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22 May 2024

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is the franchise’s grandest, most expensive yet  

If you’ve ever relished a Mad Max film, make sure to see this one at the biggest, loudest screening possible.

By David Sexton

The original Mad Max of 1979 couldn’t have been simpler or starker. This wildly kinetic revenge drama, “a silent movie with sound”, as its director George Miller claimed, was filmed in six weeks in and around dank Melbourne on a budget of just A$400,000 – with A$15,000 of that going to the 23-year-old Mel Gibson for his breakout role. 

Miller, then a doctor in his early thirties, had been influenced both by treating the gruesome results of many car crashes and by realising, in the 1973 oil crisis, how desperate and violent drivers became when queueing for petrol. But the film’s vaguely futuristic ambience, which suggested societal breakdown “a few years from now”, was first conceived as a way to justify the derelict settings the film-makers could afford.

After the original Australian voices were redubbed by American actors, Mad Max took $100m worldwide, becoming the most profitable film ever on a cost-returns ratio, until The Blair Witch Project in 1999. The terrific Mad Max 2 (overtly post-apocalypse now, with ten times the production budget) followed in 1981, the excesses of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985.

There was then a 30-year hiatus. The fourth film in the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road, in 2015, was a relentless chase movie, ceaselessly in motion. Tom Hardy was perfectly tough as Max, Charlize Theron glittering as the one-armed, shaven-headed Imperator Furiosa, seeking the “Green Place” of her childhood.

Now here’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the priorities reversed this time, for there’s no Max at all. Directed again by Miller, still going strong at 79, Furiosa is a prequel, in effect an origin story for Theron’s character. Usually that’s a let-down in any franchise as the suspense is blunted: we know that the heroine will survive every peril, if not keep both her arms.

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Furiosa, though, was already fully written when Fury Road was made, and is a true companion piece rather than a post-hoc barrel scrape. The opening sequence is thrilling. Young Furiosa (Alyla Browne, great) is abducted from the idyllic oasis in which she lives by savage, skull-masked bikers. Her mother (the marvellous Charlee Fraser, previously a fashion model) gives chase over the desert, first on horseback, then on a stolen “thunder-bike”, tracking her to the biker’s camp, ruled by the ferocious Dementus (huge Chris Hemsworth in quasi-Roman garb, lots of hair and a prosthetic nose). Furiosa and her mother escape, but after another desperate chase are recaptured, and her mother is sadistically martyred. End of episode one.

Dementus is waging war on the powers that be in this wasteland, notably the Citadel familiar from Fury Road: a slave society governed by the ugly Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, replacing the late Hugh Keays-Byrne). Dementus trades Furiosa to Immortan Joe for access to oil, ammunition, food and water, but continues to raid the convoys – driving a Ben-Hur-type chariot pulled by three riderless bikes which he controls somehow through traditional reins –  in a series of momentous but loosely connected set pieces. Furiosa, which spans 15 years rather than the three days of Fury Road, is more of an anthology of short stories than a single narrative.

Furiosa grows up in the Citadel, implausibly disguising herself as a boy for years, before emerging as Anya Taylor-Joy. (Miller decided against de-ageing Charlize Theron after seeing The Irishman.) She’s impressively feral and mostly silent, until she forges a relationship with a warrior-mentor, Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke, excellent but under-used, his role scarcely explained except as a para-Max). “You have about you a purposeful savagery,” Jack says. She does.

Furiosa’s final confrontation with Dementus is verbose and overextended, a rare error from Miller. Never mind. Furiosa, the most expensive film ever made in Australia, delivers a much grander, more landscaped spectacle and more world-building than its predecessors. It belongs to the desert (filmed in New South Wales this time, not Namibia, as with Fury Road) and its vast horizons, just as Westerns did in their heyday. There are even moments of stillness and silence.

This apocalypse, like that of Dune, can be related to political breakdown, global warming and the energy crisis. Essentially, though, it’s still like a video game or comic book, brought to more dynamic life than anybody else has achieved. Inflated perhaps, Furiosa is nonetheless an epic achievement that, if you’ve ever relished a Mad Max film, you should make sure to seek on the biggest, loudest screen possible. And then look forward to seeing it again.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is in cinemas now

[See also: Hoard is a daringly original British film]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024