The beauty of The Road Warrior is that it is a legend. We’re given the past through the lens of someone who lived it, and the trials and tribulations of Max himself become something akin to the Bibilical suffering of Job or the trials of Hercules. Max stands in for the human spirit in some way, and when the community of travelers overcomes adversity only through their solidarity as a community, we’re meant to take all of this symbolism seriously. We’re watching a myth, and everything fits that model.
Fury Road is the ultimate expression of that ethic. It is a story so flattened to its basic mythological functions that it is fundamentally one dimensional–so one-dimensional that “I’m looking for redemption” followed by “maybe we’ll find some redemption” is basically the entire emotional journey that the film presents us with.
There’s a world where someone might call that bad, or lazy, or thin, and I don’t really understand that world. Much like Beowulf, Fury Road doesn’t go deep but that doesn’t stop it from doing its work. It relies on the predictable distribution of violence as an engine to drive the story along. It works like trauma; it provides a skeleton for existence based on repetition. We know that the crashes will come again. There will be a pause, and we will sit quietly as Furiosa drives through the night, and then we will watch her save everyone one more time.
This is how a myth works. You retell it. It takes a different shape. You speak it over and over again. The repetition takes shape, and like the War Boys, you develop rituals. You hope you ride eternal, shiny and chrome.
The reduction of Mad Max to a mythical figure means that we can stretch him out. He can take any shape, like Moses, like Sherlock Holmes, like James Bond; he’s an idea, a one-note paper construction that sits in for our anxieties and fears and our hopes for humans and their horrible being.
The further a piece of media strays toward myth the better it is able to embrace the evocation effect. Cain is banished to the east of Eden and into the land of Nod, which is promptly forgotten about. Lovecraft tells us of unknown, unthinkable dimensions and never quite gets around to providing any real, encyclopedic information about them. The Mos Eisley cantina has all of those weird-ass, unexplained, unnamed aliens who live for a bare moment before disappearing behind the plot.
Fury Road rests on these moments of evocation. The Bullet Farm and its war-mongering ruler and Gas Town with its business-and-resource focused nipple-tweaking captain both fit perfectly into a mythological frame that is spending more time warning us about the hubris of bloodlust and the evils of capitalism than it is the exact inner-workings of gas production and distribution. The film is literally filled with evocation to the point of sacrificing any explanation: the blind metal guitar player bound to his vehicle; the Desert of Silence; those who pick the ruined wastes of the green place with their stilts and rags. It is all presented to the viewer without hesitation, without reservation, and fully serious. It is a world that is large, and it cannot be encapsulated in two hours, so why bother?
It is easy for a film franchise to fall into a trap here (and it is impossible for me to see how this will fail to become a new franchise). Pitch Black became The Chronicles of Riddick with its brutal overexplanation of the universe and the Necrolords. The Matrix attempted to account for an entire history and ecology of humans and machines on a ruined Earth, completely forgetting the evocative nature of the first film that made it so compelling. And Star Wars, well, it became Star Wars.
I hope that we can keep Mad Max and his universe flat. I hope that we can keep Furiosa mythical. I’m holding out for evocation without the dead weight of explanation.