iain M. Banks).  

By “civilization” I mean the infrastructure that allows us to avoid what Hobbes called the “state of nature” or the “war of all against all.” I’m talking about the 17th century English philosopher, not the cartoon tiger, although the tiger has deep thoughts, too.  This infrastructure includes physical infrastructure, like roads, electricity, food and water supplies, etc., but it also includes what you might call “ethical infrastructure” – the ideas that disagreements should be dealt with by means other than violence, that everyone deserves a basic level of respect, and so forth.  Civilization in my sense requires people to accept the idea that the Wives paint on the wall before they escape: “We are not things.”  (See this article by Donna Dickens  - point #7 - for a nice discussion of this idea).  As the phenomena of sexual slavery and rape during wartime have shown, the breakdown of civilization usually hurts women and children the most.
"We are not things."
Physical and ethical infrastructure are the soil in which we can grow to be sane, decent human beings.  At the beginning of the movie, Max says, via voiceover, “As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy.  Me… or everyone else.”  Especially on my second viewing, I reflected on the struggles that characters like Furiosa, Max, the Wives, Nux, and the Vuvalini have with trying to be sane and decent people in an insane, indecent world.  Even for all of our civilization, I think most of us can relate.

I certainly don’t mean to say that our civilization (the world’s, America’s, or whatever) is perfect, or that ideas like “civilization” and “sanity” haven’t been used to hurt or oppress people.  We have a long way to go.  In a thousand years, our descendants might doubt we had a “civilization” at all in the early 21st century.  Given our current problems of massive income and power inequalities, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, slavery, poverty, children dying of preventable diseases, and so forth, our descendants might look on our “civilization” the same way we look at Immortan Joe’s Citadel.  Part of me hopes they do.  As odd as it sounds, the lesson of dystopian science fiction like Mad Max: Fury Road is that we should value what civilization we have as a means to our descendants someday considering our world to be dystopian.

Now if only our dystopia had more flame-throwing guitars!


  1. This is a great post. But rather than try to come up with a philosophically interesting response, I think I'll just ask the question I'm really curious about. What are your top five fictional depictions of dystopias? Does Fury Road make the list?!?!

  2. Thanks! Great question!

    1- Fury Road definitely makes the list (can I include the earlier Mad Max movies, too?. I'm going to try to sneak in some others like that if I can only have five!). Limiting myself to post-apocalyptic dystopias taking place after some giant environmental collapse, disease, war, etc., I'd say some of my favorites are:

    2- The Postman (book by David Brin with a pretty decent movie starring Kevin Costner who says something like: "Wouldn't it be nice if wars could be settled by the assholes who started them?")

    3- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (takes the long view over hundreds of years of a post-nuclear war world rediscovering science and learning)

    4- My two favorite Octavia Butler series: the Xenogenesis series (aliens try to help humans after nuclear war, or is it "help" at all?) and the Parable series (amazing books of a young woman living through some kind of apocalypse, dealing with slavers and other assholes, and founding her own religious commune based on the promise of space travel.)

    5- Interstellar (since I've been raving about it the last several months as a "utopian dystopia")

    - Honorable mentions: The Handmaid's Tale, The Matrix, The Stand, The Terminator movies (at least the first two), Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last," Children of Men, WALL-E, the later Planet of the Apes movies (old and new), Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Logan's Run, Akira, Childhood's End, Cloud Atlas.

    Maybes: The first couple seasons of The Walking Dead (it got old for me), Soylent Green ("It's made from people!"), I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer (felt overrated, but I'd see it again), Folk of the Fringe (read when I was a teenager), 12 Monkeys, The Hunger Games (I've seen the movies, I haven't read the books).

    - They're not post apocalyptic, but I'd also mention the classic dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World are amazing (I think Brave New World is tragically underrated compared to 1984, since the oppression is more internal in Huxley's dystopia and thus far more relevant to the American situation). Also, Idiocracy isn't apocalyptic, but it's a hilarious dystopia nonetheless.

    This Wikipedia page helped me with some examples:

    And this one:

    I'm sure this overly exhaustive list has still forgotten something!

    1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Bladerunner count as post-apocalyptic dystopia! (Nuclear in the novel, at least environmental in the movie). I can't believe I forgot that! Also, addendum to the non-apocalyptic dystopia list: pretty much everything else Philip K. Dick wrote.

