Hollywood dystopia vs West Asian reality: Mad Max in the time of IS
Many years later, in a world that has turned into a desert, there is a small kingdom called Citadel from where a heavily armoured truck sets out to collect fuel from a faraway town. The truck goes off course. The bare-chested sentinels on the cliff palace, who observe the strange development on the sea of sand through their telescopes, prepare to give chase even though they do not ask why an empty tanker must go off course in the first place. But the dictator of the kingdom, Immortan Joe, knows at once it is about women.
He rushes to his harem where he finds his sex slaves, whom he calls ‘wives’, missing. They have left a message for him — “We are not things”. The fleeing slaves were being subtle. In reality, he used them as ‘breeders’ to make him babies, preferably male babies.
Bizarre man Immortan Joe. Among his staff there was a woman who resembles Charlize Theron, whom he never abused as a breeder. In fact, he was such a progressive dictator, he rewarded her talents in war by promoting her as a top commander, and in a touch of class, gave her the designation ‘Imperator’. He had assigned the reliable Imperator Furiosa the important and dangerous task of fetching fuel. Now she has gone rogue.
He goes in pursuit to retrieve his wives. Mad Max: Fury Road is about the pursuit.
As Immortan and his warriors race through the desert in modified vehicles they suddenly look familiar. His soldiers are hooded men, violent, senseless men. They are a suicide squad lured by the promise of an illuminated paradise the colour of chrome. They are familiar because they resemble ISIS.
When a Citadel warrior decides to die for the cause, and for the glory of afterlife, he sprays chrome on his face. Moments before the suicide bomber performs his final act he screams, ‘Witness me’. When his suicide is clumsy and falls short of the strategic goal, the others scream, ‘mediocre’. As in the world we know, the battle in Mad Max is not between good and evil, but between sanity and insanity.
The world before ISIS was not a gentle place. But the terrorist group wishes to show us what evil looks like. ISIS is cinematic. It records and disseminates its acts of violence to expand its financial resources. In a world where the visuals of reality are so terrifying, Hollywood evil has begun to look innocuous, unconvincing and silly.
Fury Road is a festive celebration of war: There are wild men, war machines and a swinging flame-throwing guitarist. There are murders and suicides. The ‘wives’ of Immortan, while fleeing, discard gear on the desert sands that indicate how they might have been abused by him. People are mowed down by trucks, one of them a pregnant woman, and her baby is extracted by a man who is amused by the operation. George Miller’s film appears to be deeply aware that Hollywood dystopia is today in direct competition with a West Asian reality that is freely available on YouTube and which millions have shown a keen interest in watching.
Every story is in an unspoken battle with its patrons in whom the accumulated wisdom of all stories ever told reside. People who go to the movies usually know where a film is headed. It is hard to surprise them, but a ruthless film can. In Fury Road, the only thing we can be sure of is that any character, except the central franchise, may die any moment. That is the utility of evil and violence in a story. It lends a degree of unpredictability. Fury Road is not only in a tussle with us, it also depends on us to be accomplices.
The film does not devote more than a minute perhaps to introduce the society of Citadel to us, yet we believe we know it well. Immortan had to just tell a soldier, “I myself will carry you to the gates of Valhalla... you will ride eternal, shiny and chrome”, and we know what he is talking about and what the soldier is expected to do, and why he is doing it. Fury Road has very little in the way of dialogues but it manages to frame a desert car chase in many political layers because it builds its characters and background through our notions of terror.
Fury Road also employs us to promote its profitable self-regard as a film that celebrates women. To that end, director Miller also recruited the author of Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler. She told Time magazine, “(Miller) asked me if I would be willing to come to Namibia for a week where they were shooting and work with the cast members — particularly the wives (Immortan’s sex slaves). He wanted me to give them a perspective on violence against women around the world, particularly in war zones…”
Miller must have cut all the scenes where the ‘wives’ portray the wisdom Ensler claims to have imparted. What we see instead are five women in the backseat of a truck, who ask the damsel version of “are we there yet?”
What Fury Road celebrates is not women as fleeing wives or talented truck drivers or sharpshooters, but women as powerful patrons of story. The wisdom was that the fate of expensive action cinema depended on the unreasonable love of men. Fury Road demands that they be wise enough to accept a new order where men are deputies of women.
In a world destroyed by men, the greatest compliment women can give men, as Furiosa does in her introduction of two men to a militia of mothers, is “they are reliable”.
Such a deviation in action cinema was considered commercially suicidal with the only reward for the filmmaker being the dubious afterlife of critical acclaim. Like Immortan’s suicide squad, Miller screams, “witness me”. And Charlize Theron’s Furiosa rescues him and leads him to glory.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The writer tweets as @manujosephsan
The views expressed are personal