Thursday, June 13, 2024

How Furiosa’s Wasteland Gives Mythic Power To The “Mad Max” Saga

Please Note – This Article Contains Spoilers For “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

Ever since the furious opening seconds of “Mad Max 2” (or “The Road Warrior” in the U.S.), it’s been apparent George Miller’s central preoccupation is with myth, legend, and folklore, and he’s gone on to study them his entire career. We first hear it through a chaotic montage of apocalypse and voiceover, narration speaking cryptic words from an unknown future, as though whispered by a campfire: “My life fades, my vision dims. All that remains are memories.” The narrator, later revealed to be a boy who witnesses Max’s liberation of his people, speaks of Max as a folkloric hero, a savior in split leather, and a V8 Interceptor who helped the exodus of a tribe in a time of great need.

If the Mad Max saga (as it has now been dubbed) has always followed the legends of memorialized saviors and heroes as though through oral tradition, then “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” Miller’s blistering prequel to “Mad Max: Fury Road” that charts Imperator Furiosa’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) Dickensian rise from orphaned babe to the right-hand of the theocratic warlord Immortan Joe, centers itself as an act of mythmaking more than ever before. It’s felt in structure and tone, as well as the visuals, which are more classically sweeping (shot length is much longer than “Mad Max: Fury Road“) yet overtly artificial, celebrating their own unreality. There’s been talk that “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is the rare prequel or sequel to improve what came before, which seems like hyperbole when that film is “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the rare movie instantly heralded as a masterpiece. Yet, if that’s true (I think it is), it’s not only because we see the events that lead up to Furiosa’s grand escape and Max’s role in it with greater emotional clarity, but how it gives an epic, mythic narrative tapestry to the events that followed, playing on a meta-allegorical level that brings career-long themes of Miller’s films full circle.

A vital part of that is a new narrator called “The History Man,” an old sage with tattoos of knowledge all over his body, and fascinatingly, he’s the first “Mad Max” narrator sidelined from the central conflict. He is not a primary source, shifting Furiosa’s saga from an act of remembrance, as in “The Road Warrior” and “Beyond Thunderdome,” into a realm of storytelling as ripe for metaphor as the green place is for rich plant life. First, he begins his oration with the guiding question, “As the world falls around us, how must we brave its cruelties?” setting up “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” saga as a parable of rage and hope in The Wasteland. But as the film muscles towards the events of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Furiosa takes her revenge against the obstreperous warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) for the deaths of her mother (Charlee Fraser) and Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), the History Man offers three possibilities for how she did it, each more fantastical than the last.

The first option is a point-blank bullet to the head. The History Man then suggests some claim that Dementus’ death was more elaborate and fitting, recreating Jack’s death by dragging his body through the Wasteland chained to her war rig’s bumper. Yet still, the third option is where “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” transcends any pretense of literalism and into the realm of storybook fantasy; a peach seed gifted to Furiosa by her mother has been planted in the greenery of Immortan Joe’s Citadel, sprouting in and around Dementus body, entrapping him as it turns him into the peach tree’s feed. Hate and hope are twisted together in its branches. This is the version the History Man claims as fact, citing Furiosa as his source: “But this is the truth, whispered to me by Furiosa herself: Deep in the Citadel, high in the hydroponic gardens, there is a tree unlike any other. Its soil is human, its nutrients human, maggots debriding his necrotic flesh. It was an echo growing out of a living being.”As for which you should believe, a clue might be that an image this indulgently lyrical is close to the daydreamed storytelling of Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” a self-reflexive fable modeled after “A Thousand and One Nights.” Split between a hotel room and mystical flashbacks, Miller meditates on how life becomes myth as myth becomes life, and it’s as crucial to “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” as any “Mad Max” film. On its face, we have reason to doubt the History Man’s claims of truthfulness –– Furiosa is iconically stoic and shares little of herself with anyone, so it seems unlikely she would tell him her secrets –– but this clear series shift from storytelling as memory and into the realm of multiple-choice parable begs the question: if a fully accurate accounting of Furiosa’s method of vengeance is in doubt, what does that say about the rest of her narrated journey? If the History Man ends Furiosa’s revenge saga in the realm of allegory, it’s not impossible everything he’s sharing is also on some level an allegory, casting doubt onto the “true” veracity of all of these events.

