Desert Bloom
By Daniel Schindel

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga
Dir. George Miller, U.S./Australia, Warner Bros.

A former hospital physician with memories of road accident injuries rattling in his head, George Miller crafted the aesthetic foundations for the post-apocalyptic genre out of the grit and sparse landscapes of the Australian New Wave with the original Mad Max trilogy. Decades later, ecological and societal collapse loom ever larger in the collective consciousness. Roving gangs sporting cobbled-together weapons and armor are now familiar, but Miller reinvigorated both this milieu and action cinema more broadly when he returned to Mad Max for 2015’s Fury Road. Dipping into the well yet again, this time for a prequel focusing on Fury Road’s deuteragonist Furiosa (played then by Charlize Theron, now by Anya Taylor-Joy), seems dicey in an era of big-budget filmmaking determined to chase known success and shear off any storytelling ambiguity by overexposing popular characters. We learn all we need to know about Furiosa in what’s both stated and (far more often) suggested in Fury Road; what, then, is fresh in Furiosa?

It is remarkable how many common prequel issues Miller and co-writer Nick Lathouris are content to sidestep entirely. Furiosa has almost no meta-shibboleth winks to fans or superfluous cameos. The story sees Furiosa abducted from the Green Place of Many Mothers, an oasis in Australia’s post-collapse wasteland, by cronies of Dementus (the gamely flamboyant Chris Hemsworth), a warlord leading a horde styled vaguely after the Mongols, but with bikers instead of equestrians. She ultimately rises to prominence within the army of the polygamous dictator Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, embodying Hugh Keays-Byrne’s portrayal of the villain as a diseased yet dangerously wily Darth Vader variation) while never losing her yearning to return home. That’s the position we find her in at the start of Fury Road, yet Furiosa’s narrative stands on its own from that film’s, which is gratifying amid the glut of “cinematic universes” whose installments are so closely linked as to resemble homework.

The two works’ respective tacks to the material are quite distinct, though they share the series’ heightened world of outsized characters engaging in ridiculously dangerous vehicular combat. Fury Road was a single chase, comfortable playing out over a feature’s length with alternating lulls and ramp-ups in excitement. As its awkward subtitle, A Mad Max Saga, intimates, Furiosa is more episodic, even divided into distinct chapters, aging the title character from child (played by Alyla Browne rather than Taylor-Joy for a solid third of the running time) to adult.

While many contemporary blockbusters style themselves as “epic,” this one adopts a novelistic rhythm (or perhaps, more aptly, a cadence like the trade paperback of a comic book series), unafraid to slow down significantly at times or shake things up through time jumps and shifting circumstances. That it both conveys the weight of 15 years passing and maintains such visceral propulsion in its action beats is impressive, though the pacing sometimes flags, with some particularly uncomfortable crawls during the denouement.

But for the most part, Furiosa sustains its energy even through its quieter moments, periodically exploding into the intricately choreographed kineticism the Mad Max series is known for. The most prominent motif in Tom Holkenborg’s score is a persistent thrum, not unlike a revving engine, conveying Furiosa’s itch to escape. But she is characterized by patience and observation, not impulsiveness. The most fascinating aspect of Browne’s and Taylor-Joy’s performances is how convincingly they feel of a piece with Theron’s. Furiosa never speaks a word beyond what she needs to, and the actors evince the same compelling, steely intelligence. Much of the film adopts her point of view on a series of escalating power plays between Dementus and Joe, not as a bystander without agency, but a canny predator awaiting the best chance to act. It reflects Fury Road’s propensity to let the audience infer more than what’s explicitly stated. It’s an indictment of modern Hollywood that this kind of trust in a viewer’s attention feels extraordinary.

The Mad Max films have always placed a strong emphasis on practical stunts, with each entry escalating the ambition and audaciousness of their feats. A characteristic image of Fury Road was its warriors perched on swaying poles rising out of muscle cars; here there are men piloting motored gliders, swarming like metal bats around an ominous black tendrilled balloon. There’s a marked uptick in evident computer-generated imagery compared to Fury Road, in line with Miller’s interim work, Three Thousand Years of Longing. Where that film emulated the visuals of folktale storybooks, befitting its Arabian Nights-like story, Furiosa embraces a hyper-artificial cartoonishness straight out of the pages of graphic fiction like 2000 AD or Heavy Metal (which often told tales heavily informed by works like Mad Max in the first place).

There is still copious stunt work, of course, and its meshing with the CGI often enhances the thrill rather than diminish it. Few complain about the matte paintings in the films of Keaton or Chaplin, after all. The connection to that era of filmmaking is underscored by periodic speed-ramping making characters gesture with an almost hypnotic herky-jerkiness, as if they move in the frame rate of a silent picture. I can’t think of any other current filmmaker consciously invoking such an effect besides Guy Maddin or Scorsese in Hugo. Rather than the animation obscuring the derring-do of the performers, their physicality lends verisimilitude to even the dodgier computer effects.

Though executed with aplomb, the action scenes are where the film breaks the least new ground. This is indicative of how the film expands on what’s familiar from Fury Road more than it adds to this universe. There are glimpses of innovation, as in the best action sequence, a showstopper near the film’s midpoint that imagines an attempted robbery of a transport convoy as essentially a mobile siege, combining ground-based and aerial vehicles into a marvelous, continually shifting geography around which characters must jump, duck, dodge, and fight. Like Fury Road, Furiosa arrives after a long trial of production and filming headaches—this time with a higher budget and a much greater burden of expectations. Furiosa may not surprise the way Fury Road did, but it still affirms Miller as a preeminent crafter of heightened cinematic artifice.