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'Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga' Review: A Lonely Avenger

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Critic's Pick

The fifth installment of George Miller's series delivers an origin story of Furiosa, the hard-bitten driver played here by Anya Taylor-Joy.

The character keeps her hair in the prequel.Credit...Warner Bros.

Furiosa: A Mad Max SagaNYT Critic's PickDirected by George MillerAction, Adventure, Sci-Fi, ThrillerR2h 28m

Dystopia has rarely looked as grim and felt as exhilarating as it has in George Miller's "Mad Max" cycle. For decades, Miller has been wowing viewers with hallucinatory images of a ravaged, violent world that looks enough like ours to generate shivers of recognition. Yet however familiar his alternative universe can seem — feel — his filmmaking creates such a strong contact high that it's always been easy to simply bliss out on the sheer spectacle of it all. Apocalypse? Cool!

The thing is, it has started to feel less cool just because in the years since the original "Mad Max" opened in 1979, the distance between Miller's scorched earth and ours has narrowed. Set "a few years from now," the first film tracks Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a highway patrol cop who has a semblance of a normal life with a wife and kid. That things are about to go to hell for Max is obvious in the opening shot of a sign for the Hall of Justice, an entry that evokes the gate at Auschwitz ("Work Sets You Free"). You may have flinched if you made that association, but whatever qualms you had were soon swept away by the ensuing chases and crashes, the gunning engines and mad laughter.

Miller's latest and fifth movie in the cycle, "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga," is primarily an origin story that recounts the life and brutal, dehumanizing times of the young Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy), the hard-bitten rig driver played by Charlize Theron in the last film, "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015). Miller's magnum opus, "Fury Road" is at once the apotheosis of his cinematic genius — it's one of the great movies of the last decade — and a departure narratively and tonally from the previous films. In "Fury," Max still serves as the nominal headliner (with Tom Hardy taking over for Gibson), but the movie's dramatic and emotional weight rests on Furiosa, her quest and her hopes.

As befits a creation story, "Furiosa" tracks Furiosa from childhood to young adulthood, a downward spiral that takes her from freedom to captivity and, in time, circumscribed sovereignty. It opens with the 10-year-old Furiosa (Alyla Browne) foraging in a forest close to a paradisiacal outpost called the Green Place of Many Mothers. Just as she's reaching for an amusingly, metaphorically ripe peach, her idyll is cut short by a gang of snaggletooth, hygiene-challenged bikers. They're soon rocketing across the desert with Furiosa tied up on one of their bikes, with her mother (Charlee Fraser) and another woman in pursuit on horseback, a chase that presages the fight for power and bodies which follows.

The chase grows exponentially tenser as Miller begins shifting between close-ups and expansive long shots, the raucous noise and energy of the kidnappers on their hell machines working contrapuntally against the desert's stillness. While the scene's arid landscape conjures up past "Mad Max" adventures, the buttes and the galloping horse evoke the classic westerns from which this series has drawn some of its mythopoetic force. Max has often seemed like a Hollywood gunslinger (or samurai) transplanted into Miller's feverish imagination with some notes from Joseph Campbell. The minute Furiosa starts gnawing on her captor's fuel line, though, Miller makes it clear that this wee captive is no damsel in distress.

Furiosa's odyssey takes a turn for the more ominous when she's delivered to the bikers' ruler, Warlord Dementus (a vamping Chris Hemsworth), a voluble show-boater who oversees a gaggle of largely male nomads. Wearing a billowing white cape, Dementus travels in a chariot drawn by motorcycles and keeps a scholar by his side. He's a ridiculous figure, and Miller and Hemsworth lean into the character's absurdity with a physical presentation that is as outlandish as Dementus's pomposity and (prosthetic) nose. It's hard not to wonder if Miller drew inspiration for the character from both Charlton Heston's heroic champion and the Arab sheikh in the 1959 epic "Ben-Hur," a very different desert saga.

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