    2. This is the best reply ever! I'm going to fly in to take your dystopia and philosophy course when you get around to teaching it. I haven't read all of the above, but I did read Butler's "Parable of the Sower" and it was wack. (Did I spell that right? waaack?). So amazing.

    3. Parable of the Sower is indeed waaaack. And one of my favorite books. I loved the sequel, Parable of the Talents, even more.

      A dystopia and philosophy class would be awesome. Someone should edit a Mad Max and Philosophy book in time for the sequels that George Miller has planned.

  3. The super nerds of the internet have been hard at work during the last week to bring us this theory that's really fun to consider - what if Max isn't really Max? See:

  4. This piece by Allegra Geller is relevant to the one thing I didn't like about Fury Road: "One and Done: Hollywood's Obsession with a Colorless Future":

  5. Today I attended a private screening of Mad Max: Fury Road. You, too, can have this kind of special treatment when you see a movie on a weekday afternoon a month after it comes out.

  6. I've posted this elsewhere, but thought it relevant to your blog:

    It's always interesting in tracing the cultural mindset of a time period through popular culture, and sometimes, it is even enlightening. In fact, the time during which fictional works - be it magazines, novels, music, film or television - are created, actually are more telling about the mindset of the period than the majority of non-fiction accounts, including those written during the time period in question by the academics and cultural observers themselves.

    When scholars examine the UFO or aliens or flying saucer science fiction of the 50s and 60s, they look beyond the art or message of the work and pay closer attention to what they unintentionally communicate about the collective unconscious of the post-war, early Cold War Americans. These stories are chock-full of a sense of dread about being destroyed by a clever and sinister technologically advanced "other." These aliens would rain death from above, turn people against themselves, take over the world through a highly advanced version of the Holocaust or through subversive body snatching strategies from within. The protagonists of those stories were earnest, clean cut All-American types, sometimes athletic farmers and a couple of sassy & buxom women, who saved their villages and communities, and the entire world. So the creators were unconsciously betraying their own period based anxieties, a well of collective paranoia the Americans experienced during the early Cold War where worries of nuclear annihilation, Soviet invasion, or secret Communist subversion through spies and brainwashing were rampant. Only the zealously morally upright white Protestant youth could save the planet from the errors of society's ignorance.

    In other words, the post-apocalyptic fiction from the eighties, set in some distant future tell us more about the 1980s than they could about the bleak future of humanity. In the eighties, we had: The Road Warrior. Night of the Comet. The Day After. The Quiet Earth.

    Even old Dr. Pepper ads from the 80s that show a horrible post-apocalyptic future where a Mad Max-styled hero travels around, distributing Dr. Pepper. The cola wars had destroyed the planet, and all that's left was a George Miller-styled vision of civilization as the Australian desert.

    The reason we don't make 'em like that anymore?

    Just look at the post-apocalyptic future in current movies and fiction. Quite different from the wasteland of the 80s' dystopian futures.

    WALL-E. The Road. Cloud Atlas. Oblivion.

    And yes, Interstellar.

    They all show a world that's abandoned, but visitable by people in environment suits, blessed with hyper-technology, and live mostly off world. It's a sterile and utopian future that meets the barren past. Basically, Earth has been destroyed, and the climate became so inhospitable that man had to move offworld.

    Is the current trend in post-apocalyptic fiction more or less pessimistic than those from the 80s? Is it too optimistic to think that we will develop the capability to move offworld someday? Or a resigned pessimism that admits we're gonna screw the pooch so badly that not even Mad Max will be able to make sequels?

    In the 80s, the post-apocalypse was about survival. No matter what, something will survive, and there will be heroes.

    In the 21st century? We just run away.

    In the 80s, apocalypse is always nuclear. One and Done destruction of Earth. No time to prepare, no second chances. As for the 21st century version of the apocalypse? It's environmental. A slow decay, gradual climate change. At least there's time to prepare. But according to those stories, it's easier to build a space based civilization than it is to fix the environment we've known about for years and decades. Basically, the scifi geek is yelling: "You can live in space but you can't come up with tech to fix Earth?" Then again, Earth in the current films isn't home. It's the antagonist.

    1. Thanks, this is really insightful. There is something maybe harmful and escapist about the idea of leaving Earth instead of trying to use science to solve the problems. You might like Kim Stanley Robinson's book, Aurora, which makes a similar point, although oddly through the story of an interstellar voyage:

  7. Seriously At first when I saw the movie than don't get the story of the movie. But later I understand the movie. I am movie lover. Watch movie online is my hobby. I watch movies with my brother. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.