On a purely aesthetic level, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a more-or-less typical product of modern Hollywood. Despite staking no credible claim to narrative or even visual ingenuity, the film was almost universally well-received, with critics by and large praising the characterization (especially of feminist revolutionary Furiosa) and the movie’s political subtext. Though the script had been more-or-less polished for a decade, the movie’s release in the early days of the Trump campaign couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time, for reasons beyond its depiction of the regressive, tyrannical demagogue Immortan Joe. Fury Road, with its weirdly retro aesthetic and over-the-top, fetishized brutality, is nothing if not a true-to-life depiction of the psychodrama that has been unfolding in America for an interminable four years.
Negative reactions to the film tended to allege that it offered adrenaline-laced style in lieu of narrative substance, that it was, as David Edwards of the Daily Mirror wrote, “noisy, explosive and visually spectacular but depressingly hollow.” Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle, in a statement typical of detractors, described it as “little more than a two-hour chase scene.” And, despite my positive feelings toward the film, I have to admit that LaSalle is basically right on that count. Explosions are frequent from late in the first act onwards, and while no one (to my knowledge) has run the numbers, I’d be willing to bet that, of the highest-grossing movies of 2015, Fury Road surely had something close to the fewest spoken words of dialogue, putting it closer to director George Miller’s vision of a “silent movie with sound,” which he had intended for 1979’s Mad Max, than that film turned out to be.
Don’t get me wrong; I certainly take issue with any description of this movie as “hollow”. In fact, I think Fury Road is a crucially important text in the American action-film canon beyond its high adventure and effects-driven spectacle. Despite its superficial resemblance to its three predecessors, Fury Road stars a very different Max. De-aged through the magic of recasting, Max has shed a solid ten or fifteen years since we last saw him in Thunderdome. In earlier installments depicted as a cop traumatized by the murder of his wife, child, and patrol partner, he is here, for the most part, a secondary actor in a revolt initiated by Furiosa. His last heroic action, indeed, is to give the wounded Furiosa his own blood, saving her life.
This movie, too, is the first time we see Max starting out alone, with no human or animal companion in the wasteland, a “high octane” “blood bag” held captive in a military hospital inside Immortan Joe’s Citadel. Where Tom Hardy’s agency, even his relatability, is mitigated at every turn compared to past films, Charlize Theron’s crusade to rescue the Wives from sexual slavery animates practically all of the action (something that can’t really be said of her character in Atomic Blonde). Male loss is superseded by female rage.
If the relation of Tom Hardy’s Max to the past of Mel Gibson’s Max is unclear, the relation of Fury Road‘s imagined future to our own past is somewhat more lucid. The world of the Mad Max series is, after all, an aftermath—of energy crisis and environmental collapse, or of nuclear war (the emphasis depends on which of the films you’re watching), and modern American society is undeniably used to thinking of itself as existing in the aftermath of something. Depictions of post-apocalyptic dystopias proliferate in our current dismal political milieu. 1979’s Mad Max, too, was part of a similar late-Cold-War trend of post-apocalyptic worlds uncannily similar yet chillingly distant, aesthetically, ethically, and culturally, from our own.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run had delivered ham-fistedly an antiwar, CounterCultureTM ethic pre-packaged for cinemagoers. Mad Max, by contrast, was deceptively simple, even regressively so, a Western at its core. The advance of civilization had once vanished the frontier, but its collapse raises it anew, and with it the libertarian power fantasy of an untamed zone of untrammeled agency, threatened on all sides by savages. The film was conceived in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and on the eve of the one in 1979, amid the Iranian Revolution and the making of the contemporary Middle East. The world Mad Max imagines is that of Cold War antagonism taken to its natural conclusion, ravaged not necessarily by atomic bombs but certainly by climatic and economic upheaval. Two superpowers replaced by no power at all.
