Furiosa kicks sand in the face of boring franchise-filler movies

Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy), Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), and Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), three extremely filthy Wasteland-dwellers with greasepaint-smeared faces, huddle close together, with Dementus holding Furiosa’s proud face in his hands, in George Miller’s Furiosa
Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Entertainment

No spoilers: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road prequel is a vibrant, original surprise

Like a war over gas in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the franchise-fatigue debate rages on, with multiple factions claiming that sequels, prequels, and superhero films are killing the cinematic landscape, while others claim the smoke doesn’t lead to fire, and the entire battle is overblown. The latest salvo in the war — which is to say, the latest prequel extending a decades-long franchise — is Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, a prequel nearly a decade in the making. But where long experience with franchise logic would lead us to expect director George Miller to offer up a louder, bigger retread of its predecessor, the groundbreaking Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller dares to ignore that expectation. He blazes a brave, exploratory trail with a searing film that refuses to play by any of the tried, tested, and tired rules that franchise films follow.

Fury Road hit screens nine years ago with a commanding reconfiguring of the Mad Max series. Miller recast Max (played by Mel Gibson in three movies from 1979 to 1985) with The Dark Knight Rises’ Tom Hardy, pushing him into an ancillary role, and introducing a new leading hero, the battle-hardened war leader Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Fury Road is a visceral landmark in the action canon, relying on propulsive pacing, consciously chaotic editing, and nervy practical stunts that make the entire thing buzz with frenetic energy.

Trying to replicate that lightning in a bottle would be a fool’s errand, so Miller doesn’t even try with Furiosa. Instead, he presents an entirely different film that swaps out Fury Road’s efficient brevity in favor of epic scope and world-building, while bringing in an even more experimental touch. If anything, it feels more like the original Mad Max films that inspired it than it feels like the film that preceded it, apart from the absence of Max himself.

Where Fury Road takes place over three days, Furiosa spans 18 years and five chapter breaks in telling the story of its titular lead, from her childhood as the captive of the maniacal warlord Dementus (a scene-chewing Chris Hemsworth, in a role so different from his signature role as the MCU’s Thor, it’s finally easy to shed those expectations) right up to the events of Fury Road.

Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), two leather-clad post-apocalyptic warriors, sit in the front seats of a truck with huge silver winged skulls on the hood and a group of War Boys with shaved heads and white face paint in the back in George Miller’s Furiosa
Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Each chapter begins with unsettling imagery, random narration, and tone-setting montages rather than concrete narrative. Miller and credited co-writers Nick Lathouris and Prateek Bando aren’t worried about conforming to the expected rules for prequels. In one of their smartest diversions from the format, they spend nearly equal amounts of time with young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) and her adult counterpart (Anya Taylor-Joy).

There isn’t one quick flashback to five minutes of on-screen childhood before we meet the real star. Instead, Browne plays a pivotal role in actually letting us watch Furiosa grow. Miller seems to trust the audience in a way most directors don’t or aren’t allowed to, with the narrative jumping years with no explanation or apology, and new characters appearing without a constant stream of exposition or introduction. It’s a wild ride as Furiosa grows from a vengeance-fueled child to a burgeoning warrior-woman with a greater mission.

That choice directly contradicts what we’re usually told about the importance of star power in franchise vehicles. Miller already replaced Charlize Theron, the woman who made Furiosa an action star, because he wanted to tell the character’s origin story and didn’t want to use de-aging technology to do it. Splitting time between an established star like Taylor-Joy and an unknown child actor seems like a huge risk, but it pays off, laying the foundation for the often gruesome adventure Furiosa must go on to reach the heights of heroism she does in Fury Road.

Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy), a leather-clad warrior with long braided hair, stands on the back of a steam shovel, kicking a helmeted, prone adversary in the face, in George Miller’s Furiosa
Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Her characterization is particularly daring: Furiosa only speaks 30 lines in the entire film. Taylor-Joy has said she spent months on set in complete silence, which makes sense when you see the raw fury and heart she’s able to convey with a single glance in the film. It’s easy to forget she isn’t a verbose lead, as Miller weaves a vibrant, loud story around her, and Browne and Taylor-Joy craft a character with enough presence that even a single word holds weight.

