REVIEW – ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ is more of a laborious slog than an exhilarating thrill ride

Given nine years have passed since Mad Max: Fury Road blasted its way into cinemas, you might have forgotten what a staggering breath of fresh air this masterpiece of action cinema truly was. Perhaps it helped that expectations were undeniably low for a sequel to George Miller‘s seemingly dead Mad Max trilogy no one was really asking for. Six (yes, six!) Oscars and a worldwide box office of $380 million silenced anyone who had scoffed at the need for a return to the Wasteland.

Rather than deliver another sequel (though, apparently, that’s also in the works), Miller has taken the cliché origin story route with Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga; a film that offers a glimpse into the troubled formative years of the breakout heroine of the 2015 smash. If Fury Road had the benefit of practically zero anticipation, Furiosa has a hell of a lot to live up to. Too much, in fact. While many similar ingredients of Fury Road flow through this prequel, they don’t gel quite as magically in this visually striking but overly long and narratively shallow disappointment.

Now, I fully expect to be in the minority on this one. Furiosa will likely have a Rotten Tomatoes score somewhere in the 90s, a huge box office total by the end of its theatrical run, and a legion of adoring fans. Frankly, I anticipated being one of them. Fury Road was my #1 film of 2015. It’s one of my favourite films of recent times. Believe me when I say it gives me no pleasure to write this review, but one must remain honest.

That being said, there is a lot to admire about Furiosa. It’s often a marvellous spectacle with some of the most mind-blowing visuals and thrilling action sequences of the year. Miller’s staggering vision remains as unique and impressive as ever and his ability to stage outrageous stunt sequences hasn’t waned one drop. But the film lags considerably over a meandering 2.5-hour running time that’s ultimately more of a laborious slog than an exhilarating thrill ride.

We first meet a young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) in her childhood homeland known as the Green Place, a lush utopia that’s somehow remained untouched by the nuclear contamination that’s poisoned much of the world. While collecting fruit with her sister, Furiosa is kidnapped by a gang of sleazy bikers who bumblingly stumped upon this rare oasis. Despite the best efforts of her fierce warrior mother, Mary (Charlee Fraser), Furiosa is taken to the gang’s power-hungry leader, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, chewing every piece of scenery in sight).

In spite of his brutal nature, Dementus takes a strange shining to a now-mute Furiosa, namely due to the fact he lost his own children during the world’s apocalyptic downfall, and she quickly becomes his new pseudo-daughter. But the deranged leader has bigger plans in mind with his sights set on taking control of a trio of supply settlements (The Citadel, Gas Town, and the Bullet Farm) ruled by the maniacal Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme).

In a deal for control of one of the districts, Dementus callously trades Furiosa into Joe’s command, leaving her to be sent to a dungeon with the rest of his wives who serve as nothing more than vessels to potentially breed a future heir. As she grows into adulthood, Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes the dangerous job of helping transport food and supplies between the three stations. But she still has vengeance against Dementus on her mind and she’s coming to claim it.

You always want to assess a film as a standalone piece of cinema, but when the spectre of a previous film casts such a large shadow, it’s almost impossible to separate the two. It’s a problem similarly suffered by something like Solo: A Star Wars Story. Prequels are a tricky beast to conquer, especially when they rob the film of any stakes with a lead character you know will make it to the closing credits. That’s particularly a problem when that character is constantly thrust into wildly dangerous situations that lack tension due to an audience being acutely aware she’s always going to survive.

Fury Road and Furiosa may exist in the same universe but they are inherently very different films. That’s particularly apparent in the latter’s scope. While Fury Road took place over mere days, Furiosa exhaustively stretches out over numerous years covering far too much of the titular character’s life. Miller has even split this film into five chapters with self-indulgent titles like The Pole of Inaccessibility and Beyond Vengeance. Why he felt the need to signpost each volume with these hokey headings is beyond me. Perhaps it’s an attempt to add gravitas to a film desperately searching for a soul that just isn’t there.

The ultimate (and, frankly, only) purpose of a prequel should be to enrich the character development of its protagonist. Why bother going back in time unless to offer up some fascinating introspective insight into the inner machinations of the heroine we fell in love with? While it’s engaging to see the tragic childhood that turned Furiosa into such an anger-fuelled hellcat, Miller and co-writer Nico Lathouris don’t seem all that interested in digging too deeply into the complexities of such a fascinating character. She’s just as mad and mostly mute as she was in Fury Road. Replacing Dementus for Joe as the target of her wrath simply doesn’t offer anything fresh.

