Furiosa Is All Spectacle and No Vision

6 minute read

In George Miller’s 2015 Mad Max: Fury Road—a sequel to the post-apocalyptic chronicle Miller kicked off in the late 1970s, with Mel Gibson as a scrappy lone warrior seeking to preserve some vestige of civilization—Charlize Theron played Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed nut-buster fixed on a single goal: to free a bevy of sex slaves kept by a mouth-breathing warlord named Immortan Joe, who also happened to be her old boss. Though the movie’s ostensible star was Tom Hardy, as the reincarnation of Gibson’s Max Rockatansky, Theron gave the film its glamorous sandstorm grit. There are lots of men in Fury Road, zipping around on motorbikes and other assorted juryrigged vehicles, but it's Theron’s Furiosa who dominates the movie’s godforsaken landscape. With her stubbly shaven head and her get-it-done-already glare, she’s a model of impatient efficiency, a tough-gal ballerina ever ready to crack a skull or two.

Theron’s character now has her own movie, arriving, like a potentate on a cushion, with the puffed-up title Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga—it’s premiering, out of competition, here at the Cannes Film Festival, just as Fury Road did, to audiences’ delight, nine years ago. The character Furiosa had seemingly come out of nowhere in Fury Road, but Miller had already written her backstory; he knew exactly who she was and why she had so much invested in this harem rescue mission. Furiosa fleshes out that story, with Anya Taylor-Joy playing the younger version of Theron’s character.

If, in theory, it’s easy enough to buy Taylor-Joy as a Theron-to-be, the reality is more disappointing. Furiosa is loaded with storytelling, which isn’t the same as telling a story. Miller is going for something majestic here, and Furiosa does at times look imperiously handsome: he and cinematographer Simon Duggan know how to make the movie’s trillion or so mounds of sand look positively silky. But despite its many, many action sequences, and a symphonic cacophony of motorbikes vrooming in the sand, the movie, divided into chapters with droney titles like “Lessons from the Wasteland,” evolves into a slog that’s working hard to persuade us we’re having a good time, though it may not be actually giving us one.

Read more: George Miller Can't Quit Mad Max

The movie begins with Furiosa’s girlhood; she’s played at this point by a young actor named Alyla Brown, the most expressive and convincing performer in the movie. Furiosa has been lucky enough to have been raised in a secluded secret spot known as the Green Place, an area that has thus far managed to avoid the contamination and poisoning that turned the rest of the movie's world into the barely inhabitable Wasteland. One day, while collecting fruit in the forest, she’s snatched away by a group of grimy bikers who, to their cretinous delight, have stumbled upon this shockingly fertile paradise. When Furiosa’s mother hears of her daughter's kidnaping, she takes off in hot pursuit on her own motorbike, clad in the Eileen Fisher-style distressed-linen separates favored by her clan, the Vuvalini, or tribe of Many Mothers, the post-apocalyptic equivalent of Coastal Grandmas.

still from FURIOSA
Taylor-Joy, Burke, and Hemsworth in the desertJasin Boland—Warner Bros.

But tragedy strikes. Little Furiosa has landed in the clutches of the biker gang’s leader, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, hamming it up in a performance that seesaws between viciousness and goofy humor). Dementus takes a liking to Furiosa; his own children have died, and as a reminder of all he's lost, he wears their old teddy bear on a string, sometimes jauntily swung behind like a backpack, sometimes front-and-center Flava Flav-style. But Dementus is no softy, and after he commits an act of cruelty that scars Furiosa forever, she silently vows revenge.

Furiosa is set in a land of fortresses run by men whose tempers are ready to blow any second: The Citadel, a kind of grungy Emerald City, is ruled by Immortan Joe (played here by Lachy Hulme, taking over for actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, who died in 2020). Dementus, after striking a deal with Joe, becomes the lord of nearby Gastown. There's also the Bullet Farm, though it doesn't figure as prominently in the plot. Much of the action in Furiosa derives from trucks driving bumpily from one fortress to the next, transporting cabbages and other assorted necessities in an allegedly exciting fashion. If you love commuting, this is the movie for you.

The mythology of Furiosa will mean something to Mad Max fans; at the same time, you don’t need any previous Mad Max experience to be bored by it. Fury Road had a kind of cracked majesty going for it. Though Furiosa is dotted with black humor, it still takes itself far too seriously. And Miller’s script (cowritten with Nick Lathouris and Prateek Bando) makes some weird leaps in logic: at a crucial point Furiosa escapes captivity, though no one bothers to go looking for her or even seems to notice she’s gone. When she reappears years later, her former captors greet her with exaggerated shock, as if they're only just realizing she’d slipped from their clutches roughly a decade ago. You’d think a heroine would be more memorable in her own story.

In some ways, Taylor-Joy was a smart choice for the younger Furiosa. Like Theron, she’s had ballet training, and she gamely takes on all the dusty rough-and-tumble action the story demands of her. She also looks suitably gaunt and haunted for a character who’s never gotten over her childhood trauma. Still, she’s more glowering than fiery; her go-to expression is a scowl. Actresses always say they want to play strong women, women who do things, women who stand up for themselves. But those aren’t always the most complex or satisfying roles. You can’t play a quality; you can only play a character. And a character's strength—whatever that might mean—doesn't necessarily make her interesting.

That’s the problem with Furiosa as Taylor-Joy plays her. Theron was the best thing about Mad Max: Fury Road. Even as she played a single-minded and dead-serious character, you could tell she had a sense of humor about herself, a kind of quiet internal clock that prevented her from becoming noble in a drab way. But Taylor-Joy plays Furiosa as a somber heroic icon, and you can hear the gears clicking. For a hot minute, Furiosa has a love interest, Tom Burke’s rebellious daredevil Praetorian Jack. But that sub-thread gets scrubbed quickly; wouldn’t want this he-man movie to get too girly. Maybe it’s the script that let Taylor-Joy down—there’s certainly a lot of plot clutter around her, and it can be hard for a performer to break through that. Furiosa, rife with explosions, savage masculinity, and lots and lots of driving, is all spectacle and no vision. Its heroine deserves better.

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