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Mad Max: Fury Road – this generation may have found its Ellen Ripley

Characters like Charlize Theron’s Furiosa are so important, particularly in a pop culture landscape that has come to take stock gender roles for granted.

Darren Mooney

THERE ARE A lot of reasons to see Mad Max: Fury Road.

Most of them are purely aesthetic. The film is an incredibly energetic summer blockbuster, a live-action post-apocalyptic Wacky Races. Writer and director George Miller largely eschews CGI in favour for the sorts of practical effects that have become less and less common in recent years. It is a shot of nitro to the summer movie season, one of the most exciting (and eccentric) blockbusters in years.

However, there is another reason why you should see Fury Road.

There is an audience for female-led action films

Two years ago, I wrote an article decrying the lack of female action heroes in contemporary cinema. Where, I wondered, was our generation’s Ellen Ripley?

To be fair, it looks like things might be changing – slowly. The young adult market has demonstrated an audience for female-led action films like Divergent or The Hunger Games. Last year, Lucy proved that Scarlett Johannessen could anchor a blockbuster – even if it Marvel won’t be the ones to give it to her.

Marvel has finally announced plans for a female-lead blockbuster with Captain Marvel in 2018. By that point, the studio will have released 11 movies headlined by blonde white men named “Chris.”

Warner Brothers will release Wonder Woman in 2017. By then, Batman will already have 10 theatrical releases under his utility belt, not counting the classic serial; Superman will have seven.

But Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel may arrive several years too late. Fury Road offers this generation their Ellen Ripley in the form of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa.

Furiosa provides the film’s drive 

Furiosa is functionally the lead character of Fury Road. Even the title card at the start of the film credits Charlize Theron above Tom Hardy. It is Furiosa who provides the drive of the film, literally and figuratively. Her big rig is the vehicle used by the main characters for most of the film, and her decisions spur the plot.

In contrast, Hardy’s Max is largely swept up in the action, a useful sidekick and advisor.

The parallels with Ripley are striking, though never distracting. As with the original Alien film, there is a distinctly feminist undertone to Fury Road, with the film raising questions about women’s rights to bodily autonomy and the exercise of capitalist power.

The post-apocalyptic warlord Immonen Joe might be superficially more human than the monstrous creature at the heart of Alien. But only superficially.

“Who destroyed the world?” is a recurring question or accusation, always asked by female characters. The female characters repeatedly insist, “We are not things”. Furiosa finds herself fighting in a world where women are commoditised. Pointing to a pregnant woman, Immonen Joe identifies his “property.” Sexual agency is just as key a theme of Mad Max: Fury Road as it is to the Alien films.

Feminism and progressivism in pop culture

There are those who would rightly point out that the film is titled “Mad Max”, and that Furiosa remains the second-billed character. However, it is worth remembering the circumstances of Ellen Ripley’s introduction.

In the original Alien, Ripley was herself only the executive officer of the Nostromo. Tom Skerritt was the larger name. Ripley’s survival (not to mention the focus on her) was a surprise to many, including the writers who had originally written the character as male.

Provisional plans for a sequel suggest that Furiosa will only rise in prominence. Conceiving of this new Mad Max series as a trilogy, George Miller had speculated that the second film might be called “Furiosa” – although that may have changed.

The revelation that Furiosa is the lead character of Fury Road has predictably sparked outrage in certain sections of the internet. Over the past few years, pop culture has become fraught with debates about feminism and progressivism in pop culture.

“Gamergate” still rages over the role of feminist critique and commentary in the world of video games. The manipulation of this year’s Hugo Awards (science fiction’s premiere award) by the reactionary “Rabid Puppies” so as to exclude progressive voices suggests pop culture is caught in its own belated culture war.

This is to say nothing of the controversy prompted by the final scene of Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, the episode of Game of Thrones that aired on Sky Atlantic on Monday night and generated a host of online debate about the show’s attitudes to gender and sexual violence.

A pop culture landscape that takes stock gender roles for granted

In the midst of this larger debate, Fury Road has attracted similar reactionary criticism. “Nobody barks orders to Mad Max,” Aaron Clarey wrote in a piece that labelled the film “Feminist Road.”

(Primary school word-swapping aside, Clarey apparently missed the parts of Mad Max where Mad Max’s police supervisor barks orders at Mad Max, and the parts of Beyond Thunderdome where Tina Turner barks orders at Mad Max… Then again, Clarey also bemoaned “a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of [his] very eyes”, suggesting that his grasp on geography is perhaps as limited as his grasp on cult Australian cinema.)

This sort of reaction demonstrates why characters like Furiosa are so important, particularly in a pop culture landscape that has come to take stock gender roles for granted.

Furiosa is a single character in a single film; yet she seems to pose as real a threat to these views about what action films should be as she does to Immorten Joe.

You can often tell a lot about a film by the kinds of people who hate it. Such reactionary condemnation feels like ringing endorsement.

This generation may have found their Ellen Ripley. Oh what a day, what a lovely day!

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, them0vieblog.com . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for TheJournal.ie click here.

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