You can’t unkill the world. Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa learned that lesson the hard way when she commandeered a rig full of Immortan Joe’s precious war brides and sped across the desert towards the matriarchal eden from which she was stolen as a child. She and her motley crew of reluctant allies drove as far as the highways of Valhalla would take them, only to discover that the Green Place of Many Mothers wasn’t beyond the uninhabitable swampland they had passed to get there — it was the uninhabitable swampland they had to passed to get there.

Whatever dim but undying hope that Furiosa still maintained for the future would have to be seeded in the same barren Wasteland that had sucked her entire life dry; twice denied the utopia that had been promised to her, Furiosa would have to return to the Citadel from which she had just escaped and claim it for herself. There is no going back, but sometimes you can only find the path forward by looking in the rear-view mirror.

And so it stands to reason that inveterate madman George Miller has followed the most spectacular action movie of the 21st century not with a sequel that continues where “Mad Max: Fury Road” left off (though he hopes to make one of those someday), but rather with a prequel that paves the way to where it began. By the same token, it also stands to reason that Miller hasn’t tried to outdo the orgiastic mayhem that brought his Ozploitation franchise screaming into the 21st century all shiny and chrome — the guy might be insane, but he isn’t stupid. 

Nor is he willing to settle for diminishing returns. Rather than reaching for — and failing to clear — the impossibly high bar that he set for himself, Miller has chosen to do something even crazier and more rewarding: He’s created a symphonic, five-part, decades-spanning revenge saga so immense and self-possessed that it refuses to be seen as the mere extension of another movie, even though it manages to deepen the impact of “Fury Road” at every turn.

On the contrary, “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” doesn’t feel like an overture for the vehicular carnage of “Fury Road” so much as it retroactively makes “Fury Road” feel like a coda for the epic tale Miller tells here. If that magnificently guzzoline-brained masterpiece has always seemed like the work of a visionary artist who was purging himself of every frustrated idea that he’d never been allowed to film, this similarly ecstatic summer blockbusterdigs up the roots of Miller’s catharsis with just as much creative vigor. 

Does “Furiosa” deliver the kind of system shock that made its predecessor feel like such a violent rebuke to superhero-era Hollywood? Absolutely not — though its two bonafide setpieces both eclipse the most electric moments of “Fury Road,” while also iterating on them in fantastic new ways (the much-hyped “Stowaway to Nowhere” sequence is an out-of-body experience). But Miller’s decision to shift gears ultimately proves to be his prequel’s greatest strength, even for those of us who might wish that it could end with another 30-car pile-up instead of a proverbial fender-bender. 

Avoiding the same traps that have made too many recent franchise offshoots feel like just less of the same (in part because it was fully written before a frame of “Fury Road” had ever been shot), “Furiosa” doesn’t try to reverse-engineer one of the most propulsive cinematic experiences ever conceived so much as it scours the Wasteland for the emotion that will be required to fuel it. Whereas “Fury Road” was driven by the search for hope, “Furiosa” is a glorious film about why you need it in the first place.

Miller isn’t subtle about that. Or about anything else, for that matter. He doesn’t need to be; a post-apocalyptic fable whose character names are more expressive than some movies’ entire scripts (new favorites like “Piss Boy” and “The Octoboss” join returning classics like “Rictus Erectus” and “The People Eater”), “Furiosa” is less interested in the ambiguity of its nuance than it is in the epicness of its detail, and the attention it pays to the latter is so palpably loving that you can’t help but feel like this ruined world still has stories worth telling. 

It starts with a simple prompt: “As the world falls around us, how must we brave its cruelties?” Before “Furiosa” is finished with the first of its five distinct chapters, it will begin to offer two competing answers to that question. One is buried within young Furiosa (Alyla Browne, her performance so fierce and hyper-capable you might forget her role is due to be recast an hour later). Kidnapped from her idyllic home as a human map that her captors intend to sell to the nearest warlord (provided they can outrace the girl’s rifle-packing mother across the desert in a muted day-for-night chase that would be the coolest sequence in almost any other movie), Furiosa is instructed never to reveal the location of the Green Place from whence she came. Instead, she’s given a seed of her own to plant somewhere else, though she won’t understand the full implications of that gesture until halfway through the next film, when she realizes the difference between a home and a memory. 

Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Furiosa’©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The warlord who orphans Furiosa and adopts her as the navigator of his traveling motorcycle horde — a “congress of destruction” — is a tragic figure who’s lost the ability to appreciate that distinction. His name is Dementus, and he’s played by Chris Hemsworth in a giddy and spectacular performance that suggests what it might be like if Shakespeare wrote a comedy set at a Monster Truck rally (the gorgeous actor’s seagull-inspired caw of a voice is supported by a fake crooked nose that juts out to remind you “this man was beautiful until something unnatural came along to disfigure him”). 

Ruthless but theatrical, Dementus is only scary because you know he’ll take anything and everything he can in order to avoid thinking about what he’s lost. It would have been easy for Miller and his co-writer Nico Lathouris to imagine the main antagonist of this prequel as a mere sub-boss for “Fury Road” baddie Immortan Joe, but “Furiosa” tacks in the opposite direction by making Dementus the most loquacious character in the history of this franchise; by stressing his wayward humanity in a wasteland of inbred power-mongers (the ratty stuffed animal he keeps pinned on the back of his flowing white cape is a dead giveaway). Less motivated to rule than he is to build, Dementus shares Furiosa’s impulse for creation, the only difference being his foolish belief that anything useful might grow out of a world seeded with hate. 

