I wasn’t going to go and see the latest iteration of Mad Max.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a passionate fan of 80’s apocalypse movies (I wrote a whole series in homage to them!). I love the aesthetics, the desperation, the tough characters, the monstrous masculinity that both men and women must take up in order to survive… But I’ve watched as the heroines of those gritty 80’s epics I loved have been continually debased, ground out, and erased here in the last twenty years. When you’re watching a film from 1979 that has tougher, more complex female characters than a film shot in 2012, something is rotten (I’m looking at you, Riddick, with the director who argued that constant rape attempts, threats, and 2-second “side boob with nipple” shot was actually a vitally important part of his artistic vision instead of just lazy storytelling). I’ve seen the politics inherent in these types of stories get pushed aside too in favor of mindless, disjointed action sequences and shiny creatures with no bearing on the human plot. These films and their writers and directors had forgotten the truism of the post-apocalyptic world: every resource is valuable. Every person – and hence, every scene – has to pull their weight. Only the toughest or most valued survive. And the stories that we remember, the stories that last – are about people struggling to survive in the midst of overwhelming odds presented both by the landscape and their fellow travelers.
There’s a lot of whining about “message fiction” these days, which is bizarre because every story is a “message” story or it wouldn’t be a story. Asking for “stories without messages” makes me think this is code for a steady diet of inane reality TV shows that do actually have their own “message,” which is selling and reinforcing capitalism, ignorance, and the status quo. The reality is that every story is political, and the stories that stick with me best are incredibly and transparently so. There’s a reason we remember Animal Farm, and A Canticle for Leibowitz and 1984. There’s a reason I can’t stop thinking about Parable of the Sower. Post-apocalyptic stories have always had a lot to say about where we’re headed if we don’t right our wrongs. They warn us about our reliance on fossil fuels, our abuse of the environment and where it will lead us. They tell us about the inevitable future we are building by relying on war, and what our continued reliance on slavery as an economic system means to our humanity. Post-apocalypse stories simply do not exist without politics.
I knew Mad Max was headed in the right direction from the beginning, when Immortan Joe realizes Imperator Furiosa has gone rogue, and he runs to open up a great vault door. I knew immediately what he hoped to find behind that vault door. He is going to check up on his most valuable possessions. His possessions are people with the ability to have babies. When you are living in a post-apocalyptic world of poisoned fertility and scarce resources, controlling the people who can have babies is of the utmost importance. Those who can bear them are the means of that production. Gain control over the means of production, and you can rule the world.
And this is where this film gets all the violence-against-women stuff right, because it boldly and frankly positions it for what it is, stripping it of the male gaze, of sexuality, of uncontrollable male urges. There are no on screen rape threats, rape attempts, or rapes because they would detract from the entire point. You have to strip all that away to see it for what it is: Sexism is about power. Sexism is about controlling the means of production.
At its core, sexism has very little to do with the act of sex.
It’s why we see a large room full of well-fed women hooked up to milking machines – yes, milking machines – because all anybody drinks in this world is water and milk, and all you ever see them eat is bugs and lizards. The animals are dead. That leaves us with those women. And these women are owned totally and completely by Immortan Joe, who controls all the means of production – he owns the water and the women.
And, once he owns those two things, he owns everyone and everything. He has consolidated absolute power by turning people into chattel.
In this world, those who can bear babies are chattel, used to breed more soldiers and provide life-sustaining milk to the elite. They are fodder used in production of more fodder.
Max (who really is actually crazy in this one. Not angry. Crazy) himself is chattel – captured and kept alive as a “blood bag” to give a much needed blood transfusion to soldiers who are diseased and dying. He is fodder to fuel the soldiers of the war.
The war boys themselves are chattel, bred and raised in a religion that celebrates their sacrifice in battle. They are fodder for the war machine.
“We are just the same,” says Splendid, one of the escaped wives, to Nux, a rogue war boy. The people in power want them both to believe that they are things, owned and driven to just one purpose.
Women and soldiers are just the same, manipulated by the same terrible elite into sacrificing their bodies for some rich man’s cause.
