Mad Max and the End of the World

Mad Max dramatizes a clash of civilizations, in which the West must win out over everyone else.

Jasin Boland / WV Films

In an age when climate change threatens to destroy entire nations, nightmarish depictions of a future characterized by violence, disease, scarcity, and environmental and social collapse have become increasingly common in popular culture. George Miller’s new film Mad Max: Fury Road and his earlier Mad Max films all invoke such apocalypse, but Fury Road is unique in how it speaks to the present moment.

The first two Mad Max films, released in 1979 and 1981, use visions of a collapsing society to express middle-class fears about the spread of urban criminality into suburban spaces, and the superficiality and emptiness of modern life. In Fury Road, the disintegration of society and the regression of humanity into barbarism goes hand in hand with widespread ecological destruction and resource scarcity — a depiction that connects with audience anxieties about the destructive effects of climate change.

But far from serving as a cautionary tale about the ecological and spiritual devastation wrought by industrial capitalism, Fury Road is in fact a celebration of the triumph of modernity over “traditional,” “primitive” society in apocalyptic times.

And although much has been made of the film’s supposed feminism — with Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Imperatur Furiosa achieving a status that nearly equals that of Thomas Hardy’s Max — in the end, the film affirms the existing order of things rather than challenging us to reconsider our responsibility for making the future.

The Captivity Narrative

Fury Road is, at bottom, a classical Hollywood western. Like so many films of that genre, its story is built around a captivity narrative — a colonial-era formula that rationalized the extermination of indigenous peoples (especially in white settler colonies like America and Australia), and characteristically involved the capture of a character or characters by an “uncivilized,” “barbaric” Other. The goal was always to rescue the captured people — usually women — and return them home, defined as a place of purity and harmony, uncontaminated by the intrusive and violent Other.

Captivity narratives have been brought to the screen innumerable times, though perhaps most famously in John Ford’s The Searchers. In this story Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate Army soldier, returns from war to find his brother’s home torched and two female family members raped and kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Ethan (played by John Wayne) vows to annihilate the indigenous people he holds collectively responsible, even shooting their dead corpses to deprive them of peace in the afterlife.

The Searchers was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle taking the place of Ethan, attempting to rescue Iris, a fourteen-year-old prostitute, from the captivity of her pimp, Scout. A less creative but more recent example is John Favreau’s film Cowboys and Aliens, which has both settlers and Apache Indians teaming up to free captives taken by aliens.

In Fury Road, Max and Imperator Furiosa endeavor to rescue the Five Wives of Immortan Joe, a cruel dictator who rules over the squalid remains of human civilization. These “wives,” selected for breeding purposes, are held as concubines in Joe’s castle. Max and Furiosa smuggle the wives out and set off on a journey to reach The Green Place, a matriarchal paradise Furiosa remembers from her childhood.

Central to the captivity narrative is the definition of the Other from whom we must protect ourselves, especially our women. In Fury Road “we” is defined as those steeped in the uniquely rational culture of the West, while the Other is everything we are not: barbaric, patriarchal, committed to religious doctrine with an all-consuming, fundamentalist, even suicidal devotion.

In this Orientalist frame — articulated by Max Weber to explain why modern capitalism developed in Europe but not elsewhere — “traditional” societies are based on loyalty to an individual patriarch whose arbitrary rule is justified by reference to custom and tradition, while modern societies are ruled by rational bureaucracies that govern according to formal principles, such as liberal constitutionalism. Weber equated the rise of modernity with a uniquely Western process of rationalization: the replacement of mysticism and personal patriarchal domination with reason and impersonal rule.

This struggle between tradition and modernity lies at the heart of Fury Road, which is set in a time of societal collapse and regression into primitive tribalism — indicated by a generically “primitive” aesthetic that invokes various “native” symbols, including face and body paint and “tribal” music.

The bad guys are marked by tribalism and traditionalism. Inequality in Joe’s society stems not from the exploitation of labor, or the ecological and social devastation wrought by capitalist production, but rather from Joe’s absolute power to ration water — a power he apparently uses to enhance his political legitimacy by appearing benevolent and generous when he chooses to turn it on.

The Others also wear masks. Whereas Max’s removal of the mask locked to his face during his time in the captivity of Joe’s army signals his movement into the in-group, Joe is killed when Max rips the mask from his face.

Unlike the modern liberal subject, the Others (like Joe) are inseparable from the mask. They do not identify themselves as abstract individuals, minds floating above and choosing culture. Rather, they are completely dominated by it and, lacking individuality, are unfree. They are, essentially, things, which the archetypal liberal individual — embodied in Max and Furiosa — must save us from.

Indeed, this is the battle cry of Joe’s escaped wives: “we are not things.” But the wives are not protesting the reduction of human beings to the status of passive objects forced to devote themselves and their labor to a system that produces inequality and alienation, or as the film depicts, societal collapse. Instead, they are declaring their freedom from tradition and culture — indicating their separation from and superiority to the forces of social “backwardness.”

The domination of the Other by tradition and culture is made most clear by the self-destructive, fundamentalist religious commitment of Joe’s War Boys, who sacrifice themselves in glorious deaths that guarantee them entry into Valhalla. The obvious metaphor, of course, is suicide bombing. In their total commitment to Joe’s mystical religious ideology, the War Boys lack a sense of self.

That Furiosa gets to be a modern subject with a clear sense of agency and power is a welcome change from most Hollywood action films. In the fight to destroy Joe’s patriarchal demagoguery, Furiosa is almost an equal partner to Max.

