The first time I walked out of a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road, I felt shellshocked.
In some ways, Fury Road is everything I expected. It is often cacophonous in its engine roar and explosive, well, fury. It is loud, and intense.
But these things aren't enough now, in the two-decades-plus aftermath of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the steadily escalating summer tentpoles that have followed. I feel desensitized to the computer-generated and often sterile destruction that's defined the arena these kinds of movies have operated in. It's not that I don't enjoy them, but my capacity for surprise is difficult to stir.
It turns out that vision and sheer directorial audacity can stir that capacity just fine.
Mad Max: Fury Road is ostensibly a sequel to the original 1979 film and its two follow-ups, but it appears free of much in the way of obligations to fiction or canon. You don't need to have seen any of them to grok the premise of this new film — that human nature, along with a helping of post-peak oil and weapons of mass destruction, has poisoned the world, leaving an archetypal post-apocalypse in its wake. Food is scarce, water is scarcer, and gasoline and the jury-rigged vehicles that require it rule everything.
The titular Max (Tom Hardy) is a nomad survivor living in the wasteland, but the film doesn't mince words or script pages before he's captured and made a human blood bag for the minions of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Meanwhile, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Immortan Joe's most accomplished field commander, has betrayed him, stealing away his "wives" and fleeing with a massive war rig. Max and Furiosa's paths collide, and the two must work together to survive and escape Joe's nightmarish, gasoline-fueled army.
If this sounds insane, that's because it is. Fury Road spends scant few minutes establishing a hellscape full of war boys, bullet farms and Aqua Cola, and then lets it all go.
What follows is a nearly relentless onslaught of beautifully orchestrated chaos, an artfully controlled explosion that erupts in waves over the course of 120 minutes, an extended chase scene that spends only minutes here or there allowing you to catch your breath.
Fury Road diverges from any film being released this summer that might realistically be considered a peer or a competitor by virtue of its physical presence. There's little in the way of computer-generated destruction to be found here, outside of one particular sequence. Instead, director George Miller has captured some of the most incredible practical stuntwork I've ever seen.
Massive, kit-bashed vehicles smash against each other in a film that is essentially one long chase scene. Fury Road offers a stark, limited color palette filtered through endless dunes and sand that puts an emphasis on motion. Despite its consistently high level of carnage, Miller keeps a tight rein on everything, avoiding the confusion and mess that plague so many summer event movies. The chases and wrecks are artfully choreographed, the constant motion tending toward the balletic.
Despite the near-total display of fire and rage on screen, there's a perceptible sense of restraint at work in Fury Road. It's an intense, violent movie, but Fury Road never feels gratuitous with the gore, instead trading blood and dismemberment for a wrenching sense of impact as bodies are thrown against or from the vehicles that dominate the proceedings.
That sense of economy extends to Fury Road's script as well. Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris have whittled it down to the barest essentials. It's a remarkable display of economy, and despite some occasionally wooden dialogue that scratches at the edges of disbelief, the story is a model of efficiency.
This is all the more impressive because of the subtly subversive heart of the film — that it frequently doesn't feel like Max's movie at all. While Max gets the voice-over to begin the film, and his perspective establishes Miller's demented vision of the carpocalypse, it's Furiosa who finds a character arc and a kind of hero's journey. Even as Max and Furiosa work together, there's a clear sense of purpose to Theron's performance that's missing in Hardy's PTSD-plagued portrayal. Max's violence feels unhinged, like a force of nature, but Furiosa is the only character in the film that ever really finds catharsis.
That catharsis is contagious. Fury Road is a shark, constantly moving, stripped down to the most basic, powerful elements needed to achieve its goals. Despite its big-budget trappings and wide release, there's a real sense of independence and auteurship on display, an energy, ferocity and fearlessness that this kind of film so rarely sees. Occasionally, we get a summer movie that has a chance to change things, to change the conversation, movies like 28 Days Later or The Raid. Fury Road belongs in that conversation, and sits next to them as something made to knock everything else on its ass.