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Time for a prequel, and everything that idea entails, in George Miller’s return to the wasteland after nine years. Are these characters worth revisiting? Is the world they inhabit enriched or shrunken by taking the story in this direction? These are the questions posed by his decision move to backwards and focus on ideas and details that could have been left as foot notes or single lines of dialogue. Mad Max: Fury Road was of course very spare in terms of plot and told a story through visual detail and action set pieces. It was also an example of a film that didn’t necessarily need to exist after spending decades in development hell. So once again it’s time to wander into the irradiated ruins of the old world and see if it’s a road trip worth taking.

First things things; let’s talk about the title. It’s not a great choice for two reasons, the first being a lack of eloquence (suggesting studio interference) and the second being accuracy. Young Furiosa (Anya-Taylor Joy) is an even younger child (Alyla Browne) for half the movie, while would-be warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) is given a lot of screen-time. If anything this could easily have been called Dementus: A Wasteland Saga, but of course brand recognition must prevail. This peculiar identity crisis is something that seeps into the structure of the story as a whole resulting in an uneven experience; an action epic that peaks early in the second act and a revenge tale that lacks forward momentum. The term ‘saga’ is at least appropriate in this regard as it’s definitely a long story made up of various incidents.

Still, some may appreciate the slower paced feel of the film as a whole which takes its foot off the gas in many sequences. Furiosa’s backstory takes her from the so-called ‘green place’ when she is kidnapped by bandits and traded to Dementus as proof that a long sought land of plenty exists. As the years pass she escapes his grasp only to become trapped by the service of Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme) during which time she works her way up from labourer to rig driver. There are few surprises along the way because this is of course all a kind of extended prologue; she has to lose her curly locks (and an arm) along the way so the pieces fit together. In the meantime Dementus becomes obsessed with finding people and places to rule despite his own fickle, and often incompetent, nature.

Furiosa herself is generally a silent protagonist, much like the hero of the prior instalments, initially by choice because of the secrecy surrounding her home, and later because of the nature of her servitude. Miller does an impressive job hiding the transition between child actor and young woman as the years pass. His interest in showing rather than telling extends to many of the world building aspects of the story whether it’s the lair of man-child Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) or the subterranean hovels outside the Immortan’s citadel. The use of art, be it classical paintings, tattoos, and of course embossed chrome, also adds texture to different locations and characters. It’s unfortunate then that elsewhere things are far from efficient and can sometimes feel baggy and self-indulgent.

Despite a lack of dialogue from Furiosa herself it sometimes gets pretty wordy with both chapter title cards and narration showing up frequently. The subtle passage of time in one instance that depicts a tree growing is absent during so much on screen text. Places like ‘Gas Town’ and the ‘Bullet Farm’ are both named and depicted in detail, but both are less interesting as a result of their appearances here. So while it’s nice to see the return of Fury Road‘s ugliest faces it’s still a case of prequel-itis that drains a certain amount of mystique. Both the drive for revenge and the lust for conquest are lessened by a lack of focus, which has been replaced by sluggish storytelling that spends a lot of time on certain things but skips others. The worst example is a ‘war for the wasteland’ being described and not shown as the film’s natural climax, beyond a few flashes of violence.

Of course there is plenty of high-octane action elsewhere. Despite some egregious green screens and a lot of CGI fire the set pieces are still inventive, if not always convincing. The standout chase still involves a giant tanker which gets Furious into the fray and also introduces her mentor Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke). Stainless steel smashing machines clash with flying contraptions as goons wearing horned armour battle painted war boys. There are also plenty of bikers, snipers, and freaks (oh my) to keep the sequences feeling distinct from one another. It never regains the grit of the first two films in this series but it’s never a sanitised affair either. Furiosa has a painful journey ahead of her in which loss and misery are always just around the next sand dune.

It’s just a shame that the road is so winding and uneven rather than being the extreme edge-of-your-seat spectacular it might have been. You could argue that as a result Fury Road is still the true finale to this whole thing, but I’m more interested in seeing how Miller’s proposed third instalment moves things forward. Some might have been supremely sceptical about a Mad Max film without Max, but I’m sure nobody was ever wondering how Organic Mechanic got his gig or how The People Eater works out his profit and loss ratios. But at least as prequels go it’s light-years ahead of those depicting the likes of Han Solo. I guess it helps that they’re following a relatively recent film release instead of trying to replicate one from decades earlier.

Certain visual effects may be cheaper looking than they did in 2015 for some reason, but the choice to make the wasteland a colourful place full of vibrant details continues to pay off. Overall it still manages to be a stylish treat full of vehicles, masks, and gadgets, that lend it a unique feel within a well trodden genre. Like Miller’s previous release Three Thousand Years of Longing there’s a sense that exciting ideas and images have taken precedence over pacing and sleek running times, but it’s still a pleasure to see his creative energies being explored on the big screen. It’s not perfect but the cast is good, the destruction is satisfying, and the world is full of gnarly details and searing post-apocalyptic visions. Time will tell whether this leads to more V8 powered adventures, but it’s an fascinating prospect.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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About Mocata 146 Articles
A sucker for classic epics, 80s science fiction and fantasy kitsch, horror, action, animation, stop motion, world cinema, martial arts and all kinds of assorted stuff and nonsense. If you enjoy a bullet ballet, a good eye ball gag or a story about time travelling robots maybe we can be friends after all.

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