Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga Speaks the Language of Epics

Movies Reviews George Miller
Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga Speaks the Language of Epics

If you ever took a class on the Greek classics, you might remember that the epics of Homer are defined by their first words. The Odyssey is the story of a “man,” while the Iliad is a story of “μῆνις,” which is often translated as wrath, rage…or fury. The epics of George Miller barely need words at all, yet Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is the Iliad to Fury Road’s stripped-down Odyssey. The latter’s elegant straight-line structure is replaced with lush chapters, documenting the interconnected systems of post-apocalyptic nation-gangs through the years. Through it all, a Dickensian hero clings to this world’s seedy undercarriage. Reducing Furiosa down to a single word does it as little justice as it does the sagas it scraps, welds and reuses like its countless Frankenstein vehicles. But understanding George Miller’s Fury Road prequel as the story of war—of sprawling futility, driven by the same cyclical cruelty that turned its deserts into Wastelands—makes it far more than a satisfying origin story. (Though, it’s that too). Furiosa speaks the language of epics fluently, raging against timeless human failure while carrying a seed of hope.

While any structure would be more complex than a pair of perfect car chases, Furiosa’s script necessarily evolves to match its more expansive narrative. That said, Miller and co-writer Nico Lathouris still aren’t here to coddle us with over-explanation or endless Easter eggs. I don’t want to know how the world fell, or how Furiosa got her name. I want to meet a piss-wielding boy named Piss Boy.

Characters named Scrotus, Toe Jam and Smeg patrol the roads; janky flying machines fully free Fury Road’s Pole Cats from gravity; a gruesome maggot farm scars us in its brief seconds on screen. The filmmakers know that the best details are plot-irrelevant and the best plot is what happens to someone we care about. What we learn, we learn through the eyes of Furiosa, from the moment she’s ripped from the Green Place of Many Mothers as a child, to the second before she tears out of Immortan Joe’s Citadel, smuggling Fury Road’s stowaways.

As Furiosa grows from traumatized child (Alyla Browne) to damaged adult (Anya Taylor-Joy), she survives the slave-labor bowels of the Citadel, claws her way into a position aboard a trade caravan and waits for the perfect moment to enact revenge upon her initial captor, the chaotic, power-hungry biker warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). Where Immortan Joe has the detached power of a god, Dementus is a nutty rascal whose manic cruelties swagger through a world built to be his playground. Both men think the healthy, willful novelty Furiosa would make an excellent addition to their inner circle, as a successor, a trophy or something in between.

Pushing back on the various men who hunt them, Browne and Taylor-Joy’s performances work in stunning tandem, steadily heating the steely young girl’s resolve until it turns molten. Browne coils and pounces, while Taylor-Joy’s physicality is more refined and sure-footed. You can even feel the influence of Charlee Fraser, who leaves a strong impression in her brief scenes as Furiosa’s mother. All three beam stares into the screen that would set celluloid on fire. Every hard edge Furiosa has in Fury Road is sharpened here, and every moment of tenderness given deeper roots. Furiosa might actually speak less in this movie than in Fury Road, which makes what her two performers pull off even more impressive. When you match the most powerful eyes in the business with Miller’s evocative framing (Furiosa is shot a bit like Galadriel’s brush with evil in Lord of the Rings—somewhere between avenging angel and Frank Miller cover), you get all the character you need.

Furiosa is also defined in contrast to the villains she resists and the rare allies she sticks her neck out for. This is part of Miller’s more grandiose vision, one of broken systems and the people they consume. These systems collide when Dementus drives his motorcycle chariot (which, yes, someone is eventually lashed to like the corpse of Hector) straight into the uneasy trade alliance between Immortan Joe’s fertile Citadel, the munition-heavy Bullet Farm and the black gold of Gas Town.

This wild card brings war, and we see this war through Furiosa’s pursuit of freedom. The battles are personal, and the political conflict we’re shown with any intimacy (outside of wreckage and montage) are the negotiations and ambitions that disrupt the status quo. As Furiosa bides her time, the collapsed world around her falls further into an id-driven sinkhole. Miller isn’t implying that everything was hunky-dory under the more stable dictators, but that the chaos born from a power struggle really only impacts those on the ground. Pale war boy bodies stack in mounds and those crawling in the dirt have even less to scramble for. We get closer to the cogs in these murder machines than in Fury Road, Miller using the plight of this world’s oppressed to make the sweeping gestures of mythic storytelling—storytelling that touches on our times because it touches on all times.

This makes Furiosa’s brief connections—with Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), the proto-Imperator who takes Furiosa shotgun in her first war rig, and with Dementus, the worst-case endpoint for her traumatic life—all the more meaningful. Her relationship with Jack, one of begrudging trust, respect and loyalty (making her later, uneasy warmth with Max all the better), is perfectly measured and tantalizingly hopeful. Her hatred for Dementus, one tugging her closer into nihilism, is perfectly dangerous. Hemsworth, by the way, is set up with the film’s golden role. Dementus is basically all Final Bad Guy Speeches, right from the start, and gets to play everything from killer Looney Tune to hollowed-out tyrant. He’ll tear off a fantastic run of lines, then cackle and mug as the bullets fly past.

While the action is more sporadic than operatic this time around, Miller’s still got a lead foot when it’s time to fight. Simon Duggan’s camera is constantly rushing at faces, up car grilles, across ravines to see who’s about to get sniped. The bright colors blast your eyes and days bleed into nights with graceful flourishes. The driving is still otherworldly. The effects are still mind-boggling, rapidfire and range from stylishly over-the-top to completely invisible. The stunts are still suicidal, choreographed and planned so that you can tell at a glance what each body swarming over an ass-hauling war rig is trying to accomplish. That guy, flying something out of the Wright brothers’ nightmares, is trying to set the driver on fire. Piss Boy is trying to reach the piss-thirsty engine.

Each action scene, whether another amazing chase or a desperate rescue mission deep in enemy territory, is driven just as deeply by visual logic as by spectacle. These stunning visions of neo-medieval torture in Hell’s junkyard only work if we can make sense of it all. Furiosa is a film well-planned and deeply dreamed.

These are the qualities that make Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga unlike so many other prequels in so many other sagas. It isn’t an afterthought, and it isn’t a cash grab. It’s slower and more unwieldy than the circus-act precision of Fury Road, but these movies make each other richer. Fury Road is not the Odyssey, just like Furiosa is not the Iliad. But they speak to the same parts of our souls. There is love and therefore loss, hate and therefore empty revenge, power and therefore challenges to that power. Miller’s movies strip folkloric epics down to their basic mechanical parts, functional skeletons that run on raw emotion like the war machines running on piss and guzzolene.

Director: George Miller
Writer: George Miller, Nico Lathouris
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Burke, Alyla Browne
Release Date: May 24, 2024

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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