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The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse

When is a hit not a hit? When it’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. We’ll get into the review specifics in a moment, but before we do, please allow me to paint you a picture. I didn’t see this film at a critic’s screening, surrounded by a bunch of egghead movie nerds like me. Like a real American, I paid good money* to see vehicular carnage projected in pristine digital imagery. 

To clarify, I paid good money to see it in a theater. In what was essentially an empty theater. It’s true, when my kid & I saw the film, we saw it on a Wednesday afternoon. Normal people are working during that time, as opposed to going to what felt a lot like the last picture show. But we were watching the latest film by one of the greatest directors on the planet, and there were two other people with us. 

As I write this, Furiosa has made a little over $37 million in the U.S. and Canada, and close to $33 million everywhere else. That’s not great, since the film’s budget was $168 million and there’s a fair chance it won’t break even.  By any metric it’s one of the best films of the summer, if not the year, except for the part where it’s actually a financial success. Does that matter? Perhaps, but let’s dig into the specifics of the film first.

A catastrophe has occurred, and the vast majority of Australia is a wasteland.** The Green Place of Many Mothers is not one of them. Fresh water flows and verdant greenery flourishes in this little patch of Hell, and that’s where Furiosa (Alyla Browne) lives. She’s young. Her mother, Mary Jabassa (Charlee Fraser), loves her. She thinks she’s safe. She’s wrong.

A band of raiders discovers the Green Place. They kidnap Furiosa, and their plan is to bring her to the camp of their leader, the mad warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). Their plan has holes in it, particularly the multiple holes Mary blasts through it as she attempts to rescue her daughter. Mary is valiant, but unsuccessful. Before she dies, she gifts Furiosa a peach pit, as a reminder of her home.   

For a time, Furiosa lives with Dementus and his Biker Horde. He tells her he’s lost loved ones too, that he loves her, that he wants to adopt her as his daughter. Furiosa understands what manner of man he is, and she plots escape. To help her, she tattoos a star chart on her arm to find her way home. 

Then Dementus encounters the Citadel, led by the rival war chief Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme). Now played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Furiosa sees Dementus enter into a protracted war with Immortan Joe. All Dementus cares about is seizing control of the Citadel, Gastown, and the Bullet Farm. Furiosa has different goals, and she forms an alliance with Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), one that’s mostly strategic and possibly romantic. In the end, her heart truly yearns for retribution, and she’s prepared to go to the ends of the wasteland to achieve it.

As far as I can tell, George Miller made the movie he wanted without studio interference. No mean old executives yelled at him to have Furiosa smile more and be more likable. They didn’t force him to include a Tom Cruise cameo as Mad Max’s twin brother.*** The film that’s been released came from Miller in much the same way Athena sprang from the skull of Zeus. So what is that film?

What it’s not is Mad Max: Fury Road. At the time, I said that Fury Road was perfect, and I stand by that. I don’t know that I feel that way about Furiosa, but I do know Miller directed the ever-loving bejeezus out of it. Instead of a fast-paced shot of adrenaline, Miller has made a sprawling epic. Part of it is a coming of age story, where we learn how events shaped Furiosa and how she, in turn, shapes them. Part of it is a revenge tale, where Furiosa bides her time and burns with hate toward Dementus. Part of it is, and I swear I’m not kidding, a political drama about the factions in the wasteland jockeying for power. Running through all of that are Miller’s trademark wild-ass action sequences. Expertly fused together are immaculate CGI and intricately choreographed stunts, all executed with clarity and speed. If there were any justice in this world, the Academy Awards would recognize stunt performers and we’d see this film earn a richly deserved nomination.

Miller co-wrote the screenplay with Nick Lathouris, and, as usual with films in the Mad Max universe, it rides the line between being impossibly cool and howlingly ridiculous.**** The script doesn’t just have strong characters, though it absolutely does. With Dementus, he’s a cracked mirror image of one Max Rockatansky, a guy for whom loss is a road map. Where Max reluctantly uses trauma as fuel for doing good, Dementus leans as hard as he can into nihilism. As for Furiosa, we see her journey from a sweet child to an utterly hardened warrior. Yet some character traits remain. The little girl canny enough to chew through a motorcycle’s fuel line grows into a woman clever enough to pit warlords against one another. Add to that the sharp thematic elements, such as why and how leaders rally for war and a deranged retelling of the apple in Christianity, and you have spectacle with a lot on its mind.

I learned that Miller used CGI to make the face of Alyla Browne, the young Furiosa, more closely resemble Anya Taylor-Joy. It’s a neat trick, but it probably wasn’t necessary. Browne plays the role of Furiosa for close to the first hour with grit and determination. She does an awful lot with a little, and even when she’s only staring at Chris Hemsworth, you can feel her eyes burning. Anya Taylor-Joy picks up that steel as the adult Furiosa. Her portrayal is a little different from Charlize Theron in Fury Road. While Theron plays her as more of a force, Taylor-Joy is more calculating and tactical. We can see her sizing up each situation and working through the variables. Her role is also to be the still center around which a bunch of lunatics orbit, and the biggest lunatic of all is Chris Hemsworth’s Dementus. Despite the fake nose and the silly voice, Dementus is a leader who’s deeply charismatic, intelligent, and ultimately delusional. It’s a strong villain turn, maybe the strongest in the entire franchise.

And yet, Furiosa is bombing. To my mind that’s simultaneously a problem and not a problem. It’s a problem because its soft box office may have killed any future Mad Max installments. However, Fury Road only made $47 million on its opening weekend. It took time, but it was eventually profitable, and I imagine the same thing will happen with Furiosa. It’s too good a film to be judged by box office metrics, and I feel confident that time will vindicate its quality. I know, there’s a degree of whistling past the graveyard with those previous sentences. I want theaters to come back to their former pride of place.***** It could happen, but it’s equally likely that theaters become a wasteland, fit only for the gibbering and the mad.

 

 

*When I say “I paid good money,” I mean, “I paid a little money due to the huge ticket discount we get on our AMC pass.” 

**The joke my kid and I had after the movie is that the rest of the world is just fine, but nobody noticed that Australia has collapsed into a hellscape.

***Though I actually did see people claiming that if Miller had only made a legacy sequel for the fans and cast Mel Gibson, the movie would have easily made $100 million on the opening weekend. I think about that logic a lot…

****Look, if you’re having trouble taking a movie seriously that features characters named Rictus Erectus and Chumbucket, I don’t know what to tell you.

*****For a smart article about how to fix the theatrical experience, read this.

Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

 

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