“Future warfare will present a new face which will permanently replace soldierly qualities by those of sports; all action will lose its military character, and war will assume the countenance of record-setting.” —Walter Benjamin, Theories of German Fascism
The one challenge facing cinema and the arts today is that of finding a new vocabulary, a linguistic palette able to chronicle a reality whose manifestations no longer seem to find in the conventional modes of expression an adequate way to be represented. When history moves faster than language can keep up with, it gets increasingly difficult for “figurative” arts to meaningfully relate to how the world that bears them is changing. Science fiction has, after an early period of technological positivism, critically dissected the present by speculatively projecting the future. Travels to outer space were often nothing more than explorations of our inner space; by blowing up the consequences of tomorrow, science fictional narratives focused on the symptoms of today. But what happens to science fiction when the future dies? When technology evolves faster than our imagination? When what was once depicted as dystopia now matches the contours of actuality? When reason makes way to irrational impulses and the world is reduced to a single instinct, that to survive?
The menacing symphony of Mad Mad: Fury Road, rather than a cautionary tale, sounds like the field-recorded soundtrack of our dark times. The apparent dissonance between the world director George Miller conjures up and the one we live in is more a stylistic difference rather than a substantial one. Considerably vast portions of our planet are caught in a state of perpetual warfare not that dissimilar from the one depicted in Fury Road. A medieval future where divinity-like overlords rule over hordes of dispossessed and where natural resources (including human milk and blood) are the coveted stuff of monopolies doesn’t seem that far-fetched after all. Though superficially unnatural and post-apocalyptic in tone, the lawless lands Mad Max is dragged through might not look that alien to the damned souls trapped in the war-ravaged chaos of say Libya or Syria.
Unlike the first installment of this tetralogy where our hero was a vigilante, still the representative of a crumbling justice system, in Fury Road the ethical dichotomy of baddies vs. goodies is blurry to say the least, and in any case strictly contingent to the chaotic situation. Max's (passive) actions no longer appeal to a higher moral standard. Oases of peace and lush greenery are only mirages in the desert of the real, there are no inexpugnable cities to retake—only thrones to be filled. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) goes on a mutiny with a fuel tanker inside which she has hidden an harem of virgins condemned to forced reproduction by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a citadel's cyber-tyrant who exercises his power by doling out water to the subaltern population. Furiosa's imperial escape will trigger the kinetic core of the film as Immortan Joe enlists his army of sphinx-like cars in her pursuit. Her initial intent is to return to the matriarchal enclave where she was born, but will soon realise that the only form her escape can take is circular. When in fact they finally find the "lost paradise," the latter has turned into a rotten barren land and their inhabitants turned into armed bikers on the run, like everyone else. The matriarchal option gone, they can only return to the citadel of hierarchical machism, not to destroy it, but to conquer its heights.
When Furiosa returns to the citadel she ascends in fact to the same position Immortan Joe had occupied and momentarily vacated in her pursuit, and, albeit more generously so, proceeds to dole out the precious blue gold just like the villain does at the beginning of the film. If a matriarchal society will be, it will be one resting on the same structure of the former patriarchal one. The Charlize Theron character, widely praised as some sort of feminist heroine, is nothing but the phallic and monodimensional pretender to the throne, a sort of Hilary Clinton on wheels. She’s androgynous because apparently in Hollywood femininity and self-empowerment are not compatible and the harem of squeaking ladies she is rescuing from Immortan Joe are passive objects in her benevolent hands (so much for the feminist sisterhood...). As the camera angle in the final sequence makes very clear, she’s framed scaling the social pyramid of the citadel while Mad Max (Tom Hardy) disappears into the crowd of dispossessed with the same passivity that characterize him throughout the film, which in fact sees him basically dragged from pillar to post without much agency of his own. She hasn’t abolished patriarchy, only survived it by adapting to and adopting its discriminatory logics.
Everyone woman for herself, for the only form of “liberation” that is permitted is the individual one. Any possible form of reciprocity has been done away with by the urge to survive; very much like in contemporary warfare, alliances are ephemeral and dictated by personal interests. There are no popular causes to fight for, no common interests to be defended; it's a bloodthirsty race against enlightenment and order of any kind. When the social contract is breached and progressive institutions collapse, as it seems to be the case in Fury Road, individualism no longer is a pathological form of social egotism. It is the only way to survive. Fury Road is set in a hypothetical year X of futurist primitivism devoted to the pagan cult of engines and fuel-punk cars. Featureless hordes of eternal refugees wait for water to charitably leak from the high places of power. Tribes of anemic fundamentalists dream of dying to gain access to the Valhalla and have turned our hero Max into a blood bag, his biological resources literally sucked out of his body to keep the eco-monsters alive and running. In all honesty though, the plot is nothing but a pretext to unleash the kinetic choreography of operatic destruction that is the film. It's a biblical car chase except that God is dead, his son doesn't seem to be on his way either and the creatures that were created in his own image have been left to fend for themselves. None of the barbarities taking place in this motorized dance of death is something that we haven't already seen in (virtual) reality, be that a propaganda trailer by ISIS or the latest edition of Call of Duty. In the vacuum left by the disappearance of any principle, the hellish spectacle of swinging post-humans and steampunked vehicles fill our gaze with awe and an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity.
Mad (Mutual Assured Destruction) Max: Fury Road is primarily a work of moving ecstasy, only this time the beauty of devastation does not require our hypocritical and double-standard indignation. It is not so much a matter of whether the #BringBackOurGirls mission will succeed or not, the slaughter of mechanical bodyworks, oil and blood represents in itself the narrative and poetic core of the film. When nothing new and better can be created, implemented or even imagined, the spectacle of destruction acquires a cathartic quality that is almost spiritually fulfilling. To look at the sacred objects of the industrial civilization that once was darting through the highways of perdition is to catch sight of the looming fate awaiting the age of machines in the near distance. Like a nihilistic epiphany the spectator revels in the scenic dissolution of this lovely day. In the post-apocalyptic baroque of the canvas George Miller has patiently woven together, the trail of pain, violence and unspeakable beauty, that is mankind's bequest, shines through in stentorian fury.