Far from the on-your-nose social criticism of Brave New World or The Hunger Games, the apocalyptic of the original Mad Max is understated; its primary function is to act as a vehicle for the return of the repressed in the form of a primal battle between law (Officer Max Rockatansky) and chaos (the motorcycle gang who murder his family and partner). Fury Road, set fifty years after the collapse, reverses the moral significance of the battle, now between Immortan Joe, the wasteland’s sole authority figure, and Furiosa, his traitorous lieutenant. Little remains of Max’s old Main Force Patrol uniform, now tattered and dirty beyond recognition. The enemy is no longer the sea of hostile chaos, but Joe’s island of order.
Like Trump, the autocrat of Fury Road positions himself as the vanguard of a vanishing humanity, attempting to drag it back into the supposed light of civilization. It seems almost an inborn human tendency to think of where we have been at the expense of where we might be going. We are proud, in some sense, of living in the aftermath. We like to think of ourselves as post-Vietnam, post-9/11, postracial, postmodern. We’ve lived through it, we’ve gotten over it, and now we can sit back with a self-satisfied feeling and revel in the fact of being beyond it all. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”
For all the progressive, post pretensions of modern culture, we are still backward-looking, and that’s a theme that runs through the visuals of Fury Road, not to say through the plot itself. 1970s automobiles ride alongside articulated milk tankers and jerry-built tanks. Images of amputation—Furiosa herself, the legless man who scuttles across the sand upon Max’s return to the Citadel—recur in the film as reminders of a traumatic experience that has passed, but the effects of which nonetheless tangibly linger. “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real,” Cormac McCarthy wrote—not was real. Is real.
Our idea of the past exists in a complex relationship to our conception of the present, of ourselves now. By this point it’s a commonplace several years old that many (increasingly, most) of our highest-grossing films are remakes, or sequels, or adaptations of properties originating in novels or video games or comics. On the level of actual subject matter too, a post-apocalyptic world is, almost by definition, a world of culture at a historic standstill. Max, a half century from Armageddon, looks nearly as youthful as he did at its start. Immortan Joe’s army is encrusted with the aesthetics—not to mention the military equipment—of a time long past. His henchman drive classic cars modified into attack vehicles—a perfect metaphor for the kind of militaristic jingoism and patriotic, romanticizing nostalgia that underlies a slogan like “Make America Great Again,” an exercise in the rewriting of history if there has ever been one.
The wasteland, like the regressive, romanticized historical vision of fascism, takes us outside of history, allows us to view humanity from the perspective of geological time. Here human culture is already fossilized, frozen in time. The desert, a metonymy for the end of civilization, conceals beneath it a vast reserve of “high octane” fuel formed not by dinosaur bones or prehistoric rainforests, but by the institutional power Joe seeks to unearth.
Poor in the stuff of life, the desert is a setting rich in allegoric potential. In the Bible the barren desert is a land of potential fertility waiting to be actualized in the fulfillment of God’s apocalyptic promises to Israel. In Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the desert stands for humanity’s dual role as both creature and creator in the ongoing biological process that is nature, a theme that interweaves with mortals’ helplessness in the face of fate and history. In T. S. Eliot’s poetic magnum opus The Waste Land, societal disillusionment and individual depression alike find expression in the imagery of a land rendered infertile as a result of its ruler’s impotence.
Eliot’s unnamed Fisher King, a motif he borrowed from medieval romance, is in some sense a stand-in for the central narrator who may or may not lie behind the multivocal poem, who is also a (failed) reader. He is, finally, a figure who struggles to connect “nothing with nothing,” the horror of contemporary war with the symbols of old religion, the misuse of language with the tradition of western literature. The result is no synthesis, but cognitive dissonance projected onto 1920s Europe, a cacophony of voices and visions that fail to resolve themselves into a meaningful whole.
In the meaninglessness, though, comes the poem’s central meaning: like the land ruled by the Fisher King, our world exists in a sympathetic relationship with us. The meaning we attribute to the world is a function of our individuality, and when we fail to reconcile the objective world to our preferred mental system, it is exactly that—our failure. From a critical standpoint, this translates quite neatly into the observation that there is no such thing as a meaningless text; when we think we have found one, it is only that we have yet to read it with all we have. A wasteland always contains and conceals that which made it a wasteland in the first place. Even a tale told by an idiot can and will signify something.
