“Who Killed the World?”: Witnessing Cinema and Death in Mad Max Fury Road (2015)

In the summer of 2015, someone made the mistake of giving me 6 free movie tickets. I spent every single ticket on matinees for Mad Max Fury Road. Sure, there were other movies that summer, but for me, it was the summer of Mad Max (maybe the year of Mad Max if we are being honest). It didn’t matter how many screenings I went to, I always wanted to go again. It was also incredibly liberating to just wake up and go to a movie without consulting anyone or paying for a ticket. There was something potent about the film, and more importantly, about visiting the theater to see it. It wasn’t that the film was an escape from reality; rather, reality seemed to shape itself around the film.

Watching Mad Max in theaters is crucial as it allows you to experience its overwhelming propulsion. The movie never abandoned this big screen, it’s not escapist. Instead, it transforms the building into something monumental. Watching this loud and theatrical insanity reminded me that a movie theater is a holy space. Traveling to the movies never felt like a commute, more a pilgrimage. Movie theaters can make you feel small and big at the same time- small in comparison to their massive figures and events, but big because you are privileged to see them in the first place.

“Then Who Killed the World?”

I haven’t been to a movie theater casually in almost a year. You could probably tell that from the way I described it above. I was privileged enough to rent a local theater for my birthday this summer, but even then, the experience was completely different. I am grateful for it, but it was very strange. There was nothing casual about it, and I can clearly remember turning back to see my few friends, masked and sitting separate in the almost empty theater. It became very clear that even in this mystical theater, none of us could nor should forget what was going on in the world.

I know I am not the only one experiencing the loss of going to the movies. Our temple is changing. I will say, I think it is irresponsible to release new films in theaters during the pandemic. It is too much of a risk in massive theaters like Cineplex. However, as I say that, I am reminded of the theaters near me which are closing, most of which have remained closed since March. There is a profound sadness about an empty marquee- there’s even one near me which turns on its flashing lights as they disassemble the theater. I find it deeply unsettling to see these blinking lights advertising nothing, flickering as though they are slowly dying.

“I Live, I die. I live again!”

In times like this, I can’t help but return to the rhetoric introduced by Mad Max. The War Boys use the phrase “Witness me” when someone is about to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their mission. It suggests that death must be witnessed for it to mean something, it must be respected and observed. The War Boys aren’t the only ones who witness death, as Furiosa and the Wives place equal importance on moment of death. When Splendid Angharad is pulled under Immortan Joe’s car, Furiosa turns to Max and asks, “Did you see it?”, not “is she dead?”. This phrasing means two things. First, on a practical level, Furiosa wants to confirm that Angharad was killed and that there is no way to save her. Second, her emphasis on seeing death suggests that Angharad’s death had to be witnessed for it to mean something. Technically she survives for another scene, where she is brutally torn apart by a surgeon, but she is already sort of dead in that scene. Because Max refused to turn away, he gave her death meaning, he confirmed it. And so it doesn’t matter that the surgeon never looked at her face in those lingering moments. The same happens when Nux dies, as the crew gathers around and assures him that he is witnessed and awaited. Only then can he let go.

Films do something similar by fixating on a character’s death, that way it feels real to the viewer. They often exaggerate death or prolong it, just so the viewer cannot look away. This means that there are glimpses of death in every movie, even in the very compulsion to make movies and capture a story or a person before they die. I’ve always found it rather strange to watch older films, ones where the actors are long gone but have left these moving shadows behind. To see how they spoke, walked, performed; it’s a kind of resurrection. The theater is like a house of Frankenstein, and we are its witnesses.