When I saw the graffiti on the walls of the prison where the wives were kept, the endless recitation of, “We are not things,” I knew we were headed in the right direction.
We live in a world that has made people into things. In Max’s world, there’s just no finery on top of it. There’s nothing to shield you from it. The only media to convince you otherwise is religion, and religion is used again and again here to illustrate how it can help manipulate and control while giving purpose and hope. For mangled, dying boys in the desert, the hope of Valhalla gives comfort.
And this brings us to Furiosa, our hero. For as most folks who have seen prior Mad Max movies know, Max just sort of wanders into these weird enclaves, fucks around, and then wanders out. He is the traveler, the witness to their stories. And in just that way, he stumbles into Furiosa’s story, this huge complex thing that’s clearly been planned out for a long time and is already set into furious motion.
Max is not the hero. He’s the witness. Just like the war boys yelling at one another “Witness me!” he is the one who goes on, who drags on. He is that wandering 80’s apocalypse male hero, tied to nothing and no one. He has to be, so he can wander off at the end – as he inevitably does here – and leave the real heroes to deal with the messy business of mopping up and governing a new world.
Casting Charlize Theron as Furiosa was an astonishing choice, and I honestly had no idea she was in this film until a few days before it came out. I remember Ridley Scott giving an interview once where he said he hired the very best actors he could find for Alien so that he could give his full attention to the creature part, because he knew the creature part was going to be the toughest. It felt like Miller did a similar thing here – with so many incredible action sequences to film, he needed great actors in place who could work with very little dialogue. And Theron does that here in such a powerful, heartbreaking way that I found myself in awe of how she was able to communicate so much in a glance. There’s this moment when she re-enters the rig after Max drives it away from an attacking motorcycle gang, and she looks him up and down as he scoots over, and she has this tiny – not smile, but almost approving or knowing glance that lets us know that she knows she’s won him over, and he’ll be on their side now. There are tons of moments like this throughout, where all we get is Theron’s eyes to tell us everything, and they do, and it’s extraordinary.
There’s another amazing thing that happens in this movie that few people have commented on, and that I want to point out, and that’s the lack of the pervy camera. We know the pervy camera. It’s the camera that zooms in on women’s asses and legs and torsos and sexualizes their bodies, like the camera itself is licking them up for the male viewer. We see these every time Megan Fox is in a movie. We see these in every movie from Transformers to Sucker Punch, to BountyKiller, to Grindhouse. It’s become so ubiquitous that I remember watching the end of Gravity where the camera pans around behind Sandra Bullock’s butt and I was like, “Oh God please no” and I was surprised, actually surprised, that the camera shot her the way it would in an actual serious film that was filming a male character instead of the way it would film a woman in a softcore porn movie. And George Miller – for all that he dresses the rebel wives in white muslin bikinis – does not shoot any softcore porn here. Max stumbles onto them while they’re washing themselves off with a hose, and while it’s a striking scene after all that sand and violence, it’s not porny. These women are washing themselves like practical people, not male sex fantasies, and the camera captures them that way. Even when the film has the opportunity for a full-frontal female nude shot – with the motorcycle matriarchy member sitting up on the broken electric pole as bait – it demurs. This is a rated R movie, but the nudity was not necessary to the story.
Hear that, HBO? The nudity was not necessary to the story.
Here’s this movie saying, “People aren’t things” that actually uses its camera work in a way that backs up its political position that people are not things. Yes! “People are not things” is a political position now. Oh, 2015! Who’d have thought arguing that “Slavery is bad” in fucking 2015 would get people complaining about how that was taking an extreme political stance, eh?
Our rebel wives also get plenty to do in this film. Unlike so many heroines hanging off the side of a male character, it’s clear in this world that not pulling your weight will get you dead very quickly, and these women fight in a way that is realistic to how they were raised (my nitpick here is that they clearly cast models for these roles, and in terms of worldbuilding, they should have cast plump women. These women likely could not even menstruate; that’s a bad condition in women you’re keeping around to have babies. Ahem). No, they aren’t out doing kung-fu, but they are hitting people with tools, using chains to haul Max off Furiosa, counting out bullets, scouting ahead, helping to get the truck unstuck, and all other manner of things that people do in a world where they’re on the run and their very survival is at stake. No one survives and escapes sexual slavery and then gets upset at the idea of breaking a nail while hooking up a winch, for God’s sakes, though so many films would have you think otherwise.