The only time Miller and Lathrouis present Taylor-Joy some new material to work with centres on a potential relationship with Joe’s top driver, Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke). But just as this intriguing narrative thread appears to be heading somewhere, it’s hastily lopped off so we can return to all the explosions and car chase sequences as if Miller doesn’t believe his audience is interested in anything else. Perhaps that’s true but the greatest action movies only work because they’re infused with plenty of heart and humanity. Fury Road is a prime example of such a thing. Its writing had eloquence amongst the harshness. Furiosa does not.

And that’s perhaps the biggest downfall of Furiosa; its screenplay. There’s one glaring plot hole regarding Furiosa’s escape from Joe’s breeding program that doesn’t make a lick of sense. For a prequel that stretches out over 148 minutes, it’s rather staggering to see so many characters are woefully underwritten. Furiosa exists to push the narrative from point A to B but you don’t walk away feeling as if you understand her more as a tormented soul. As scene-stealing as Dementus may be, there’s no method to the madness of such a cartoonish, one-dimensional villain who’s so seemingly inept that it boggles the mind how he rose to such prominence. Do we need a prequel for him as well?

In a role that’s entirely against his usual type, Hemsworth plays to the balcony with a bombastic performance that’s like a bizarre mashup of Heath Ledger’s incarnation of Joker, Wolf Creek‘s Mick Taylor, and Chopper‘s Mark Read. Hemsworth is clearly having a blast playing a villain for the first time and you can’t deny he’s not leaving anything on the table. However, despite one act of shocking brutality that sets Furiosa’s lust for vengeance in motion, Dementus consistently comes across as more goofy than menacing. He has zero semblance of depth or dimensionality in his villainous motivations. He seems to merely want power because someone else has it.

Curiously, it takes almost an hour for Taylor-Joy to show up. Newcomer Browne is a wonderful substitute and handles such a big task with aplomb, but this is meant to be Taylor-Joy’s show, so it’s an odd choice from Miller. It’s naturally a hugely physical performance and Taylor-Joy gives it her all. She’s magnetic to watch, particularly given she barely speaks and instead must convey Furiosa’s rage and trauma through her beaming blue eyes. She organically evokes Charlize Theron’s iconic turn without falling into lazy imitation. You can clearly draw a through-line between the two performances which is one of the film’s biggest successes. Taylor-Joy shines but you just wish the film gave her something narratively meatier to tackle.

If you’re just plonking yourself down to see Furiosa for the action, Miller is unlikely to disappoint you. The set-pieces are just as outrageously grandiose as in its predecessor, especially a staggering 15-minute long War Rig sequence that took almost three months to film. The stunts are hugely impressive and the sound design is unrelentingly loud (sometimes to the point the dialogue is completely inaudible). But Miller is dabbling with digital enhancements and soundstage work far more here than in Fury Road and the shockingly clunky CGI effects rarely look anything other than unsightly. It doesn’t help that Simon Duggan‘s cinematography lacks the majesty of what John Seale previously delivered. Even the thumping score from Tom Holkenborg feels undercooked and strangely isn’t utilised as heavily.

Look, I wanted to love Furiosa as much as anyone. And if you walk away entirely satisfied, I’m happy for you. It was always going to be near-impossible to match the magic of Fury Road but Furiosa just doesn’t even come close. It’s a flat and somewhat pointless instance of style over substance. The problem is it’s almost the exact same kind of style we’ve already seen before. Kudos to Taylor-Joy and Hemsworth for throwing themselves into this obviously exhausting production. If only their time and energy were worth the effort.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Burke, Alyla Browne, Charlee Fraser, Lachy Hulme, Goran D. Kleut
Director: George Miller
Producers: George Miller, Doug Mitchell
Screenplay: George Miller, Nico Lathouris
Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Production Design: Colin Gibson
Costume Design: Jenny Beavan
Editors: Eliot Knapman, Margaret Sixel
Music: Tom Holkenborg

Running Time: 148 minutes
Release Date: 23rd May 2024 (Australia)

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