Warning: This post contains many plot spoilers for the film Mad Max: Fury Road. Please don’t read any further if you don’t wish to learn of major plot points and themes in this wonderful film.
We (Richmond & Andy) were lucky enough to catch Mad Max: Fury Road in Thailand a few days before most of the English speaking world. Here’s a quick brain dump on the themes and imagery in this fantastic film.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a story about human beings fighting against objectification in the most literal interpretation of the word. The desolate earth of the post apocalypse is a cruel place where simply surviving is a constant struggle. In this harsh environment people have been reduced to objects valued only for their utility.
The film opens with Max being caught by Joe’s henchmen as he is very literally driven to madness by hallucinations of past failure. Max is stripped down, shaved, and his back is tatooed with his nutritional information. We hear from the excited chatter of one of the captors that Max is a universal blood doner, which is important to the plot and also has great symbolic value (more on this later). He is very literally reduced to a commodity to be consumed.
We are introduced to Immortan Joe looking down on high from his mountain citadel upon hordes of disheveled worshippers. The peaks of the citadel are covered in lush greenery seen nowhere else in the wasteland, the only way to reach there is by a gigantic lift powered by children turning cogs. Within the citadel are stables full of women milked like cows to provide nutrition for a chosen few. Immortan Joe himself is part machine, kept alive by a breathing aparatus. In this world, the common person has been reduced to a literal cog in a machine while Joe sits on top and is very literally kept alive by this machine.
Our attention is then turned to Imperator Furiosa. Her name is almost certainly a reference to the classic epic “Orlando Furioso” which roughly translates to “Mad Roland.” She is a bad ass wasteland warrior like ‘Mad’ Max.
Furiosa is also ‘part machine’ with her prosthetic left arm. Her missing limb is painted on the left side of her ‘war rig’. Her mission in this story is redemption, to regain that humanity.
Initially Furiosa is on a mission to retrieve gas, but is secretly making a daring escape with Immortan Joe’s wives, also referred to as “breeders”, as they were chosen by Immortan Joe solely to create bear him progeny. When Joe learns of Furiosa’s deception and rushes to their room it’s shown that he keeps them in a humongous bank vault. They are his most precious “property”. The audience can see that before leaving, they painted a wall with the message “WHO STOLE OUR WORLD?” and “WE ARE NOT THINGS.” This is a very blunt statement of the movie’s theme of human objectification.
In the age of social media we tend to think of objectification as something that only happens to women, but Fury Road is an exploration of how anyone and everyone regardless of gender can be turned into a ‘thing’ and robbed of their humanity. It’s also a story of why that humanity is worth fighting for.
Next we are introduced to Nux, another central character. Nux is a “War Boy” one of many identically shaved and painted soldiers that make up Immortan Joe’s army. In their short lives they want nothing more than the approval of their god/father figure Immortan Joe and willingly aspire to become ‘things’, vehicles for Immortan Joe to control. The War Boys huff silver paint which stains them chrome like their vehicles. Nux takes this vehicular cult practice even further by scarring the form of a car engine on his chest.
Before War Boys head off to war they are given wheels in the form of Immortan Joe’s symbol, which act as booth a steering wheel and key to their vehicles. A steering wheel is a symbol of control. Keys are a common symbol of agency (“key to my heart” etc). Their lives are in the hands of Immortan Joe who decides when they can take the wheel or not.
War Boys are mentioned to have a drastically reduced lifespan with Nux ill and near the end, so he rigs Max to his vehicle to serve as a source of blood transfusion to extend his life just a bit longer to fight in the service of Immortan Joe.
A thrilling chase ensues and Nux and Max eventually catch up to Furiosa and crew. During these scenes Max is connected to Nux by chains and also by the blood transfusion tube. There is great symbolism in this. Humans are social creatures. Like it or not, even in the post Apocalypse we are bound to one another. This is where the best and worst of humanity arises. Chains that bind and enslave. Blood that sustains and gives life. This is a perfect visual summation of everything that happens in the film.
Max is able to find a bolt cutter to sever the chains. He keeps the blood transfusion equipment, cos hey this is the post Apocalypse, people are conditioned to constantly scavenge. But also, this foreshadows Max’s choice of compassion over cruelty.
As the pursuit continues it’s actually Nux who goes through the most development and fulfils the traditional hero’s journey arc. Nux’s maddened devotion gains the approval of his god/father Immortan Joe. A simple look from him means the world to this idealistic young boy (his jealous friend insists “he wasn’t looking at you, he was just scanning the horizon!”). Nux is not a bad person, he just craves approval and wants meaning to his life. He believes he will find that meaning in dying for his master.
When Max and Furiosa first meet, they see each other as potential adversaries and wind up wrestling over a gun. Max ejects the bullet catridge, and Nux immediately grabs it and exclaims “I got it! I got it!” because he’s just so excited to be helpful. There’s no cruelty in him, he just wants approval.
Max and Furiosa eventually join forces (though Max still refuses to give his name so Furiosa calls him ‘Fool’) while Nux fails in several attempts to thwart their plans.
When he is personally addressed by Immortan Joe and given one of his pistols to finish off Furiosa, Nux screws up and sees his master looking upon him with contempt. To Nux, this is far worse than death, he is completely drained of his desire to fight after losing the approval of his god/father figure.
Nux is later found cowering and crying in the back of the war rig by one of Immortan’s escaped ‘wives’, Capable, who takes pity on him, possibly the only compassion Nux has ever experienced in his life. He is quickly and simply won over to their side.
In the end Nux is still committed to the idea of ultimate self realisation through utility and death, but there’s an important distinction: this is a cause he chose for himself. He dies a human with free will and not a tool.
In the final extended showdown Furiosa exclaims to Immortan Joe “remember me?” regaining and asserting her once stolen humanity, before Joe’s artificial face is torn off along with Furiosa’s artificial arm. Immortan Joe was kept alive by machines, created a society where people are treated as machines, and with him gone the machine-society he created can be dismantled.
Furiosa is also badly wounded in this fight. It seems she won’t make it, but she is saved by Max who still has the blood transfusion tube (. His blood, a literal product of his humanity is able to keep Furiosa alive. In regaining her own humanity, she has helped Max recover some of his own. Max tells her his name for the first time.
Furiosa returns home a champion. She lays the lifeless body of Immortan Joe on the ground, and the people declare her their new ruler. Her title was imperator. In its earliest usage, this word denoted a general in the Roman army. Eventually “imperator” grew into the word “emperor.” Thus Furiosa fulfills her destiny and Max disappears into the crowd.
Fury Road is a story with few words and great depth. DEEP visual storytelling at its best. There’s much much more to it, but this is what we got out of Fury Road on our first trip. We’ll definitely be returning to this film many times down the road. Thanks for reading. And thank you George Miller for making such a fine film!