But her agency is framed against a strictly Orientalist conception of patriarchy, illustrated by Joe’s possession of a harem. Harems are an age-old feature of popular Western depictions of the Eastern Other. In Fury Road patriarchy thus moves from being a pervasive, worldwide phenomenon to one that is confined to “backward” Eastern or native cultures.

Moreover, why do we care about these particular women? Why are they worth saving, rather than any of the thousands shown in the film slowly dying of thirst? Because unlike the horribly disfigured, crippled bodies of the unwashed herd, whose utter grotesqueness is played up throughout the film through the cringe-worthy exploitation of disabled actors, they are young and sexually attractive — attributes that, like the repulsiveness of the huddled masses, are exploited by the camera.

Compared to the hideous thronging rabble, they are also well-spoken, educated, and privileged. They are “us.” We have been thrown into this apocalyptic world in which we do not belong, and we must be saved.

Christianity and the Clash of Civilizations

Christian themes, including death and resurrection, dominate Fury Road’s conflict between tradition and modernity. Throughout the film, Max undergoes a cycle of death and rebirth. He begins a prisoner of Joe’s War Boys, forced to serve as a blood bag for a sick soldier named Nux after being identified as a universal donor. He is strapped to the hood of a combat vehicle on what can only be described as a crucifix-like contraption. Max breaks free, but the vehicle is destroyed when it steers into a violent storm during a fierce battle.

Later, amid the wreckage, we see Max’s hand reaching up through the sand: he is reborn, prisoners’ mask still locked to his face. He immediately walks into what looks like a Victoria’s Secret commercial; it turns out to be Joe’s wives bathing in a hose. They are angels — beautiful, all dressed in white — who guide Max to the next step in his cycle. He baptizes himself in breast milk, washing the blood from his face.

Later, with Furiosa’s file, he removes the mask that had concealed his face. As the War Rig approaches the gates of the city, he tells Furiosa his name for the first time. Max’s cycle is complete when, after Furiosa has killed Joe, he triumphantly returns to turn on the water for the masses.

The changing character of Max throughout the Mad Max films is telling. In the first two films, Max is a cop trying to stanch the decay of a declining society by restoring order and suppressing backward and corrosive elements.

But by the third film, 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, society has completely descended into anarchy. In this film Max is a Moses figure: exiled by the demagogic leader Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), he reluctantly leads the scattered remains of humanity (abandoned children) through the desert in search of the Promised Land. After sacrificing himself to save his flock, he is left to wander the desert while future generations tell his story.

In the new film, Max is an outlaw in a society characterized by absolute injustice. His death on the cross and resurrection signifies the fall of civilization into Armageddon, and its rebirth in him. Furiosa tells Max that while the fleeing wives seek hope, she needs redemption. Max provides both.

In all the Mad Max films, cycles of death and rebirth occur in a society marked by decay, entropy, and desperation. Nothing new is created in these worlds – everything has been recycled, has been beaten up, requires repair, or is being fixed. This absence of novelty signals the decline of civilization and, more importantly, leads the viewer to wonder whether modernity was not merely a gasoline-powered illusion all along.

Modernity in the first three films was synonymous with the cheapening of human life, which had grown increasingly distant from what is natural, beautiful, and true. In these first films Max fights to preserve decency and order amid the collapse of the modernist project — or else to escape the chaos by braving a new frontier and establishing a new settlement.

In Fury Road, on the other hand, modernity is the antidote to the rise of barbarism in the face of severe ecological crisis. In this Mad Max, barbarism is not associated with industrialization, capitalism, or the failure of modernity, but rather with pre-modern, “traditional,” patriarchal society. Despite the film’s setting in an ecological wasteland wrought by capitalist modernity, Fury Road presents the Western conception of modernity, rationality, and individuality as the only alternative to the uncivilized Other.

Fury Road is thus essentially a dramatization of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” which recasts Weber’s vision of European modernization as a struggle between the West and everyone else — especially the Muslim world.

The film maps Huntington’s civilizational conflict onto the classical Hollywood archetype of the lone hero, albeit with a distinctly neoliberal hue. With the collapse of society, our only hope resides in the individual, and modernity can only be preserved when the hero defeats an Eastern Other that is irreconcilably in conflict with enlightened liberal values.

The popularity of Fury Road, like the earlier Mad Max films, partially stems from its reproduction of familiar historical narratives and dominant conceptions of society, the individual, and global conflicts. The association of Good with “us” — defined in opposition to the Other, a tribe of illiberal suicide bombers consumed by a frightening messianic culture — is comforting, and we are reassured that Jesus will return to save us.

As we have already been told before entering the theater, it is these forces that must be defeated to defend our civilization. And thankfully, even if apocalyptic times are irreversibly and inevitably upon us, the universe is just and the wicked will be punished. Everything will turn out fine if we keep being who we are. All we have to do is wait for the Redeemer.

It is doubtful that the world will resemble the nightmare of Fury Road in the near future. It is much more likely that as resources become more scarce, access to fuel, clean air, water, and other natural goods will be restricted to the wealthy.

Fury Road obscures the political and economic basis of environmental destruction, relying on tired Orientalist tropes instead. In this sense it is out of step with increasing dissatisfaction with capitalism, and a growing consensus that preventing environmental collapse will require working people to organize, inform, and agitate, building the power to collectively and democratically determine our own future.