The Mad Max franchise has a long history of distorting and complicating our cultural fear of dwindling resources. In Road Warrior, it was fuel, and almost exactly a year ago, as we grappled with the threat of climate change, Fury Road brought us a wasteland without water.
But even beyond drought, Fury Road shows us a world in which health and sexuality are the ultimate luxuries. This week marks one year since Fury Road shocked and delighted critics and audiences. Let’s take a look at the topics in the film we’re still anxious about.
Like any good dystopia, the loss of health and sexual agency is a real phenomenon taken to the extreme. Fertility treatments and, in many cases, general medical care for disease or those with disabilities are things that, increasingly, only the wealthy can afford.
In Fury Road, physical health is a scarce commodity that is available to few and hoarded by the powerful. We see the lengths that Immortan Joe goes through to maintain himself and his sons, and to a lesser extent, his War Boys. Physical disabilities and chronic illness are the norm, seen in the routine way that characters use blood transfusions and oxygen masks.
In fact, illness is key to the creation of Joe’s cultish society of War Boys. They are driven to sacrifice their lives for Joe through a manufactured mythology, but helped by the fact that they face certain death by disease if they live long enough. Nux, the almost charmingly enthusiastic suicide warrior, reveals his intimate fear of being killed by his tumors rather than dying gloriously in battle.
Despite the extreme measures Joe takes to produce and maintain his offspring, even they suffer. Rictus Erectus is the hulking but simple-minded warrior son. He is the most physically robust character in the film, although his scarce dialogue reveals a rather child-like mind. Corpus Colossus is the ironic name of the disabled dwarf son who is shown to be the chief ‘brains’ running the Citadel. His physical disability is accommodated only because of his position of power as Joe’s son. Ultimately his physical weakness is too great and we see his helplessness at the end when Joe is dead and the power has shifted.
The two of them recall Master/Blaster, the character(s) at the center of Beyond Thunderdome. The diminutive Master is the genius mastermind running Bartertown, but his position is dependent on the brute strength of Blaster, who is basically a human vessel to transport and defend him. The two function in a symbiosis that makes them almost a single character.
Cyborg theory is most often talked about in terms of the blending of human and machine, but in Mad Max we see the human body used as the machine. Blaster used as a literal vehicle, Max captured to be literally scrapped for parts. The result is an uncanny mix of futuristic and primordial that makes the Mad Max universe great. The world does not get more advanced, it gets more creative.
Sex as currency
Women especially are exploited for their parts, whether it is the women who are confined for breastmilk production or the Wives who are enslaved to produce children. There is nothing new about women being objectified in this way, but Fury Road does hit a curious crossroads between the decline of fertility and human sexuality.
Infertility is a recurring nightmare of dystopian and speculative fiction from The Handmaid’s Tale to Children of Men. Fertility is often presented as the defining humanity of women and the ultimate right of powerful men. In Fury Road, the problem goes beyond the infertility of women, to the growing asexuality of society as a whole.
Fury Road was extraordinary not only for its visuals but for its treatment of the women on screen. For a film with sexual violence at the very core of its plot, there is no sexualization, or sex. Sex is a luxury that no one can afford in the quest to survive. Consider the scene in which Max first encounters the Wives. They appear like a mirage, dressed in gauzy white and pouring water on themselves. It is a moment that many have cited in an odd hurry to prove that the film does objectify women, but instead it is a reversal of a classic action trope. Max is entranced not by beautiful women but because they miraculously have the two things he needs most at that very moment: water and bolt cutters.
Youth culture and war
Our main route to understanding the War Boy culture is through Nux. The relationship he develops with Capable is tender and revealing. Although many fans latched on to it as the closest thing to a ‘ship to be found in the Wasteland, it is something purer than that. It is not sexual attraction or even romance but simply human connection, with each empathizing with the other, possibly for the first time. Nux never sees Capable or any of the Wives as a sexual object because his world view decrees that they, and sex itself, are the ultimate property of Immortan Joe. The cult of worship that Joe has created actually works to remove sexuality from his subjects. In this way the franchise has reached full evolution from the rampant and disturbing sexual predation of the original Mad Max.
More than anything else, this is why Immortan Joe’s world is wholly unsustainable. His interest in reproduction is entirely self-centered and male obsessed. Not even his sons are allowed to procreate. There are young War Boys, presumably children taken from the poor or from other towns, yet the supply would dwindle as the health and population also declines. Even if the women were not stripped of their fertility, the men are stripped of their sexuality.
Fury Road ends on a hopeful note, with Furiosa and the Wives taking control of the Citadel. Yet survival will still depend on reproduction, and it’s hard to imagine any of them wanting to get it on after all they’ve been through. It will be interesting to see where Miller takes the franchise next, now that he has given his civilization a swift kick down the slope to destruction. The next film is currently titled The Wasteland, so there is likely no going back.