In some ways, this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road idles at a beguiling crossroads in the forward progression of cinema. With director George Miller’s affinity for practical effects shot on location in the deserts of Namibia and the physical, painstakingly choreographed stunt work, Fury Road could easily be considered old school, yet it’s also refreshingly of the moment. The very form it takes reveals both the movie’s reverence for old masters but also a reconsideration of cinematic language for audiences attuned to a different kind of cinema than that of yesteryear.
On surface level, its basic framework takes the form of John Ford’s Stagecoach, with its massive desert chase sequence and relentless shootout evoked in Miller’s post-apocalypse world. Fury Road additionally touts the cinematic language of silent films, recurrently speeding up or slowing down the image to maintain a legible, if exhilarating sense of pace not unlike the films of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. In many of his interviews, Miller paraphrases a sentiment from Alfred Hitchcock in which cinema ought to be comprehensible in Japan without subtitles, alluding to the medium’s visual authority and the myth of total cinema.
Simultaneously, Mad Max: Fury Road also caters to millennial cinephiles with far different values and expectations of film form and content. So alongside appeals to silent cinema and classic Westerns, George Miller updates his filmmaking approach for eyes more proficient in “reading” the images of cinema. In general, audiences now can quickly and subconsciously process a rapid array of discordant images in succession, allowing a sense of speed-reading. In another insightful interview, Miller notes that 1981’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior contained only 1200 cuts in contrast to Fury Road’s abundant 2700 cuts. We live in a world in which longer camera takes are considered a throwback style and the exception to the norm. Emmanuel Lubezki’s eye-catching long takes in Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) certainly represent meaningful exercises in this kind of cinematography, but rapid editing practices and the formalist discipline of Fury Road can just as easily grab our attention with no less legibility.
Form and style aside, I suppose the most invigorating aspect of Mad Max: Fury Road lies in its forward-looking content and characterizations. The titular Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) takes a backseat to the monumental Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her plight to safeguard a handful of terrorized brides from the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and thus, Fury Road has more at stake than the original trilogy ever had. Its interests in gender politics and representation are far broader than before. Indeed, there’s no shortage of articles discussing the feminist angle of the film, especially considering the role of Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler as a consultant to George Miller and her later comments on Fury Road as a “feminist action film.” Furiosa welcomingly drives this film, pitting her motley band of women of all ages (“Vuvalini”) against a patriarchal tribe led by cantankerous old men exploiting impressionable young boys (“War Boys”).
Make no mistake: the eventual objective of the film’s central characters turns towards dismantling the oppressive patriarchal system in what’s essentially a two hour chase sequence and deeply gendered conflict. When one wizened woman defiantly declares, “We are not things,” Miller allows his camera to survey graffiti scrawled upon a nearby wall that inquires, “Who killed the world?” The answer should be obvious after seeing the ubiquitously male bullies throughout the film. To paraphrase Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), when man destroys the world, “woman inherits the earth.”
During the press conference at the Cannes Film Festival where the film was screened out of competition, the cast and crew fielded the sexist question, “As you were reading the script, did you ever think ‘why are all these women in here?’ I thought this was supposed to be a man’s movie?” To which Tom Hardy succinctly responds, “No, not for one minute.” Indeed, Mad Max: Fury Road offers a fair share of women addressing topics everywhere from human trafficking, abuse and trauma, and maternity. For its mostly wordless plot, Fury Road has much to say, and Imperator Furiosa is a superb character to voice these themes.
Charlize Theron brings Furiosa to life, allowing her to occupy the newest space in a welcome lineage of fully realized, independent action heroines in a genre and space so dominated by men. Following the most recent turns by Emily Blunt as Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014) – another film with a plethora of thematic ties to videogames, but that’s a conversation better had elsewhere – and Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous character in the unfortunately xenophobic if somewhat engaging Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014), the Furiosa character escapes one-dimensional sexualization and instead carries the feminist themes of Fury Road.