“If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

If Mad Max taught me anything, it’s that there is still life in what has been discarded. Everything can be made into something new- not like a repair, like recycling. The cars, for instance, are made from different vehicles which have been brought together and given life. Director George Miller has mentioned in several interviews that each of these car parts has a story, a history which it carries with it and adds to its new body. It is why you can recognize different car models, like the Volkswagen and Chevrolet even though they are in a new shape. The same goes for the way Mad Max treats religion, as Immortan Joe repurposes bits of mythos and transforms them into a shape he likes. He essentially collects parts of Nordic mythology in the same way as he collects car parts. This point seems especially important given what happened on Wednesday in DC, and the mistranslated, misappropriated, and idiotic Viking imagery which appeared. Like Immortan Joe and the War Boys, Trump and his pathetic carnival continue to take pieces of the past and misread them in a way which benefits them. That is not to suggest that the pieces they are picking up weren’t racist, sexist, and terrible to begin with, just that they are manipulating fragments of the past and taking them out of context. Like playing Rage Against the Machine without realizing that you are the machine mentioned in the song. Immortan Joe does something similar as he uses parts for his own benefit and strips them of their individual status. You can still trace where his parts come from, but while collecting, he changes their purpose and uses them as fuel.

Furiosa and the Wives also collect in the film, but they do so in a radically different way. Immortan Joe wants to isolate parts for power. He wants gasoline so he can power his vehicles and army. He wants bits of mythology so he can power his artificial persona, making him seem inhuman and all powerful. He also tries to render people into objects, as sources and parts instead of humans. We see this early on, as Max is drained for blood to fuel the war boys, which means that blood and gasoline operate in the same way. The wives are also forced into this position, as Immortan Joe uses them to house his children. I realize that is a sick way to look at pregnancy, but he thinks of women as mechanical devices, not humans.

As Furiosa and the Wives escape from the citadel, Immortan Joe finds their words and thoughts scrawled on the walls. They read, “we are not your things”, or as their nurse states, “They are not your property. You cannot own a human being. Sooner or later, someone pushes back”, and that is exactly what Furiosa and the Wives do. But while fighting against Immortan Joe, they are simultaneously redefining what it means to collect. They collect people during the film, as their party multiplies before the final battle. Unlike Immortan Joe, who isolated, repaired, and distorted his parts, like taking the Valhalla myth so people will die for him, Furiosa and the Wives redefine the parts they find. Furiosa gives Max a tool so he can take off his muzzle. They let Nux drive the rig and treat him like a person, not a weapon. They also return Furiosa to her people and restore a family. And finally, they release the young War Boys and prisoners who once fueled the cogs in the citadel. In doing so, they make the wasteland into something which benefits all, not just one.

“We’re Not Going Back.”

Looking to our own pandemic wasteland, I wonder where theaters will be after the pandemic. Will we be able to create something new from the fragments of what is left behind? Will we be as conglomerate a Mad Max antagonist, or are we capable of something more human and independent? I have hope for the small independent theater with character and history. I think these will help us form the new age of post-pandemic cinema, where people are still unsure of crowds and are more conscious of local businesses. I think we can recycle the parts left behind and make something new, rather than just using them in the same ways. Maybe that goes for a lot of things these days, as I would argue that we need more than just rebranding, we need widespread reform. I’ve always collapsed movies onto these issues, and Mad Max feels pretty relevant in an age of widespread ecological and systemic trauma and abuse. Perhaps it’s noteworthy that Furiosa and the group go back to the citadel and transform it rather than abandoning this space and giving up. They recycle what is there rather than just repairing and leaving it as is.

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?”

I am spending the next month examining theology in film; not how films talk about contemporary religion and faith in a traditional way, but the new kinds of mythology and philosophy they create. Mad Max is not the only film to return to Nordic mythology and examine it in a contemporary lens. Sometimes characters like Immortan Joe create their own mythos, and other times, films create their own. I am largely interested in examining why films introduce unusual fusion mythologies (between old and new), how that effects their narrative and characters, and the politics this fusion creates. I think close reading this concept is important for our changing modern era. Critical thought is crucial to recognize what is happening around us, why it is unsurprising, and most important, what we can do about it. It is dangerous to isolate the past as it is always found in the present. I might just talk about film on this blog, but like I said, we witness reality through film. They are not as separate as one might assume.  

Want to read more? Check out my post on the politics of violence in Fury Road.