For the first time since Gravity I opted to see a film in 3D and this was a good choice. Miller gives us the old fashioned pleasure of objects being hurled out of the screen, albeit from nearly every conceivable direction and with more menacing speed than normal. He filmed at mountainous locations and massive sets that give Fury Road an epic if not biblical feel. If some shots hint at what Lawrence of Arabia would have looked like in 3D, the early scenes at Immortan Joe's citadel look like something Cecil B. DeMille would have done in 3D. Joe has made a mountain into his temple and the fount of his thralls' survival thanks to his control of an underground reservoir. He lets the water flow a few minutes at a time while the wretches fight for their portion, warning them not to get attached to the stuff, or else they'll resent its absence. Joe, a broken-down old man who covers a ruined mouth with a skull mask, but also an excellent driver, rules over whitefaced War Boys whom he fills with dreams of Valhalla and the blood of healthy victims to replace their diseased vital fluids. Max (Tom Hardy), found as usual in a bad way, finds himself reduced to the status of "blood bag" and hood ornament of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy eager to prove himself and prove to himself that he is "awaited" in Joe's Valhalla. Hardy is either a profound ironist or simply accursed, for here is his next opportunity to put himself over with the multiplex audience after The Dark Knight Rises and again he's stuck with a mask, though only for the first third of the film this time. But if there's something weirdly self-effacing about Hardy, the mask is actually a smart way for Miller to ease the transition; it allows us to more gradually accustom ourselves to a Max who isn't Gibson. With the mask on, the man on the screen is neither Gibson nor Hardy but Mad Max in nearly ideal form.
The mask also forms part of the argument that Max, or Hardy, is eclipsed intentionally by the film's co-hero, the renegade Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Furiosa has been the focus of some preposterous speculation or conspiracy mongering, with at least one website earning a lot of publicity for itself by accusing Miller of reviving his franchise only to force a feminist agenda down moviegoers' throats. Hearing about this before seeing the film, you might expect Fury Road to be a war of the sexes, with Max presumably a traitor to his. Rest easy, folks. Yes, Immortan Joe has multiple wives whom he treates as slaves and broodmares. But even this marks him as a sexist or misogynist when he can also make Furiosa, also an excellent driver, a trusted lieutenant with important responsibilities, though this proves to be a mistake. If anything, Theron's performance is a weak link of the film. She's a strong figure, certainly, but perhaps because Miller sees her as the film's co-hero Furiosa isn't as flamboyant a figure as the other denizens of the citadel and environs. Theron plays her as a laconic, understated figure, much as Hardy plays Max, with few if any of the eccentricities that seem otherwise to follow from civilization's collapse. The problem, I think, is that we meet her at the point of betraying Joe, liberating his wives, and redeeming herself, when she might have been a more compelling figure had we seen her actively collaborating with Joe -- if we saw why she feels a need to redeem herself. But that would require a separate picture -- which some have asked for -- without Max at its center. Beyond this, there's arguably some feminist agenda in the concept of the Green Place, a matriarchy from which Furiosa was taken as a child and to which she hopes to return with Joe's women, but if anything the film tells us that such a utopia is just as much a dead end as any other, and we need not assume that Miller recommends matriarchy as the future for Max's world.
As for who's the real hero, the answer's pretty simple. When during a point of despair Furiosa opts for escapism, lighting out for the territory through the desert, as far away from the citadel as possible, in the hope of finding something better at the other side, it's Max who tells her that "Hope is a mistake" if it leads you to run away from the problem in front of you. If Max has been a commitment-phobic figure throughout his series -- and here he seems more haunted than ever by horrific hallucinations of his lost family -- he's still the one who tells Furiosa to commit, to chose fight over flight. He points her toward the only practical solution: revolution. Joe has overextended his forces pursuing Furiosa and left his citadel undefended. If Furiosa's team -- which now includes a reformed Nux, disillusioned by failure and separation like a lone Borg -- makes a surprise end run back the way she came, through Joe's lines, she might capture the citadel almost singlehandedly.
If Fury Road has a theme, it's that civilization can be redeemed only by our giving freely of ourselves to others. At a crucial moment Max, formerly an involuntary bloodbag, offers his blood freely to a wounded comrade, while Nux, previously a parasite on Max's blood, is inspired to make a considerable sacrifice of his own. Furiosa finally becomes a full hero once convinced by Max to liberate the citadel rather than fend for herself in the desert.
But who needs a theme for Fury Road? The film needn't have a thought in its head to be one of the greatest action films ever. Here is a film that almost literally reinvents the wheel in spectacular fashion, restoring the action film to a gritty, visceral life that has been rendered away in recent years. No luddite, Miller has exploited CGI to amplify his typical effects, but the car and stunt based reality of it all is still obvious, as is the series' inventively idiosyncratic weirdness. Joe's fleet rolls to its own live soundtrack, complete with a monstrous speaker system on wheels with a flamethrowing guitar soloist whose final fate gives the film one of its funnies 3D gags. Miller has had ample time to imagine the road wars of his world and the weapons that might evolve. So now we see War Boys harpooning cars with explosive-tipped spears, and pole-mounted warriors who flank their quarry and plunge down to snatch captives or plunder before bouncing back upright. The visualization, the execution and editing are impeccable. If Buster Keaton had imagined an apocalypse, this is what it might have looked like. If the action film follows directly from Keaton's large-scale stunt films like The General, Fury Road honors that lineage and builds upon it. If in many ways it reminds me of something old, it also manages to make something new, an imagined future, look like something real -- or definitely more real than most movies. At the same time it feels more like a movie than most action movies have lately. And I don't know how long it's been since I've seen something as exhilarating on the big screen. I get it if some of you absolutely had to do Pitch Perfect this weekend, but if you love movies you owe it to yourself to see Fury Road on a big screen, if not in 3D, while you have a chance.