This lens suddenly snaps much of “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” into focus, with Miller constantly gesturing our attention to its status as an act of storytelling –– with the History Man’s words, but also Miller himself. Many of Miller’s films have already played with this idea, from how “Babe: Pig in the City” opens as though we’re reading a storybook to the intro song in “Happy Feet.” For “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” Miller divided its plot into chapters, an idea continued from “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” each with a self-consciously odic title: “The Pole of Inaccessibility”; “Lessons from the Wasteland”; “The Stowaway”; “Homeward”; and “Beyond Vengeance.” “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” has been fairly criticized for its pacing, feeling somehow too short and too long as some ideas are given more time to develop than others, and the chapters can awkwardly change in rhythm as they stop and start and stop again. However, when seen in the context of Miller’s overall narrative goals, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” takes on an almost Gospel-like approach, full of ellipses and half-conclusions, as if the lives of these characters are bigger and grander than can fit into the telling of this tale. It’s as though we’re to infer what occurred between Furiosa and Jack along the same lines as imagining what happened with Jesus and his disciples between turning water into wine and the sermon on the mount. “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” has been called a Biblical Epic; if so, it’s in more ways than one.

Likewise, there’s been criticism that Furiosa’s emotional journey is hamstrung by these sudden shifts in time. Still, it also has a powerful familiarity to it: she undergoes roughly the same transformation in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” as Max (Mel Gibson) in the 1979 “Mad Max.” In the bracing 90-minute original, Max’s wife is killed by the Toecutter’s gang, turning him into a masochistic vigilante seeking vengeance. He not only hunts down Toecutter’s crew and kills them, he takes sick pleasure in their deaths, taunting them before their demise. Where Max’s fall to madness felt grounded and human, Miller further mythologizes that same arc for Furiosa with religious, fable-like imagery, from an Edenic paradise to a quasi-crucifixion, and as she throttles the gas towards her revenge, she’s consecrated as “The Fifth Rider of The Apocalypse.” And like Max, she plays with her food; Furiosa sadistically taunts Dementus rather than simply killing him. Her relationship with Dementus is enticingly complex and richer than Max’s was with Toecutter, but she still follows the same steps of familial loss to depravity all the same.

This isn’t the first time Miller has taken a classic “Mad Max” story and reinvented it, either. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is essentially a loose retelling of “The Road Warrior,” with Miller following protagonists driving war rigs in pursuit as they carry precious cargo, hoping to reach a green paradise. Miller even recreated some of the same shots between films as if to drive home the point. Curiously, what that leaves us with is almost half of the “Mad Max” films as reinventions of the others, and when considering Miller’s blend of in-universe oral tradition and his newfound focus on meta-mythic storytelling, it begs the question: what if we’re not watching different sets of stories, but the same stories reinterpreted by different people for different times?Taken that way, the new set of “Mad Max” films has reshaped the premise of the series as the legends and folktales of people in the far future, retelling stories of impossible perseverance and hope as allegorical tools, updating them to the needs of the time. This seems true of the times they were made for us, too. In the ’70s and ’80s, that meant the hero was a mourning, monosyllabic badass searching for hope as he rediscovered his usefulness in a world beset by wars over oil and gasoline. In the 2000s (“Mad Max: Fury Road” was originally supposed to shoot before 9/11 tanked the dollar) and 2010s, there was a shift in the zeitgeist to focus on women in key roles, giving rise to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), fulfilling much of the same role Max did in the first trilogy. Just as the Romans renamed and recontextualized Greek gods for their needs and purposes, like Aphrodite to Venus or Zeus to Jupiter, there is Max to Furiosa. Not that canon or continuity have ever been important to George Miller, but perhaps the needs of the in-universe future shifted too, and stories of liberation, reproductive rights, and patriarchal harm entered cultural focus.

In that light, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” radically transforms “Mad Max: Fury Road” from an action odyssey of desperate hopes into an epic of mythic ascendency. Dementus’ words, “Do you have it in you to make it epic?” aren’t just a plea to give him a warrior’s death, but a beckoning for Furiosa, his surrogate daughter, to aspire towards grand actions that will ripple forward in time. If Furiosa’s anger and hate had twisted her soul as her way to cope and survive in this wasted land, then this is her chance for the hot magma of her rage to be fueled towards salvation –– or as she says to Max in her war rig decades later, “redemption.” Therefore “Mad Max: Fury Road” becomes an act of mythmaking in and of itself, telling the tale of a stolen orphan who became the surrogate daughter of one warlord, the nuptial prize of another, who then worked her way up the dangerous social ladder, fled with his sex-slaves, only to return and seize the kingdom that imprisoned her. It’s an act of profound upward mobility, ultimately cleansing the corruption of her spirit by achieving a greater good.

Three Thousand Years of Longing” ends with the character’s lives transforming into the exact kind of myth from the stories they’ve been sharing. By the end of “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” the “Mad Max Saga” has that same ouroboros of narrative trickery, where the themes drift into the plot and back again, and the divide between fact and fiction is less important than what meaning you’re meant to take away from it. From the History Man and the loose inner-series reimaginings to the chaptered structure and more ostentatious visual style, Miller alerts us to the artifice of his own movie not as a Brechtian device to distance us from his storytelling but to signal the joy and importance of its creation, giving vital attention to the importance of myth, metaphor, and storytelling to impact and guide our lives.

Have you seen “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” yet? If so, what did you think? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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