FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA Review: George Miller's Prequel Hits On All Cylinders

Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth star.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA Review: George Miller's Prequel Hits On All Cylinders

After three, loosely connected entries in six years, writer-director George Miller’s Mad Max series ended abruptly, partly the result of mega-stardom for Mel Gibson, diminishing audience interest, and most importantly, a scarcity of ideas as to where — and when — to take his post-apocalyptic road warrior next on his wasteland adventures. Even as the series gained cult status, it lay dormant as the primary rights-holder (i.e., Miller himself), moved onto other, seemingly unrelated projects, none set after a post-apocalyptic ecological, economic, and social collapse.

Even as Miller remained a world-class filmmaker, focus-shifting from family/medical dramas (Lorenzo’s Oil) to family-friendly live-action hybrids (Babe: Pig in the City) or animation (Happy Feet I and II), his most well-known creation never stopped calling him back to the post-apocalyptic wastelands. A long-delayed sequel sans an excommunicated Gibson, Mad Max: Fury Road, co-starring Tom Hardy as the title character and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as Furiosa, finally followed nine years ago, not just resurrecting a moribund franchise, but delivering a singular, next-level contribution to the action genre. And then we waited (again), this time for almost a decade.

To say the wait, however patient or its opposite, was — and is — worth it is an understatement that no superlative can adequately convey. Switching from the all-action, all-the-time mode of Mad Max: Fury Road, the prequel, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, charts an altogether different course toward the high standards set by its predecessors, focusing on Furiosa’s backstory across two decades, five-chapter titles, and two performers, relative newcomer Alyla Browne as a ferocious preteen Furiosa for the first hour and Anya Taylor-Joy as her equally ferocious twenty-something counterpart.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga opens with the title character (Browne) enjoying her last blissful moments as a member of the matriarchal community that stewards the Edenic Green Place of Many Mothers, a lush, verdant oasis overflowing with plant life, clean, unpolluted water, and domesticated animals. That idyll doesn’t last long as Furiosa, catching masked interlopers field-dressing a horse in the woods, literally leaps into action and attempts to sabotage the interlopers's motorbikes before they can reveal the Green Place’s location.

In the first set piece of several — fewer than Fury Road, but no less brilliantly staged, executed, or edited by Miller and his team — the marauders kidnap Furiosa and race across the desert. Conceived and executed more as a short film or episode than a straightforward set piece, the sequence centers on Furiosa’s mother, Mary Jo Bassa (Charlee Foster). A template for the adult Furiosa, Mary can do it all, effortlessly switching from riding a horse to a motorbike, shooting with sniper-like precision to take down one marauder after another, and otherwise proving herself an able, capable pursuer motivated by a mother's love for her daughter and, like Furiosa, keeping the Green Place's location a secret.

In the wastelands, self-interest doesn't guarantee survival, but it's the only choice Furiosa can make once she finds herself under the care of the self-styled (and self-named) Doctor Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), a wasteland warlord with delusions of grandeur. As ruthless as any tyrant found in Miller’s filmography, Dementus uses fear, intimidation, and violence to maintain control over a loose confederacy of bikers. Prone to long, meandering speeches, the narcissistic Dementus loves nothing more than hearing the sound of his own voice, justifying himself and his actions as necessary to maintain the social order (i.e., with Dementus at the apex).

Dementus’s absence from Mad Max: Fury Road hints at his eventual fate, though how he exits and what becomes of him remains a mystery until the final moments. What isn’t a surprise is where Furiosa, traded in a deal between Dementus and Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, replacing the late Hugh Keays-Byrne) for the latter’s contingent of “war brides,” finds herself relying purely on her wits and savvy to survive, secretly escaping from the confines of Immortan Joe’s breeding quarters to become an anonymous, mute worker.

It’s only then, after an hour with Browne as the younger Furiosa, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga shifts to Taylor-Joy, still hiding in plain sight, an escape plan aboard a massive war rig that goes awry, and an unlikely alliance with the war rig’s driver, Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke, aptly mirroring Hardy’s laconic, stoic performance). The mutual feelings that develop between Furiosa and Praetorian Jack feel doomed from the outset, not because of the latter’s absence from Mad Max: Fury Road, but because the Mad Max series has reminded us time and again of their rarity and relative scarcity.

Throughout, Furiosa is driven by a desire to find her way home and obtain revenge on Dementus for everything she’s lost, not necessarily in that order. That, in turn, requires a distasteful, if temporary, alliance with Immortan Joe. Not as straightforward in practice — in Mad Max: Fury Road, escape from the Citadel drove plot and character motivation — Furiosa’s twin motivations nonetheless structure the film’s final chapters, albeit far less cleanly, economically, or efficiently as its predecessors.

The focus on Furiosa’s character, specifically her extended backstory, often results in long, action-free passages atypical of the series. It’s a risk-embracing move with the potential to alienate longtime fans expecting Miller to follow a preset course. Given Miller’s track record and the considerable goodwill he's banked over several decades, longtime fans should give Miller the benefit of the doubt he's both earned and deserved.

Unsurprisingly, once Miller and his on- and off-screen collaborators start their engines (literally), the resulting vehicular carnage proves every bit as sensory-shredding as its in-series sequel. In a familiar, back-to-the-future turn, Immortan Joe’s War Boys, shiny, nitrous-sniffing, shirt-challenged cultists serve as fodder for spectacle-laden, epic-scaled action only someone as deliriously demented as Miller could first imagine and then put up onscreen.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga opens Friday, May 24, only in movie theaters, via Warner Bros. Visit the official site for locations and showtimes

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

  • George Miller
  • George Miller
  • Nick Lathouris
  • Anya Taylor-Joy
  • Chris Hemsworth
  • Charlee Fraser
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Alyla BrowneAnya Taylor-JoyChris HemsworthFuriosaGeorge MillerLachy HulmeMad MaxTom BurkeNick LathourisCharlee FraserActionAdventureSci-Fi

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