Her necessary positioning in the movie as the liberator of the five imprisoned wives of Immortan Joe gestures towards a disruption of the patriarchal systems of Miller’s post-apocalyptic world. Max certainly cannot carry such a burden as he would only perpetuate the exchange of women from one male hand to another, even as liberator. As such, rebellious action from Furiosa is necessary in the context of this movie because violence is the only language that can topple existing, rigid structures of power. Of particular interest to this topic is George Miller’s curious fixation on the body and its relation to his envisioned world.
Sharp criticism has emerged regarding the shot of the wives bathing in a fetishizing long shot, but Miller’s treatment of bodies throughout this film prove more complex than such a reductive take on the male gaze. In short: there’s much more going on in the frame than initially observed. Part of the purpose of this scene is to convey to audiences the way in which Immortan Joe’s wives were oppressively locked in metal restraints while simultaneously draped in revealing muslin attire for the service of male pleasure as concubines. Upon regaining agency over their bodies, the film increasingly finds these wives dressing themselves in more practical attire as they come across other survivors. Bodies are no longer objects of sexual fetish but willingly weaponized. In one scene, Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) daringly becomes a human shield to guard Furiosa while staring down Joe. In another, one Vuvalini woman (Megan Gale) purposes her nude figure as bait to trap passerby. And most recognizably, Furiosa is an amputee with a mechanical arm that never hinders her resolve.
Very recently I’ve had in my mind the close relationship between cinema and videogames, and Mad Max: Fury Road alongside George Miller’s filmography certainly inspires a certain kind of videogames craftsmanship indebted to the Australian genre auteur. Imperator Furiosa especially conjures the kind of gritty, empowered heroine I would come to expect in a woman-led videogame storyline. I’ve specifically thought of Lara Croft (Camilla Luddington) in Crystal Dynamics’ revamped Tomb Raider as a comparable heroine plagued by abuse and violent hardship. The 2013 Tomb Raider spins a tale literally concerning a vengeful warrior queen while the game’s own heroine plunders the island mountainside against decidedly male aggressors in a cathartic power fantasy that I interpreted as intertextual.
Any good genre fare worth its salt should speak to contemporary issues, as these genres are built upon an outsider status capable of addressing themes through allegory and metaphor that straightforward dramas are simply not equipped to handle. Fury Road skewers male-dominated systems of power and examines the plight of survivor women. Tomb Raider, and from what we’ve seen from promotional footage of its follow-up Rise of the Tomb Raider, similarly allegorizes a tale of female trauma and gradual empowerment through the lens of action storytelling. That some vocal parts of the videogame community bemoan feminism in everyday discourse is alarming and regressive. It belittles what makes these genres profound.
Another recent videogame protagonist I’ve reflected on after viewing Fury Road comes from Sledgehammer Games’ 2014 title Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Like Imperator Furiosa, protagonist Jack Mitchell (Troy Baker) is an amputee action hero brandishing a weaponized prosthetic. For the most part, Advanced Warfare offers exhilarating sci-fi shooter thrills with its fantastical future battlegrounds, but what I find particularly memorable occurs in a sequence that seemingly disempowers the player after the prosthetic is destroyed. Mitchell only has use of one hand and consequently cannot reload weapons, forcing the player to either constantly scavenge for a fresh weapon when ammo is depleted or rely on melee combat. In this sequence, Advanced Warfare thematizes the status of the protagonist as disabled. The character finally owns his disability as inherently part of his identity but is never fully defined by it. Mitchell is not encumbered but empowered during this segment, and in portraying disability in such a refreshing, positive way, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare triumphs.
When considering the work of George Miller and his iconic Mad Max universe, one can easily appreciate his broad sphere of influence throughout the decades following its release. Videogames owe much to the Australian director; his visualization of a desert post-apocalypse wasteland lays the groundwork for countless works. And although a number of early titles such as L.Q. Jones’ 1975 post-apocalypse film A Boy and His Dog or Nicholas Meyer’s 1983 TV movie The Day After signify other formative movies that sculpted the genre’s aesthetic, Mad Max’s far greater commercial success has more thoroughly buried its visuals into our collective cultural unconsciousness.