But Dementus’ ambitions, opportunistic as they might be, will invariably lead his beloved horde to the impregnable Citadel where the Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, seamlessly taking over for the late Hugh Keays-Byrne), his large adult sons, and their brainwashed, nitrus-addled War Boys reign supreme. So Dementus will have to settle for control of Gas Town, a deal he secures by offering up Furiosa as the next of Immortan Joe’s many wives. 

Furiosa has other ideas. She disguises herself as a mute War Boy the first opportunity she gets, and then bides her time for the better part of a decade until she transforms into Anya Taylor-Joy and the chance avails itself to stow away in a War Rig that might lead her away from the Citadel. The driver of that hulking metal beast is a road warrior by the name of Praetorian Jack (“The Souvenir” breakout Tom Burke, one-upping Mel Gibson with just a knowing stare and a thick smudge of black paint across his forehead), and Furiosa senses that he’s capable of enough kindness to help steer her in the right direction. 

‘Furiosa’screenshot/Warner Bros.

Or maybe it’s enough for her to know that he’s capable of enough violence to help her survive the flying Mortifiers who patrol the Fury Road for vulnerable spots in Immortan Joe’s supply chain — and then parachute down on them from above on airborne motorbikes that allow Miller to elevate the action even higher than the pole-vaulting War Boys were able to take it in the previous film (“They fly now!?” “They fly now,” but make it fucking incredible). In any event, a terse friendship is forged in an operatic eruption of rusted steel, and the silent bond that forms between Furiosa and Praetorian Jack will play a crucial role in the war that’s about to erupt between Dementus and Immortan Joe.

This set-up offers plenty of opportunity for the kind of fill-in-the-blank fan service that has made prequels so insufferable, but Miller doesn’t belabor the meet-cute between Furiosa and her twin-action “boom stick,” and even the inevitable reveal of how she loses her left arm is handled with refreshing casualness. To call undue attention to such details in the middle of a life-or-death sprint across the sand dunes would disrupt the rhythm of a film that unfolds with the precision of a symphony (I was often reminded of Park Chan-wook in that regard, especially as “Furiosa” curdles into a maximalist revenge saga), its violence so inextricable from its drama that even its moments of rest tend to vibrate across the screen with the shudder of a 1,000 engines being revved at once.

Every facet of “Furiosa” — not just Rob Mackenzie’s immaculate sound design and Tom Holkenberg’s thundering score, but also the minimal dialogue that’s interspersed between them — is geared toward the shared purpose of creating a diesel-strength harmony between the people and machinery of the Wasteland, so that the outsized roar of Dementus’ chariot or the guttural purr of Praetorian Jack’s “Valiant” becomes more expressive than anything these characters might otherwise have to say. No movie this cacophonous has ever sounded more like music. 

The virtuosity of Miller’s approach is so arresting that you might not even notice how seldom Furiosa actually speaks; like Charlize Theron before — or after? — her, Taylor-Joy conveys so much strength and desperation through the whites of her eyes alone that words would only cheapen the unparalleled purity of her purpose. That nascent intensity so perfectly matches the established template for the character that Taylor-Joy’s credible resemblance to Theron is just icing on the cake, and the former actress deserves kudos all her own for how willfully she kindles the flame that ignites the latter’s performance. In her hands, Furiosa is reborn as the rare film character who’s become iconic twice over in two distinct (but inseparable) forms, and future generations will awe at the fact that “Fury Road” came first. 


If not for their completely different speeds and time spans, “Furiosa” and its sequel might feel like a single movie cut in two (this one also boasts a freshly polished shine that gets scrubbed off from Immortan Joe’s fleet and reputation by the time “Fury Road” begins, but allows Miller to go a bit heavier on the self-evident CGI here than he has in the past). As it stands, their relationship is more akin to that between “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” — a naive and meandering promise to the future that gives way to a heart-stoppingly urgent race to reclaim the present. 

At certain junctures, the expansiveness of “Furiosa” can seem to its detriment, as Miller occasionally speeds over massive plot developments as if they were minor potholes; the life-changing apprenticeship that Praetorian Jack offers Furiosa is resolved in the span of a single fade, while the much-anticipated showdown between Dementus and Immortan Joe is yadda yadda yadda-ed off-screen with the help of some quick narration. Most egregious of all is how the time gaps make it hard to track Dementus and Immortan Joe’s respective relationships to Furiosa, such as they are.

For the most part, however, that such omissions might be misconstrued for oversights is a testament to the richness of this franchise’s lore, just as Miller’s refusal to distract from its heroine’s single-minded focus is ultimately to the benefit of a movie that sees chaos as Furiosa’s greatest chance to look for home, and not — as Dementus might conceive of it — as a home unto itself. 

It’s no wonder the manic warlord can’t even fathom what Furiosa is trying to find. “Where are you going so full of hope?” he calls after her, smirking with a bitterness that he’s confused for wisdom. The guy can barely contain himself after Furiosa loses the same arm on which she’d tattooed a star map back to the Green Place of Many Mothers. What Dementus doesn’t know — and might just have to learn the hard way — is that his maniacal cynicism will effectively point Furiosa towards the only home she’ll ever be able to find. 

Her quest to avenge her mother’s death is what drives this story, but that’s not what makes it worth telling. “Furiosa” derives its inestimable horsepower from how it forces its heroine to watch Dementus’ motorcycle horde ride in circles for 15 years, killing themselves and countless others in a futile bid to control a part of an irradiated Wasteland we already know they won’t be able to keep. Each new indignity brings her closer to accepting that going nowhere with hope is better than going anywhere without it.

How do we brave the world’s cruelties? By refusing to become them ourselves. Such an internally combusting prequel might seem like a strange lead-in to a movie that spit fire in every direction, but don’t you worry: George Miller still has what it takes to make it epic. 

Grade: A-

Warner Bros. will release “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” in theaters on Friday, May 24.

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