Some thoughts on Furiosa

BEWARE: spoilers, mostly conceptual, for Furiosa/Fury Road

When I was a young man, a million years ago, my writing teacher explained to me the different scales of storytelling. A drama, he said, is the story of a group of individuals, a saga is the story of a family, told across generations, and an epic is the story of a people. It was an earlier, simpler time, when words meant things. Now, of course, “drama” is when someone acts out at work and “epic” is when you execute a flawless ollie on your skateboard.

I go to the movies every week, and so I will often see the same trailers, week in and week out, for months at a time. The trailers for Furiosa gave the subtitle “A Mad Max Saga” and promised a revenge drama, but the true genre of the movie is suggested by a key line in the trailer, which (spoiler alert) is also a key line in the movie: “Do you have it in you to make it epic?”

On first viewing, I greatly enjoyed Furiosa, but I agreed, with many others, that it lacked something. It does not have the elegant mirror structure of Fury Road, which is the story of a chase scene that stretches out to the horizon of the world and then snaps back like a piece of elastic. It builds and builds toward a tale of revenge, but it’s a revenge drama where the vengeance is visited upon a man who has no idea that anyone was coming at him for vengeance. It’s a revenge drama where the character seeking revenge could have just as easily sat back and done nothing, because the man she hates is doing a great job of undoing himself.

Because I trust George Miller to be a master storyteller, I assumed there must be reasons for the odd narrative choices of the movie’s final act. But, on first viewing, I’d spent 2 1/2 hours priming myself for the satisfaction of Furiosa’s revenge, and when that revenge presented itself in the curiously muted way that it does, I felt slightly dissatisfied. A second viewing, within seconds of the movie’s beginning, erased all those concerns, because Furiosa is not a revenge drama, or a saga, although it contains elements of both those forms. It’s an epic, the story of a people. Or, rather, it is the first two acts of a three-act epic, with Fury Road providing the third act. It is the story of a people, and the people in question is us, you and me, here, in this world, right now, literally today, this day, May 31, 2024.

The question of the movie is not “Do you have it in you to make it epic?” but rather “How does one survive in a world run by horrible, tyrannical men?”

Furiosa is born into a utopia, a “land of abundance,” a hidden valley in the outback where the community has trees, fresh water, windmills and a fierce loyalty to the community. She is wrested from that community and re-born into a scarred, scabbed, ruinous wasteland ruled by tyrants and warlords. It’s important that Furiosa has only a child’s memory of her home, because that’s how people my age all remember our childhoods: we were born into a world where tyrants were unfashionable, where nature was considered a vital part of life on Earth, and where men who overstepped the bounds of decency were investigated and dealt with through democratic means and an independent judiciary. Of course, the world wasn’t that, but that’s what we were taught, and there was enough evidence available to at least suggest that those things were true. Now, we live in a world where words are used only to lie to us, where the truth can be anything our leaders decide it should be.

Furiosa is ripped from her childhood utopia and re-born into The Wasteland, where every relationship is transactional and every conversation is a negotiation. The screenplay is remarkably pure in this regard. Literally every conversation in the movie is laden with tension because any conversational miscalculation in this world can lead to your instant death.

In this transactional world, what is valued? How does one live? That is Furiosa’s real question. The answers are: resourcefulness and competence. Not intelligence, because intelligence is the exclusive provenance of the tyrant. Critical thinking is in desperately short supply in The Wasteland, while blind loyalty and fanatical worship of authority are elevated to a religion, where even dedicated fanatical warriors are tossed aside like fast-food wrappers when it suits the needs of the elite.

Does any of this sound familiar?

The world of Furiosa shows an age of tyrants coming to an end. Because all tyrants fall; that is their nature. The question is, what do we do, as citizens, when their fall arrives?

(The most alarming aspect of Furiosa/Fury Road, for me anyway, is how closely they hew to the story of Antz, a screenplay I worked on myself, about an individual’s response to a corrupt society run by tyrants. In that movie, the individual bolts from society in search of a fabled utopia, and succeeds in his quest, only to find out that the utopia really is a fable and that the true burden of the individual is to abandon notions of a false utopia and change the society you’re in, to make the society you’re in the utopia you seek.)

So Furiosa’s quest is not necessarily “how shall she get her revenge upon the man who tore her from her childhood?” but “What lessons shall she take from the society she lives in to succeed in transforming it?” Because the vast canvas of Furiosa is a tangled web of corruption, strong-arm tactics, transactional relationships and barbarism on an enormous scale.

Miller tells the story, not just of an individual, but a whole culture, where resourcefulness and competence are the most prized attributes. The movie is full of competency porn of the Jason Bourne variety, a series of set pieces where winners and losers are decided by who knows what to do in a given moment.

You would think that such a cutthroat, caustic world would have no room for art, but there is art all over the place in the world of Furiosa. There are artisans who take pride in their work, engineers who toil to make things of beauty. There is fashion, there is folklore, there is makeup, there is interior design, architecture and urban planning, and even forms of theater. There are times when the movie approaches anthropological study.

What Miller has accomplished in this movie is to present all this, all this culture, all this anthropology, as a series of action sequences — chase scenes, daring escapes, daring rescues, daring choices made during daring attacks. The movie suggests that a culture can be fully examined through the actions its people have been trained to take. Friendships and alliances are based on how good (that is, useful) you are in a fight, love is based on one’s ability to rise above squalor, value is based on usefulness. (Repeatedly, characters are given the choice of saving either a fellow human being or saving a valuable piece of machinery. No points for guessing how those scenes turn out.) It’s like Ben-Hur, if Ben-Hur was one long series of chariot-race sequences.

Furiosa, the lost girl who grows into the woman who grows into the ultimate leader of The Wasteland, is the only person in this world who remembers that fabled utopia where there was community and plenty. She knows that the answers that the tyrants of The Wasteland have come up with are not the only answers available to us as a people. When the target of her revenge asks her “Do you have it in you to make it epic?” he means it in the skateboarding sense, but Furiosa takes it to mean its storytelling sense: do you have it in you to make your story the story of a people?