Everyone in this film does something.
What’s shocking is how shocking that is to see in a film in 2015.
And I’m not even going to bother going into the motorcycle matriarchy because what else needs to be said here but my god, motorcycle matriarchy where have you been all my life?
I do want to say a little something about the mass of refugees bowing and scraping in the dirt beneath the towers of Immortan Joe, begging and scraping for water. This may have been the oddest worldbuilding break in the movie for me (I can totally buy the metal war guitar guy, honestly). Because here we have this mass of refugees, but they don’t seem to be serving any real purpose. They are not working – are they meant to be doing mining of some kind? Or are they literally just the masses camped out hoping for scraps? How to they serve the war machine? Is there a soylent green solution here that we’re missing? And, because its absence was really noticeable – where are all the black people in the future? If this is meant to be far-future Australia, where are all the Asian people, and the Aborigines? I could count the numbers of both in among the secondary and even background characters on one hand, which was another weird worldbuilding break.
It occurs to me I have not touched much on Furiosa here, but what is there to say? She’s the hero of the show, the warrior queen, the one with the grit and fortitude to bust out five women from prison and go riding off into the desert in search of a hazy half-memory of a place. She is the one who must ultimately make the decision whether to ride across the desert or to turn back and fight Immortan Joe. All Max can do is suggest it. The entire agency of this entire film rests entirely in her hands.
And it’s that agency that really makes this such a fine film for me, and one I’d call feminist waaaaay before I’d call something like Jupiter Ascending feminist. Because the entire story isn’t about things that happen to Furiosa. It’s about what Furiosa does with what has happened to her. I have heard all sorts of ideas about Furiosa’s back story, but listen – Furiosa is in this because she, too, needs redemption. She has propped up this guy’s patriarchy her whole life. She was been complicit in letting these other women act as breeders, a fate that for whatever reason she was able to avoid – whether because she could not get pregnant or because she was just too valuable as an imperator, or both. And in taking on the role she did, she was part of the problem. She upheld Immortan Joe’s rule. It was time for her to earn her redemption. She drives this narrative hard and fast, and nothing happens without her having to make a decision about it. She’s in charge of her own story.
Perhaps that’s the truly refreshing thing about this film, for me. It’s that instead of women playing a part in some guy’s story, in propping up some guy’s journey, we have, instead, Max stumbling into Furiosa’s story, and simply going along for the ride. He is, if anything, a Manic Pixie Dreamguy who stumbles in to suggest that she turn around and take the citadel herself. Then, after she has won the day and taken her rightful place as Queen Furiosa, he moves on to go and help justice prevail somewhere else.
Max wins nothing for all his troubles. His only win is seeing a wrong made right.
A hero who does something because it’s right, and reclaims his humanity, instead of doing it for a woman or loot reward! My god!
Oh, World of Warcraft generation, you are failing.
And it occurred to me in that moment, as I watched him figuratively gallop off into the sunset, that we’ve been missing those heroes a lot recently. Those 80’s loner dude heroes I loved were messed up, it’s true – they were terrible at making connections with people. They were monstrous. But they used that monstrousness not for their own ends, but to help make the world just a little bit better. They were usually paired up with some more idealistic sort, a truer hero – a Furiosa. And they were doing actual penance for their inability to love. They expected nothing in return. Their names were not writ large. They didn’t become king. But the world was just a little better because they helped somebody else in a fight against injustice.
I love my gritty fantasy and SF stories. But I admit I’m getting tired of rooting for the bad guys who torture people and destroy buildings without a thought for those within. I’m ready to see conflicted nihilistic heroes who accidently get caught up in hope again, who get caught up in the idea that some sliver of something can be saved, even if they must be dragged kicking and screaming back into accepting their own humanity, out here in the light.
(now can we please get a God’s War movie pretty please?)