Perhaps the most direct example of Mad Max’s influence on videogames is id Software’s 2011 game Rage, with its mix of vehicular warfare and desert combat against roving bandits in a post-apocalypse milieu evoking George Miller’s iconic vision. The weaponized, ramshackle vehicles of Rage certainly recall those of The Road Warrior, while the game’s dilapidated junkyard societies owe much to Bartertown of Beyond Thunderdome. There exist rich worlds and cultures in Miller’s Mad Max films, especially in the recent Fury Road entry. His preference for colorful mythos and a more definite sense of culture and place over gloomy worldviews differentiates his movies from other post-apocalyptic worlds. This eccentric, oddball direction for world-building and aestheticization informs the bizarre desert outposts of Gearbox’s Borderlands series (and to a lesser extent, Telltale’s offshoot Tales from the Borderlands). The series’ collection of scruffy scavengers roaming and looting the wasteland for riches carries on Miller’s tradition of lonely wanderers. And to a lesser extent, Mad Max’s influence can also be traced in the off-road vehicular carnage of Evolution Studios’ 2006 game MotorStorm or Stainless Games’ 1997 Carmageddon.
Of course, the crucial link between Mad Max and the world of videogames comes in the form of the Fallout series, and specifically in the fully realized 3D world of Bethesda Game Studios’ 2008 game Fallout 3. The game aligns players with a lone wanderer akin to George Miller’s eponymous protagonist, opening room for exploration in a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of shantytowns, armed raiders, and desert expanses. The ruthless bands of raiders and slavers in Fallout 3 take on the hardened and rugged look of Lord Humungus’ delinquent gang in The Road Warrior, donning themselves in makeshift costumes and armor scavenged from everyday objects in the wasteland.
It’s difficult to miss the undying influence of George Miller and his iconic Mad Max series in videogames because his gritty yet eccentric style appeals to the playful and violent energy of the medium. The lone wanderer archetype in a post-apocalyptic world and the unkempt flock of raiders in his movies established a staple aesthetic for the genre, and videogames seem more than eager to borrow and continue such a celebrated cinematic legacy. With the recent announcement trailer for Fallout 4 just now gaining widespread attention and the warm commercial and critical reception to Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, I suppose discourse surrounding George Miller and the world of videogames will gradually develop further. His cinematic output proves instrumental in shaping the look and feel of many significant videogames.
Mad Max: Fury Road concludes with a lyrical excerpt from the fictional The First History Man, asking, “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” The undecided question summarizes the primary theme in the Mad Max cycle of films, that of individual betterment and self-definition in a desolate world. I hope Avalanche Studios’ upcoming Mad Max standalone videogame is smart enough to narrativize and thematize its titular character’s wasteland wanderings. It certainly understands the aesthetic strategies of George Miller at the very least.
When I think of George Miller and his vision of the post-apocalyptic world, I believe videogames to be an apt comparison to his existential musings. I’m reminded of Fallout 3 and its literal “lone wanderer” protagonist, with Bethesda’s typical emergent narrative structure permitting the player to input their own hopes and characteristics into the game’s blank slate protagonist. Anything can emerge in the space of videogames, mirroring the uncertain state of the role Max plays in the existential wasteland, but it buzzes with possibility. Like the post-apocalyptic world, there’s opportunity to define a new self and to sculpt the future. Fury Road understands this completely:
“I live. I die. I live again.”
Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. He is also a contributing editor and columnist for Haywire Magazine and a columnist for Thumbsticks. His complete written offerings are archived here, but can also be found at Kill Screen, PopMatters, First Person Scholar, Playboy, Unwinnable, etc.