Redemption after the Apocalypse: A Deconstructive Exegesis of Mad Max: Fury Road
People often ask me for spiritual advice. One might suppose that I’d be flattered, but it’s actually a bit of a drag, especially in public restrooms. Even so, I always grab my petitioner’s hand, look him squarely in the eye, and tell him: You must watch Mad Max: Fury Road repeatedly for forty days and forty nights, and only then will you be ready to receive the cryptic knowledge, the gnosis, that will give your life meaning.
It may seem passing strange that humanity must wait for the End of Days, as in an environmental apocalypse, to have the scales lifted from our eyes, but there it is. We don’t appreciate what we have until we’ve lost it. We must lose everything in order to discover the one important thing. And so religion asserts itself in the burnt-out ruin of the world.
In writer-director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Immortan Joe is the warlord of a post-apocalyptic redoubt. He seems to be something of an L. Ron Hubbard type, in that he’s invented his own religion. The intercessor of Immortan Joe’s religion is, of course, Joe himself. Near the top of the film he addresses his starving, scraggly subjects thus: “I am your redeemer. It is by my hand you will rise from the ashes of this world!”
Like the other Mad Max films, Fury Road is a “chase movie.” The flick focuses on an escape and the ensuing pursuit. The escapees are Immortan Joe’s “wives,” his “prize breeders,” his sex slaves. (By the by, another movie whose last half features a terrific chase is Apocalypto (2006), directed by the original Max, Mel Gibson. Apocalypto is a unique flick, and probably quite underrated.)
Immortan Joe’s “religion” is a zesty mélange of other religions: Norse mythology, today’s Islamist jihadism, bits of Christianity, and something to do with internal combustion engines, all figure into Joe’s theology. “V8,” as in the car engines, is an incantation. When they are about to go out on a supply run, Joe addresses his departing troops:
Once again, we send off my War Rig to bring back guzzoline from Gas Town and bullets from the Bullet Farm! Once again, I salute my Imperator Furiosa! And I salute my half-life War Boys who will ride with me eternal on the highways of Valhalla.
In response, the War Boys chant “V8! V8! V8! V8!” Another of the War Boys’ incantations is “I live. I die. I live again.” Immortan Joe uses his religion to control his troops, who believe in an afterlife that Joe has promised. Joe has assured his War Boys that they are “awaited” in Valhalla by the “heroes of all time.”
IMMORTAN JOE: Stop the Rig, return my treasures to me [i.e. his wives], and I myself will carry you to the Gates of Valhalla.
NUX: Am I awaited?
IMMORTAN JOE: You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome.
Although a devout War Boy, Nux loses his religion when he takes up with Joe’s escaping wives. When he first sees the wives, Nux is transfixed by their beauty, and says, “Oh, look at them. So shiny. So chrome.” Perhaps Nux’s new faith is akin to that of the Priory of Sion in The Da Vinci Code, where women are the key to salvation. (Could the “V” of the “sacred feminine” be … V8?)
“Witnessing” is an important part of some Christian sects, and so it is for Miller’s War Boys. Like jihadism, theirs is a suicidal cult, and when they do their daring deeds, they shout “witness me.” Here’s Nux as he prepares for martyrdom:
Oh, what a day! What a lovely day! I am the man who grabs the sun riding to Valhalla! Witness me, Blood Bag! Witness! I live, I die, I live again!
Blood Bag is Max, whom Nux is hooked up to for a continuous transfusion of his “high-octane crazy blood.” But in this scene, Nux is denied his martyrdom:
Three times the gates were open to me. I was awaited in Valhalla. They were calling my name. I should be walking with the Immorta. McFeasting with the heroes of all time. I thought I was being spared for something great.
Nux gets another chance at the heroics that would make him one of the Immorta when he ditches the war rig to block the pass, allowing the escape party to flee. This act of self-sacrifice might resonate with Christians, (video on Nux).
Immortan Joe’s wives are trying to escape to an “Eden”: the Green Place of the Many Mothers. They are being helped in this by Furiosa, who drives the war rig. In the calm after they have eluded Joe’s pursuit party, Furiosa and Max are in the front seats of the war rig while Joe’s wives sleep in the back (video):
MAX: How do you know this place even exists?
FURIOSA: I was born there.
MAX: So why'd you leave?
FURIOSA: I didn't. I was taken as a child. Stolen.
MAX: You done this before?
FURIOSA: Many times. Now that I drive a War Rig this is the best shot I'll ever have.
MAX: And them? (referring to Immortan Joe’s wives in the back seat).
FURIOSA: They're looking for hope.
MAX: What about you?
A second and final iteration of “redemption” occurs when Max presents an alternative plan to Furiosa’s: “But I guarantee you that a 160 days' ride that way, there's nothing but salt. At least that way, you know, we might be able to together come across some kind of redemption.”
One might wonder how redemption could play any part in an action movie so replete with violence and degradation. In the middle of Fury Road’s mayhem, there’s a brief interlude when the escape party finally meets up with the Many Mothers, aka the Vuvalini. It’s a meeting of two quite different sisterhoods; the wives are young and lovely and the Vuvalini are old sunburnt warriors. But they’re fascinated with each other. (Could “Vuvalini” be a corruption of “vulva” with an “ini” on the end of it? Dang, I’m beginning to think George Miller really does worship at the altar of the sacred feminine.)
What supports the religious sentiment in Miller’s film is a very effective score by composer Tom Holkenborg, who also goes by Junkie XL, (official site). Check out YouTube for the entire soundtrack. You can skip forward to “Many Mothers,” which is the music for the interlude above. To my ears it’s soulful, elegiac, and “religious.” And do audit the part titled “Redemption.”
But what great sin has Furiosa committed that would cause her to so keenly feel the need for redemption? After all, she’s the good guy. It’s Immortan Joe who needs redemption.
Well, I have a theory. Perhaps Furiosa feels the entire weight of the apocalypse herdamnself; perhaps she takes responsible for it. Furiosa’s answer to the film’s “who killed the world” would then be -- I did. But in a scorched world, how would Furiosa find redemption? There wouldn’t be many ways to “come across some kind of redemption” after the apocalypse. Maybe her only route to redemption is by helping some young women escape a monster.
I have no evidence that George Miller is some systematic theologian. And only as an allegory can one take his yarn seriously; Miller is probably just having fun. But whether intentional or not, Miller does evoke religious resonances, albeit some generic religion. Miller touches on “loss” when one of the Vuvalini says: “Back then, everyone had their fill. Back then, there was no need to snap [kill] anybody.” And during a desperate point in the escape, one of the wives is making weird gestures with her hands and is asked what she’s doing. She answers: “Praying.” She is then asked: “To who?” She answers: “Anyone that’s listening.”
But if we truly are “awaited” and are meant to “ride eternal, shiny and chrome,” then what does the logos expect of us in these waning pre-apocalyptic days?
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.