‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’: Anya Taylor-Joy Is a Revelation in George Miller’s High-Octane Apocalyptic Epic

The landscape of modern movies, with all its prequels, sequels, legacy sequels, remakes, reboots and every other form of rehashing franchises can leave audiences feeling stuck in a creative desert. It is wildly refreshing when a film like “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” charges in with overwhelming originality. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic epic is the fifth in a franchise he kicked off in 1979 with “Mad Max.” It is also the first prequel in the series, telling the story of Furiosa, the determined warrior from 2015’s masterful “Mad Max: Fury Road” played by Charlize Theron. “Furiosa” is a great addition and a lesson in genre filmmaking. Miller isn’t making a cynical franchise cash grab. He respects the craft enough to make a genuine new chapter, told in a fresh and riveting tone. 

A crackle of news reports on a dark screen opens this film, informing us again that civilization has collapsed. Furiosa’s journey begins as a young girl (Alyla Browne) living in the lush “Green Place” mentioned in the previous movie. A ravaging biker gang attacks, kidnapping Furiosa. Her mother, Mary Jabassa (Charlee Fraser) chases after the kidnappers. Furiosa eventually frees herself and through the “wasteland” makes her way to a camp run by warlord Dementus (an unrecognizable Chris Hemsworth). When Mary catches up with the warlord and Furiosa, tragedy ensues. Eventually, Furiosa is brought along with Dementus as he makes his way to the Citadel, the powerful fortress run by Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme). A stand-off begins that will see a grown Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) stop at nothing in her quest for revenge against Dementus, even if it means risking total annihilation.

As a filmmaker what has made George Miller’s career so dynamic is that he never repeats himself. The first three “Mad Max” movies, which launched the career of Mel Gibson, were each unique. The 1979 original is an apocalyptic biker movie with nods at classics such as “The Wild One.” “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” is cited as contributing to the popularity of punk dystopia in the 1980s. “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” remains divisive but features a memorable Tina Turner. “Fury Road” was a nonstop experience that won six Oscars and is the envy of every action movie since. “Furiosa” is a prequel but done in a more classic style that is full of adrenaline but with a grander scope. Miller is profiling the very origins of one of his creations in the tone of an ancient epic. If you haven’t seen “Fury Road” you can simply flip them around and start with this movie.

This is a ride to take in on such a rich visual and narrative scale that one viewing might not be enough. Miller’s imagining of the future is bleak but eloquent. One thing he has always understood keenly is how in the aftermath of a total collapse, people won’t look or talk the same way. Language is a mixture of slang and high-brow. Hints of the old and clunky merge in the stunning sights. Dementus rides a chariot pulled by motorcycles. Immortan Joe’s pale-painted War Boys want to die “historic” for their leader. We now get an inside look at Gas Town and Bullet Farm, taken over by Dementus but which Immortan Joe needs for his supply of fuel and weapons. These look like industrial nightmares where inhabitants beg for rations amid rivers of oil or showers of ammunition. Immortan Joe and his inner circle, which includes familiar faces from “Fury Road,” live in the well-supplied Citadel with water, greenery and his chamber of wives for breeding. The warlord’s sons, Rectus (Nathan Jones) and Scrotus (Josh Helman) are like satirical thugs with twisted Roman names.

“Furiosa” balances satire with genuine pathos in a way no other franchise can really pull off. You can chuckle at the wordplay and feel for Furiosa’s painful journey of discovery. Anya Taylor-Joy breaks through fully as an action lead, giving her character a fierce depth along with the eye-popping stunts. In a way, her performance is a bigger challenge than what Charlize Theron faced in the infamously tough “Fury Road” shoot. “Furiosa” has some astounding action sequences involving chases, fights and massive explosions, but they don’t dominate the narrative as much. Taylor-Joy has to convince us Furiosa is a fighter in the making with little dialogue. Miller has always shot the “Mad Max” films almost with the spirit of silent movies. Furiosa’s lines are direct, simple expressions evoking her pain and mission. She builds a bond with Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), who carries out oil runs for the Citadel. There’s affection there but not a cheesy romance, because Miller needs Furiosa to go through another trial of fire with Jack that will further harden her. Taylor-Joy somehow manages to get every mood shift across with a stare or brief line in a performance that goes beyond mere “action star.”

In “Furiosa,” the action is an organic part of the story and, as with the previous entries, Miller again delivers with great inventiveness. These are not stunts for their own sake. Violence is portrayed with moments of wrenching torture and emotional devastation, along with the usual adrenaline chases or humor. Cinematographer Simon Duggan’s eye captures sweeping, scorched landscapes that even top “Dune.” The music by Junkie XL gives the images a sweeping feel with its pounding themes and nods at more classic grandiose scores. Some frames have the texture of master paintings or classic graphic novels. But no one feels like a mere tool. Dementus’ is larger than life but with his own tragic complexities as a villain. He did want to take care of young Furiosa but for his own warlord ambitions. When she has a searing face-to-face with Dementus, now as a grown woman, the exchange becomes more emotionally piercing than a simple revenge scene. This is surely Chris Hemsworth’s greatest performance, leaving his Marvel work in the dust. 

No one would have thought back in 1979 that Miller would still be making movies where monster trucks and fiery rigs become poetry and opera. “Furiosa” is a welcome addition to the “Mad Max” canon but on its own is a superb, impressive stretch of cinema. We have become accustomed to so many bloated exercises that a movie like this almost feels like a revelation, despite Miller simply staying loyal to what filmmaking should be. This is a high-octane marriage of images and sound, actors pushing to the limit as well as every other department on hand. See it on the biggest screen available to take it all in. For some franchises five movies is five too many. Miller leaves us hoping he has enough fuel left in the tank for one more. 

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” releases May 24 in theaters nationwide.