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Watching George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is like looking into an alternate universe where CGI was never invented, action movies remained boldly stylistic, and simple exploitation movie conceits were still being celebrated for their simplicity rather than being bogged down with artificially inflated mythological interconnectivity. It’s a hyper-accelerated rush of towering, weird-ass oil-fisted heavy metal explosiveness. It’s the best action film of the year.

Something has happened to action films over the course of the last 10 or 15 years. As CGI-based action sequences have slowly evolved to become the basic language for action cinema (swirling camera angles! Collapsing buildings! Crashing space ships!), audiences have been gradually becomes less and less dazzled by amazing visuals. We just sort of accept that most effects (and even a lot of exterior sets) are typically animated in post-production, and no longer marvel at the fact that those visuals are being produced at all. Great CGI special effects are so de rigueur, that audiences are often tempted to yawn extended noisy destruction sequences.

Mad Max effects

The 70-year-old George Miller, the maker of the original three Mad Max films from 30 – 35 years ago, seems to recall that what makes an on-film explosion so exhilarating is that someone, somewhere actually had to make something blow up. As such, we have an action film with real cars blowing up, real cameras lingering on real giant billowing clouds of real acrid black smoke, actual flying metal shards, and actual stuntmen… and we can feel the exhilaration creeping back into movies. We forgot how to make action movies over the last few years. Miller remembered.

I don’t think the continuity of Mad Max: Fury Road really follows any of the previous films directly. It is a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. A remote city of destitute citizens is ruled by a tyrannical mask-wearing Morlock named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Immortan Joe controls the only water in the province, as well as his own army of hyperactive cancerous albino punks who eat chrome out of spraycans and require constant blood transfusions. One such abducted donor is Max (Tom Hardy) a hallucinating madman who is carted around like luggage. When the one-armed badass Furiosa (Charlize Theron) abducts Immortan’s harem of viable (and, natch, comely) females, Immortan and his army (with Max hauled along) go off in pursuit. The film that follows is a single extended chase sequence through the deserts of Australia, with only a few brief breathers so we don’t pass out.

Mad Max GWAR

Miller is a graceful enough filmmaker that he can modulate the action. If he kept the knob turned to 11 for the film’s 120-minute runtime, audiences would rapidly tune out from sheer exhaustion. He is also wise enough to realize that production design can easily act as the central character of a movie, and he stuffs his fiery thriller with enormous (and practically built) patchwork war machines that look like they just drove out of a Gwar concert. Indeed, one of the highlights of the film is a 45-ton tank equipped with an external drum circle piled onto its back, and a flame-spewing heavy metal guitarist standing on the front, shredding Immortan Joe’s theme music as they blast across the alkali flats. Mad Max: Fury Road is like the film adaptation of your favorite heavy metal album cover.

In a year where Disney-produced action blockbusters are being given the stink-eye for not necessarily treating its female characters with as much sensitivity as they possibly could, Mad Max: Fury Road merrily provides audiences with female characters who seem – imagine that! – capable and emotionally rich. In spite of the title, Furiosa is our true protagonist, and she is the instigator of all the action. Later in the film, she will meet up with a biker gang of grizzled septuagenarian Earth mothers who are just as threatening as all the other desert-dwelling riffraff. Even the diaphanous robe-wearing supermodels from Joe’s harem, while not typical action badasses, at least seem to react to extreme situations beyond merely shrinking from them. The damsels in distress are not damsels in distress. The damsels are the only voice of strength and reason in this world. This may be the most feminist action film in years. And how refreshing to see that women have strength and a voice rather than just weapons to make them strong.

Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold

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Witney Seibold