The dust never settled here. Instead, miles are swallowed by dry, coughing storms. Not rain, but masses of boiling sand and overgrown branches of lightning. Every moment, it seems, is painful. Sand clings to and roughens bodies – shoves its way into lungs. The sharp burning of the desert sun is only mollified by the heavy oceanic blues of night, mocking in their resemblance to the sea. This earth is a disintegrating one, fraying, blistering, and roiling. It is a world, as Max tells us as the film opens, of fire and blood.
Mad Max: Fury Road may not be subtle in its expression of thematic content, but it is impressively well-stated and more nuanced than it appears at first glance. The film is a coherent discussion of environmental politics and the personal search for humanity in a world defined by violence.
This half-dead world revolves around the commodification of nearly everything from natural resources to human lives. Most of the characters are relatively anonymous. In some cases, names are used as an objectifier (the wives are named for physical traits), and for those actually who have names, they feel detached from them. This enforcement of namelessness strips them of their humanity in order to justify violence. The most obvious example of this is the army of warboys who are mostly nameless, practically faceless, and branded like cattle. Essentially, they serve only to be organic cannon fodder for Immortan Joe (Hughs Keays-Byrne). They are run over, blown up, and flung off cliffs – killed easily and simply. The camera does not linger on them or trace any difference among them because none of it matters — they are nothing more than material goods.
The human body as a whole is a commodity, but things like blood, milk, and fertility are also all individually up for trade. When Max (Tom Hardy) is initially captured, his blood is drained and used to restore life to sick warboys; he is even explicitly called a blood bag. Similarly, living in captivity just above the only stores of fresh, green vegetation for miles, there are women in the Citadel whose entire lives orbit around being, quite literally, farmed for breast milk.
Immortan Joe’s wives, his so-called breeders, are commodified for both their appearances as soft, beautiful women, and their reproductive ability. Their fertility is heavily controlled and their physical organs are categorized separately from their person. Immortan Joe verbalizes this when The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) flings herself halfway out of the cabin of the rig to protect Furiosa — he says of her pregnancy, “That is my child. My property.” While this concept of human commodification, in general, connects to the exploitation of natural resources, female commodification has even more direct and violent ties to the natural world.
Women are attached to Earth through their fertility and ability to nurture, and the popularized metaphor of Mother Earth is tied to ecological imperialism and romanticizing violence against women. Both women and the environment alike share the same subordinate position through literal and metaphorical similarities in reproductive violence, possession, brutality, and objectification. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the wives are a physical manifestation of environmental injustice and violence, representing, on a small-scale, the killing and entrapment of the world. They also serve as the single point of rebirth, one of the only examples of fertility, and thus, represent the potential for environmental renewal.
The wives are the desolate Earth, pushing back against Immortan Joe and human ruin. At the beginning of their rebellion, they painted “we are not things” on the oppressive walls of their chambers. Perhaps the metaphor is obvious, but that does not render it meaningless. It is presented in a less than typical way, as the wives are each characterized with endless complexity and actually have agency within the narrative. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) says that the wives are searching for hope: they are idealistic, brimming with determination, and fighting just as fiercely for their freedom.
Realistically, however, hoping for a green place – an oasis of life in a terrifyingly vast desert – is easy and escapist. The green place that Furiosa and the wives have risked everything for does not exist. To expect a magical fix for something broken and ravaged by humans is naive, and after fruitlessly chasing a non-existent utopia, they are left to turn to the society they have. They cannot run away from the oppression of the Citadel; they must return and fix it despite how excruciating the process may be. Max, enforcing the reality of working towards environmental justice, explains to Furiosa: “You know, hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”
So, while the wives search for hope, Furiosa is searching for redemption instead. She has been forced by circumstance to adapt – to change herself in order to infiltrate the obnoxiously masculine ranks of Immortan Joe’s screeching, bloody horde. After a life of aggressive violence and dust-swept destruction, she chooses to repair her morals and save the five girls, offering whatever remains of her life to the protection of their freedom.
Max’s pursuit of his humanity is different from Furiosa’s because at first, he doesn’t actually realize that he’s looking for it. His initial goal is nothing more than freedom. It is only when he becomes entangled in the lives of the six women escaping the Citadel that his motivations change. His humanity comes back to him in fragments, and later, all at once when he finally reveals his name to Furiosa in the third act of the film.
The camera focuses on the faces of Furiosa and Max most often, as it is their humanity that we are searching for. At first, both of them seem to be experts at schooling their features, compartmentalizing and flushing away any feelings other than rage or conviction. When Splendid dies, something like anguish flickers across Furiosa’s brow, but it gets shoved deep into the chasm of her mind almost instantaneously, as they have each categorized emotion as weakness – something that inhibits their capacity to endure in such a devastatingly brutal world.
This changes when Furiosa finds out that the green place isn’t real and falls to her knees on a dune, releasing a crushing scream that erupts from her chest. It shifts when rather than continuing to run, Max returns to the women and imbues within them a level of courage that they had yet to unlock. These are the marked moments where they choose to pull their emotions out of the cavernous spaces of their minds and display them freely. After this shift, during the painful journey back to the Citadel, they both find their humanity restored. This allows them to protect the world and the wives, and begin to let things heal. Where the wives represent everything natural underfoot and above, both Max and Furiosa serve as placeholders for humanity, reversing the process of their dehumanization by those who fought to control them.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a story of uncomfortable violence, memorable beauty, and freedom. We are intentionally forced to perceive, in great detail, violence directed towards not only Earth and all its resources, but regular humans; and it is equally a warning to the audience and a statement of freedom and resolve. There is nothing more crucial to the story than the literal and figurative uprising of once-commodified wild things and people against their imprisonment. Mad Max: Fury Road is a narrative of environmental justice – one that avoids cliche, easy-fixes, and the fantasy of an overnight solution.