Spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. And, should it be a problem, also spoilers for The Wizard of Oz.
It’s fair to say that action movies are not my most-watched genre. I tend to drift off when the fights happen, which is like watching a musical and making cups of tea whenever someone starts singing. However, the word of mouth was overwhelming, so my partner and I used a rare night out to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Which was extremely worth it. In IMAX 3D, it felt less like watching a film and more like being forcibly transported to a terrifying desert where people keep throwing stuff at you for two hours. In a good way.
As we came out, my partner referred (while enthusiastically praising the film) to the ‘lack of plot’ and some reviews I’ve read also mentioned a lack of plot. It’s true that the story does literally consist of a ride from one part of a howling wasteland to another part of said howling wasteland, and then back again. But it seemed to me that the narrative was actually a twist (intentional or not) on a classic story with plenty of plot – The Wizard of Oz. It’s just that it’s told mostly through shots of large bolted-together trucks colliding with each other.
(It also reminded me of David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, which of course is also themed on The Wizard of Oz but features Mad Max levels of weirdness and violence.)
I haven’t seen more than a passing reference to this idea anywhere else, so I’m going to elaborate a bit here. For other more important commentary on Mad Max and specifically its feminism, you can’t do better than this post and its links.
So. This is where I see parallels.
- A main character is taken from their relatively quiet, static home and thrown into a new and much busier environment. Dorothy is taken from her Kansas farm into the technicolour Oz; Max is taken from the car in which he lives and imprisoned in The Citadel. In the process of moving from one place to the other, lives are lost, but Max/Dorothy emerge alive if not unscathed.
- Max now takes on the role of the Scarecrow, hanging helpless in order to serve someone’s agenda – not scaring crows, but feeding radioactive soldiers with his blood. If this were a musical – and it is essentially the action equivalent of an opera – the appropriate song here would be from The Wiz. “You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.”
- While Max is indisposed, the role of Dorothy is assumed by Imperator Furiosa, who is leaving The Citadel with a small group – The Wives – in order to search for her long-lost home. En route to her destination, she acquires new passengers: Max, who now becomes the Tin Man in need of a heart (having initially attempted to leave Furiosa and the Wives to die in the desert), and Nux, who has been brainwashed by the Citadel dictator Immortan Joe and is therefore in need of a new brain (metaphorically). The Wives already have courage, but the fact that one of them tries to go back suggests that a little more is required.
- As in Oz, most of the characters’ names describe their essential traits: Angharad the Splendid, Cheedo the Fragile, Doof Warrior, The People Eater.
- The most obvious reference: there’s a giant storm (a tornado in one case, a sandstorm in the other) during which people are tossed up in the air.
- As the group fight to reach their destination, they bond and becomes a coherent team with some affection for one another.
- The major twist in Mad Max is that the Emerald City is also Kansas – that is, the place the group is trying to reach for the first half of the movie is Furiosa’s home. But when they get there, it’s an illusion, just like the Wizard. So instead, they find new allies, and set off to defeat the monster who must be destroyed before they can find a new home.
- Max briefly becomes the Wizard, giving Furiosa her new purpose – to destroy the monster.
- After a climactic battle, the monster (the Wicked Witch/Immortan Joe) is killed by Dorothy/Furiosa.
- Although Immortan Joe isn’t killed by water, it’s still an interesting link, given the importance of water in this world. In fact, in a sense, he is killed by water, since it’s his monopoly of it that leads to his overthrow.
- It turns out that the monster’s minions are delighted by his/her death, and Dorothy/Furiosa is their new hero. The land is improved by her actions, and she also discovers that home was in her grasp all along.
- In the process, Nux has indeed gained a brain, Max a heart, and the Wives (the ones who lived) courage.
I have a friend who objects strongly to the end of The Wizard of Oz, on the grounds that Dorothy’s home was genuinely a depressing and negative place and she would have been better off staying in Oz. (The sequels implicitly endorse this view by returning her there.) Mad Max takes an angle I think he would approve of: the home Furiosa dreams of is an unachievable, possibly unrealistic memory and she never gets there. Instead, she takes the best and only remaining aspects of it (the Many Mothers, the seeds of a new world) and uses them to make the world she lives in a better place. Dorothy has grown up, and she’s awesome.