Is it possible the 2-hour high-speed spectacle Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most spiritually profound films I’ve seen in years?
Yes, yes it is.
Much has been said regarding the film’s ground-breaking treatment of women. Honestly, the only reason I had any inclination in using one of my rare post-baby movie-going opportunities on an action film (linked to a franchise with which I have no exposure) is because men’s activist groups called for a boycott of it — how DARE the film feature a dominant female protagonist who renders the titular male little more than a glorified side-kick? Unfortunately for the MRAs, their outrage had the undesired impact of compelling me and, if the demographic sampling of my own screening is representative, a lot of other young women out in enthusiastic droves.
Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is indeed a rare specimen — a butt-kicking woman in no way defined by her sexuality. Indeed, not only is she NOT made into a sexual object, but her body is even mutilated (a fact which itself does not define her). Her actions drive the narrative, a narrative into which Max passively gets caught up. The central conflict concerns five “breeders” (i.e., sex slaves) on the run from the warlord/cult leader “Immortan Joe.” As numerous commenters have noted–we never see the sexual exploitation of these women. And they are active agents in their own stories, not merely passive victims.
There is, however, so much more to Mad Max: Fury Road, than a ground-breaking approach to female characters. The entire film is a journey of spiritual renewal — a journey from death into life. This central theme emerges in the question, what are people? Are people things? Or are people … humans, individuals, beings capable of love, courage, and self-sacrifice? (Note: spoilers follow)
Our story begins, quite literally, in hell. In the citadel ruled by Immortan Joe. All the imagery is imagery of death–skulls, bones. Water, crops and other means of life are cruelly hoarded. Joe’s “war boys” all suffer from mutagenic disease, aware that they will only ever live “half-lives.” People–men, women, and children–are things. Women are hooked up to nursing machines to provide “mother’s milk” to those Joe deems worthy. Members of Joe’s cult “chrome” themselves in a kind of chrismation, evoking their desire to become reborn as … machines, effectively. Max himself begins the film as a captive “blood bag”, his whole worth reduced to his “universal doner” blood type. Then, there are Joe’s wives. Beautiful, capable women reduced to sexual objects and vehicles for Joe to breed successors to his dominion. They have been so conditioned to see themselves as objects that they even speak of themselves in personless terms. When Max, early on, shoots one of the wives in her leg, another responds: “Of all the legs you could have shot, that one was attached to his favourite.”
Even Max himself begins the movie devoid of his own humanity. He is no longer a person. He is, in his own words, a being reduced to a single instinct: survival. He cannot even acknowledge his own name when Furiosa asks what to call him.
There is one spiritual truth that breaks through this initial darkness. A defiant mantra repeated by Immortan Joe’s wives: “We are not things! We are not things!”
The trajectory of Fury Road is the story of individuals coming to claim that truth — People are not things. Other are not things. And, most importantly, they themselves are not things. Through the film, we watch these characters coming to see one another. We see them learning to trust and learning to love. In so doing, they find their sought-after redemption. They find life. In what is perhaps the emotional climax of the film, Max gives his name to Furiosa, confirming their connection to one another as people, not as objects.
That may not sound like a particularly “Christian” statement. And I am not arguing that Mad Max is an explicitly “Christian” film. On the other hand, claiming that truth “We are not things. People are not things” is a pretty profound way of living out our baptismal covenant. What do we promise in baptism? “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” Our deepest calling as followers of Christ is to see in each of our fellow human beings the very image of God. To view other people as things — as objects for our own use — is the way of spiritual death. Indeed, this is why as Christians we are compelled to affirm and advocate for the full humanity of all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
Mad Max takes this spiritual truth to a deeper level through the theme of self-sacrifice. In the materialistic, spiritually dead world of Joe’s citadel self-sacrifice is impossible, for there is no life to be given. Ironically, it is only when the characters come to a place of redemption, to a place of life and healing, that they become able to give of themselves to one another. Max has been used as a renewable source of blood for Joe’s “war boys” from the first moments of the film. But there is something profoundly moving when he willingly gives his blood to Furiosa to restore her life in the climactic battle. Though the action is the same, the gift, the sacrifice of his blood does not make him an object. It is an act that defies the earlier attempt to rob him of his humanity. And it is at this moment he finally reclaims his name: “Max, my name is Max.”
But in all the reviews and commentaries I have read of this film, the most overlooked character is the “war boy” Nux. When we first meet Nux, he is the walking dead. His life is being claimed by two tumours on his neck. He wants nothing more than to die in glory on the fury road, so that he can live and ride forever in Valhala with Immortan Joe. He has no humanity to lose, and to he has nothing to give. Gradually he, like Max, has his humanity restored through connection with Furiosa and Joe’s escaping wives. He learns to grant these women humanity and, in so doing, he finds his own redemption. Such grace ultimately gives Nux strength to sacrifice himself for those he has grown to respect and even love.
What better illustration of the Gospel truth: “Whoever finds their life will lose it. And whoever loses their life will find it.”
Mad Max: Fury Road is intense. It is spiritually profound. It is a feminist triumph. All that and a flame-throwing guitar. Who could ask for anything more?