Fury Road is not told by an idiot, but it is told in the dialect of its own world, just as MacCarthy’s The Road is told in a broken, anarchic post-apocalyptic English. If the naked violence that forms the grammar of the theatrical cut weren’t enough, Miller’s preferred black-and-white version of the film, the Chrome Edition, replicates the similarly high-contrast, über-retro, bloody, fascist aesthetic of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Fury Road‘s resemblance to a standard action film obscures the insights it offers on our attitude toward the past to those who take it as a straightforward action movie, and that’s part of the brilliance of its effect. In the post-apocalyptic Outback, the story suggests, a self-centered ideology like Joe’s naturally rises to the top, and in the process gains the exclusive authority to tell stories, to recount the past.
The tale Joe chooses is one from the past, and, like Trump, he tells it by excavating fear, the divine right of kings, and even the antiquated physical machinery of human destruction. Joe’s army roam the Outback highways in cars from the 1970s and 80s that sport tank treads and mounted machine guns, high on inhalants, reincarnating Hitler’s methamphetamine-fueled Wehrmacht.
The practically religious fervor of Joe’s subjects is not reciprocated with the traditional benevolence of noblesse oblige. The inhabitants of his walled city beg him for water, and with disingenuous magnanimity he bestows only a tiny portion of what they need, and of what he has. revealing a leader with contemptuous (if any) regard for his citizens (sound familiar?). Immortan Joe, in a phrase we are by now all too familiar with, “says what he thinks,” and he perpetuates his rule by keeping his subjects in a state of existential anxiety, purportedly protecting them from their own potential decadence while hoarding the necessities of human life and monopolizing automotive transportation, the only plausible means of migration across the hostile Outback.
Our present has become, in our collective consciousness, merely a product of the past, rather than a prelude to an imaginable future. Should it be a surprise, as I noted earlier, that the same old stories are recurring again and again, in film, literature, comics, and every form of entertainment every bit as much as in politics? It is as if we’ve told ourselves so many times that it is over that we can think of nothing but it, whatever it happens to be in the moment. (Dostoyevsky “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”)
But all this past-oriented thinking belies the fact that we are all perpetually in medias res, both by choice and by virtue of our existence in time. Nearly 20 years later, for all the scaling back of our never-ending “Overseas Contingency Operation” (as Obama’s DoD preferred to call it), we’re still talking about the War on Terror. This, like all wars on abstract concepts, is a war that will never end, can never end. It stretches out in every direction, a wasteland barren of everything but violence.
It is easier for us to simplistically cast our present problems as echoes of old ones than it is for us to face them on their own terms and confront them for the frighteningly powerful forces they are. A mass nationalist movement that has at its disposal the vast resources of the social media and the 24-hour news cycle is dangerous in new ways—not necessarily worse ways, but new ways. The idea of Trump being our modern Hitler is comforting, in a strange way. Hitler lost, in the end. But Trump isn’t Hitler. Trump is Trump, and we don’t know what that means yet.
It isn’t that Immortan Joe is a stand-in for Trump-like demagogues, or that Trump himself is a supervillain-in-waiting. But somewhere under (or, perhaps more accurately, within) the disaster spectacle that permeates Mad Max: Fury Road is not something too far off from the kind of ideology that enables figures like Trump to accrue political gains. Immortan Joe is the ultimate supervillain only if you believe he is, only invincible so long as none of his subjects stand up to him. Take Fury Road as an example of simplistic American cinema and you not only miss the subtexts at play, you validate the self-absorbed ideology of would-be despots. Ironically, the film’s detractors have played right into the villain’s hand, mistaking the style of the film for its substance.
It isn’t that I think Miller intentionally laid out for us an allegorical critique of the American political landscape—given both the timing of production and Miller’s generally non-controversial fare (Babe: A Pig in the City, Happy Feet) I think that’s very unlikely. But there is indisputably something in the sheer insanity of Fury Road, and particularly in the off-the-wall nature of the villains’ performance of power, that reminds us that the enduringly ugly viscera of American politics has been laid bare for the world. The postapocalyptic future of Mad Max came back to us after an absence of three decades. At a time when we are turning a blind eye to the future we are shaping in favor of a backward glance over roads both real and imagined, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.