No one goes slack-jawed in wonder at the movies any more. In our cyber-enabled times, kid designers can mega-pixelate any old apocalypse on to the screen of your local Imax. It puts the new Mad Max in a strange relationship with its hoary forebears. Mel Gibson first fired up his turbo-jalopy back in 1979 (two sequels followed with ever bigger engines and hair extensions). All these years on, Mad Max: Fury Road has a narrow strip of tarmac to navigate: it must keep faith with the trilogy’s pre-digital va-va-voom, while serving up enough throaty thrills to raise a tingle on the desensitised dermis of today’s lard-bucket gamer. Does it pull this off? Does his Holiness ride a popemobile?
This fourth instalment has been on director George Miller’s to-do list since the Nineties. It’s taken so long that its central notion — a future without ready access to water — barely qualifies as sci-fi. One casualty of the gestation is Gibson, currently impounded in the where-are-they-now file. Instead, performing essential repairs to the chassis while thumping along at 60, is Tom Hardy, our very own amalgam of rubber, teak and gristle. You’ve seen Hardy in all sorts, though probably not heard him say much. He says even less here beyond introducing himself as ‘the one who runs from both the living and the dead’. In short, new face, same old mopey loner who grunts and shunts. And does stunts: in one eye-popping sequence Hardy is precariously strapped like a prow to a rattling truck.
The other change is location. Out goes the outback, which maybe didn’t look parched enough to embody the dry-roasted future. In come the scorched umber sands, slithery dunes and craggy canyons of the Namib desert. We meet Max snacking on a twin-headed lizard in this mutant wilderness, where he is rapidly outflanked by a touring party of bald-pated, bare-chested, white-daubed gym bunnies. The opening car chase is an overture of juddering intensity which introduces the car pool. Meet a souped-up forecourt-full of customised roadsters that roar across the screen like a scenario in a petrolhead’s lurid engine-porn fantasy. Ever imagined a hedgehoggy hatchback shagging a nitro-boosted 200hp HGV? Here’s what two hours of it looks (and sounds) like.
Max is soon dangling upside-down in a swarming desert citadel, his face caged and his veins transfusing blood into a so-called ‘half-life war boy’. (It’s buy into the mythopoeia or bust.) This fervent youth (Nicholas Hoult) seeks a berth in Valhalla, which can be won through valiant service to the city’s boil-infested overlord, who lives off freshly pumped mother’s milk and keeps a leprous populace thirstily at bay by controlling the sluice gates. He gets his chance when a butch trucker called Furiosa (Charlize Theron rocking a buzzcut and lacking a forearm) drives out on an official mission at the wheel of her militarised supertanker, only to veer off grid.
Max, having escaped his shackles, is soon riding shotgun — though in no sense is this film just his vehicle. Furiosa, it turns out, is a feminist saviour who has liberated a bevy of barely clad popsicles and is giving them a lift to a promised land known as the Green Place. ‘Where did you find such creatures?’ asks a sinewy leatherette we encounter in the desert. At a guess, a lingerie catalogue.
What follows is essentially the best-ever car chase to the back and beyond, overtaken by an even better car chase all the way home. Along the way, the film’s unswerving pomposity batters you into submission. It tips a hat to the clanking Roman epic and the pitiless spaghetti western, and flirts with lofty ideas of redemption. In a rare instance of overt CGI, a blazing tempest invokes John Martin’s infernal Old Testament furnaces. Someone even has the bottle to namecheck manifest destiny. The soundtrack is on message, all hyperactive percussion and brass chorales. Plus, mounted on the bonnet of one armoured vehicle is a spidery Visigoth with a double-necked electric guitar firing out the silliest instrumental solo since 1972.
This is entertainment to the maddest max. Every inner 12-year-old will think he — or perhaps even she — has died and gone to a heaven that looks just like hell. Better belt up. As Furiosa says, ‘Out here, everything hurts.’