That choice lingers long after the film ends, especially when considered alongside Furiosa’s trauma, and the trials she endures in this movie. In her world, silence is control and power, with no quips or smart comebacks needed. Put that at the center of a film that’s more concerned with vibes than with narrative, pulling more from the surreal tones of artists like Mœbius and Alejandro Jodorowsky than famed blockbuster directors Steven Spielberg or David Yates, and you’ve got something that feels unlikely, but terrific.

An epic, nearly 20-year saga likely isn’t what most people were expecting from Furiosa, but the approach allows the world to expand in pleasing ways. The MCU-ification of cinema means that franchise blockbusters often reveal characters, important MacGuffins, narrative loose ends, and potential sequel nods in bite-size teases that are less and less likely to lead anywhere. But with Furiosa, Miller widens the scope of the Mad Max landscape exponentially, as characters old and new blast their way onto the screen, giving clearer insight into the setting of the Wasteland, its societal hierarchies, its gasoline-fueled wars, and its steampunk-hued reality.

Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), a shaggy-haired, shaggy-bearded Wasteland warrior, holds a gun in one hand and steers a vehicle with the other in George Miller’s Furiosa
Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Entertainment

In other hands, the level of detail, the number of characters, and the narrative ambition of telling a story about an entire generation of Wastelanders could bog the film down. But Miller brings it all to life with his punk auteur sensibilities: Even given the movie’s 148-minute runtime, there’s rarely a moment of reprise from the gorgeously harsh post-apocalyptic action.

The almost overwhelming stunts are a large part of what made Fury Road stand out from the blockbuster pack back in 2015. For the most part, Miller returns to that gritty sensibility here. Since that film was made, filmmaking technology has evolved significantly, especially around action: the ability to manipulate CGI backgrounds on large screens in real time has given studios and filmmakers the ability to craft entire worlds with barely any practical or location shooting, with projects as wide-ranging as Our Flag Means Death and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania taking advantage of the tech.

At a recent Q&A for a Los Angeles screening of the film, Miller said new technology changed his approach. According to the director, the most important new element was an Unreal Engine-driven pre-vis program called PROXi, created by Fury Road stunt supervisors Guy and Harrison Norris, which let him prep and storyboard all of his dangerous stunt scenes in an entirely digital format. He explained to reporters at the event that it was a huge shift from Fury Road, where the team visualized stunts by physically laying out the entire set and models of each stunt-team member in a tent in the desert.

Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), the bearded leader of a group of Wasteland warriors, stands in a tent with a clean white cloth draped over his head and extending down to his feet, surrounded by male acolytes of various ages in George Miller’s Furiosa
Photo: Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Entertainment

That advancement is felt on screen, with more obvious CGI than in Fury Road, especially in the backgrounds and vehicles. Some of the previous movie’s rough-and-readiness has been lost, and Furiosa occasionally feels a little too smooth and slick, despite being shot on location in Australia. But that’s a mere wrinkle in the movie’s brutal patchwork, which still boasts several complex action sequences full of practical stunts — including one that took 78 days to shoot. In its best moments, Furiosa puts pretty much every modern superhero movie to shame.

Really, the key word here is “trust.” Miller trusts the audience to go on this adventure with him. Miller trusts his own abilities, reputation, or convictions enough to make this film without checking the expected boxes. And the studio clearly trusts Miller enough to position an unconventional fantasy-action epic as a big summer release.

So even as Furiosa is inevitably compared with Fury Road, both positively and negatively, put your trust in Miller’s weird, wild filmmaking. He’ll make you root for a near-silent hero in the face of insurmountable odds, and a demented villain who will go down alongside Fury Road’s Immortan Joe as a horrible new addition to Mad Max’s rogues gallery. Innovative and strange in the best ways, Furiosa repays that trust with a trip down a twisted cinematic rabbit hole that’ll likely once again redefine expectations for what an action film can be.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga hits theaters on May 24.

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