George Miller’s 2015 revival of the Mad Max franchise burst onto the scene with riveting action, a vibrant post-apocalyptic world, and a masterful cinematic touch from its guiding creator. For many, Mad Max: Fury Road is a film to be taken at face value, a journey that rushes at a breakneck speed from points A to B to C in an unrelentingly visceral and spellbinding manner, but with little else to think about outside of its wow-inducing moments.
However, at its core, Fury Road is a movie that has many things to say about humanity, the world, and the balance of good and evil within all people. But first and foremost, Mad Max: Fury Road is about hope in a world that should have none and the power it has to transform even the most broken of people. It’s a hope that may seem insane, but that can change a broken world ruled by those who would wipe the idea of it from the face of the planet. In a world where the seas have turned to dust and worldwide nuclear war has unraveled all hope for a bright future for humanity, hope seems like the least reasonable pursuit for anyone looking to survive. Yet it’s the only thing that can enact true change.
Within the struggle between hope and survival lies the central tension of the film. Does a broken man like Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) chose to do whatever it takes to survive or does he embrace hope and strive to change his world? With a character as taciturn as Max, the audience is left to determine the hero’s mental and emotional state through his actions rather than his words. As such, his transformation from little more than an animal to a self-sacrificing hero through the course of the film speaks volumes about the effects of hope upon a man (and world) who had given up on the idea.
By the beginning of the film, Max is living a life focused on survival after failing to save too many people that he cared about, most specifically a young girl who haunts his shattered mind. As a result, the former cop who had everything ripped away from him in the original Mad Max was once again broken, leaving an empty husk of a man who cares for nothing but his own survival.
The Wasteland in which Max lives is a visual reflection of the despair within its inhabitants. Yes, Miller makes this world gorgeous in its own haunting way. Desolate sand as far as the eye can see. Craggy valleys that look sharp enough to slice the skin. Sudden quagmires that could ensnare the toughest of vehicles. Sandstorms that rival the very wrath of God. And in the midst of it all, a water-soaked Citadel that brings death rather than life. What can one man do besides simply survive?
That focus on survival is shaken when he is thrust as an initially unwilling participant into the escape of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has defected from the nightmarish ranks of Immortan Joe’s army and rescued his captive breeder brides. Max is thrust into the chase as little more than a hood ornament on a chasing car, then as an opponent to Furiosa in his attempt to steal her truck for escape, and finally as her partner in escaping the legions that follow.
But the majority of Max’s participation is the result of a common goal – finding a better place away from the murderous army in hot pursuit. Furiosa is powered by both hope and guilt – hope that she can provide a better life for the brides at the female-controlled Green Place and guilt over her many unspoken actions as a leader in an apocalyptic army. We find that hope to be infectious, as the brides believe in a better place free from their oppression before the film even begins. In fact, it is women alone in Fury Road who spark hope in others, as men like Max or the war boy Nux are either broken survivors or tools used by a demagogue.
It’s never clearly stated what sparked Furiosa’s hope and actions, but as a woman whose early years as a child were spent outside of the reign of Immortan Joe, she remembers a better place. The same cannot be said for most under Joe’s rule. Those who live in a world where prisoners are reduced to blood bags, women to milk machines, and brides into breeders have had the value of life demolished before their very eyes. But when Furiosa is given control of the enormous truck known as The War Rig, she seizes her best moment to rescue the Brides and takes off without any help.
However, the journey of Fury Road is not without its challenges to the idea of hope. The Splendid Angharad, leader of the Brides and staunchest supporter in Furiosa’s idea of The Green Place, dies early on in the escape. Without her, The Brides are left to question their future. But the true challenge to hope is in the reveal that The Green Place no longer exists. All that’s left are the few remaining members of The Vuvalini, who once ruled The Green Place, and their seeds, which wait to be planted in fertile soil in order to sprout a new Green Place.
Without an object to hope in, can hope for the future survive?
Following Furiosa’s breakdown, she and the survivors decide to ride out across The Salt in search of another place. But it’s clear that there is no real hope to be found here, just desperation for anything possibly better. Of course, Max still has no belief in hope, advising Furiosa the night before they leave that “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” Max would know. He’s been beyond where Furiosa stands at that moment and embodies the worst of what could happen. Max won’t ride out with them. He knows that they are propelled by false hope.
But as he begins to let Furiosa, The Brides, and The Vuvalini ride out to what will surely be their death, Max comprehends the true object of their real hope – Immortan Joe’s Citadel, a place that is fertile for a better future when led by the right hands. This moment of quiet realization is spurred on by the specters of the young girl and his deceased son, leading to Max intercepting the band of women to reveal to them their one true hope. The future lies before them, but they must seize it through their own power.
Here, the hope that Furiosa has ignited in turn reignites her own hope. It’s a hope strong enough to convince them to take on the army that was once chasing them head on, no matter the consequences. Even Nux, the war boy who was changed from pursuer to believer thanks to the love of this band of women and their hope for a better future, acknowledges what they all are thinking.
“Yeah, feels like hope.”
In turn, a new hope arises. Not a desperate hope for escape and a better future for a few, but an empowering hope for a brighter future for all, free from the tyranny of corrupt men. That’s why the finale of Mad Max: Fury Road has a greater emotional weight and sense of urgency than ever before, even now that audiences have begun to adjust to the film’s once bewildering world and overwhelming pace. This is no longer the story of a desperate man trying to survive in a world gone mad and a woman seeking a way out. This is now the tale of hope, which fights against oppression and evil in ways that echo our own struggles in life, even when embodied in a vastly different fictional world.
Like George Miller’s 1981 Mad Max story The Road Warrior, the story of Fury Road hinges on Max Rockatansky believing in something greater than himself. While Road Warrior saw the antihero come to accept the value of humanity once again through his fatherly connection with The Feral Kid, friendship with The Gyro Captain, and sacrifices for the good of the oil refinery settlers, Fury Road has Max be reborn into an agent for societal change.
Most importantly, Max is specifically an agent of change, even an agent of death, not a ruler. Following his role in the destruction of Immortan Joe and his forces, leading to the freeing of the Citadel and its people, Max cedes control to Furiosa and the surviving women. With only a simple nod of recognition, Max leaves the Citadel, the ultimate sign of his hope in Furiosa’s role in creating a better world.
Max may not believe that this is a world where he belongs, but a reembracing of hope has returned his humanity, while Furiosa’s own hope has found its fulfillment in a better world than she could have ever dreamed. In that moment, a beautiful and profound future blossoms in the barren Wasteland.
For more analysis of the film, read “Mad Max: Fury Road and the Heroic Cycle.”