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Who killed the world?
It's a question posited plenty of times during Mad Max: Fury Road. The post-apocalyptic adventure flick from George Miller continues a franchise that's been around for decades, when Mel Gibson still sported leather cut-offs and wild hair, searching for vengeance and redemption in a barren wasteland.
Back then, Max Rockatansky was a gruff police officer, tasked with enforcing law and order in a lawless, chaotic world. Civilization had deteriorated following an unnamed disaster that left gangs and violent tribes fighting over resources, the most important being oil. It mirrored the real-world energy crisis plaguing countries like the U.S. and Canada during the early '70s, when petroleum shortages led to high gas prices and rising tensions in the Middle East.
Back then, Max was a reluctant hero. Back then, oil was gold. Back then, we couldn't have imagined a world wasted and ravaged, barren and robbed of life's most basic necessity: water. Back then, we would've written off Fury Road as futuristic sci-fi, an enjoyable apocalyptic romp, a live-action spectacle with nothing more to offer.
But back then, we didn't know the answer to the question "Who killed the world?"
Miller has always used the Mad Max franchise to illuminate social justice issues, but with Fury Road he disguises bolder accusations among sand storms and War Boys and tanker chases through desolate deserts and deadly terrain. Tom Hardy's Mad Max begins the film as something considerably less than human, a shell of a man who wanders a dusty world haunted by his past. He's not a hero, not the kind that this story needs anyway, and he spends much of the film tossed from one life-threatening situation to another. He's captured by an army of War Boys — orphans kidnapped and brainwashed by a cruel, vicious tyrant named Immortan Joe who rules over a place called the Citadel. Immortan Joe controls the precious water supply, and so he controls the lives of everyone suffering in this hellish landscape.
He robs mothers of their sons and raises them to believe he's some kind of God, weaning them off water and teaching them to survive on breast milk and chrome spray and the promise of Valhalla. He enslaves young women as his wives, breeding them to create a stronger army to exert his rule. He couples the seductive power of religious fanaticism with the unforgiving reality of a planet dying, of a society on the brink to tighten his grip on the most vulnerable.
But he's not able to snuff out all hope of a better life, which is what we find when Max is brought to the Citadel as a blood bag for a War Boy named Nux. Immortan Joe's general, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), is quietly leading a rebellion, helping the young women held captive as his wives to escape. They navigate scorched earth, dodging deadly run-ins and betrayals along the way, eventually recruiting Max to their cause. They're searching for a utopia known as the Green Place, where Furiosa is from, where water is plentiful and crops aren't hoarded.
Ultimately, we find the Green Place doesn't exist. It was turned to mud and salted earth years earlier because of pollution. The women who lived there, the matriarchal society Furiosa hails from, keep remnants of that better world safe — hoarding seeds they hope to plant and take root in a place worthy of their gifts. And it's this revelation, toward the end of Fury Road, that feels like sharpest criticism and, simultaneously, the most hopeful solution to the issues of climate change and toxic masculinity that Miller has spent the better part of his career addressing.
In Fury Road, men are the virus burning the world from within. The violence, so ingrained in their culture, fuels the war over land and resources. Immortan Joe positions himself as a god, capable of saving those who worship him, radicalizing young men desperate for a cause, for meaning in their lives. He easily sways them, convincing them to believe that violence and death are the way to an eternity of paradise. He enslaves women, using their bodies for his own gain, forcing them to feed his war-hungry soldiers, impregnating them with a new generation of sadistic tyrants. Even Max, a man who fights alongside Furiosa and the wives, falls victim to this toxic culture. He's barely human at the beginning of the film, and he spends most of it fighting to retrieve his possessions and escape a war he believes has nothing to do with him. He wants his car. He wants his jacket. He wants far away from this conflict, and when he's roped into helping the women, he employs increasingly violent means to rid them of their enemies. His first instinct is to kill, something that, even in the midst of fighting for their lives, these women reject.
Furiosa knows violence and death too, she's become harder because of men like Immortan Joe, but she clings to hope of the Green Place, to a goodness inside of her, one that comes from her mother's people, that compels her to help the wives, to search for a better way of life. And if, for Miller, men represent the death of the world, it's women who will help rebuild it.
Unlike other apocalyptic sci-fi flicks that often revel in destruction and give few ideas on how to fix the eco-disasters we've caused, Fury Road identifies its true protagonists, its real heroes early on. When the wives flee Immortan Joe's lair, they graffiti the walls with messages that claim a new world, one where their babies won't grow up to be warlords. They've been sheltered and shielded from the violence down below, never having to fight for survival like Max and Furiosa. This makes them physically weak in the fight against an army of War Boys willing to die for glory, but Fury Road asks us to look past the immediacy of war, to refuse to fall prey to the spectacle of violence, and instead eye the future. It won't be one led by hardened road warriors like Max, or machismo dictators like Immortan Joe.
It will be led by women like the wives, by the matriarchal society Furiosa first belonged to, by people who choose kindness, by humanity that values the gifts our planet gives us and refuses to take more than we need. And that paradise that Furiosa spends the film searching for isn't somewhere out there, an unidentified haven just waiting to be found — it's here, it's the Citadel, it's the hell she's just escaped from.
Having the wives return to the city to liberate it, to build a new world among the ruins of the old, serves as a larger metaphor for how we can fight the effects of climate change in our own world. We won't survive by looking to colonize other planets or hoard resources in first-world countries; we won't prosper by ignoring the conflicts accelerated by the effects of deteriorating ecosystems or the countries suffering through wars incited by a lack of resources and tyrants eager to assert their control in the void of true order and government.
We won't survive if we continue to let toxic masculinity steer how we address global disputes; we won't exist if we continue to rob the planet of its resources instead of nurturing its gifts and protecting our inheritance. And that's what Fury Road is really trying to warn us of.
Who killed the world? We know the answer.
Who will save the world? We think we know the answer to that too.