'Furiosa' Crystalizes the Power—and Limits—of Cli-Fi

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The title card that opens 1979’s original Mad Max places the action in a very near future, looming just “a few years from now.” George Miller’s cult action-thriller captured the edginess of a world teetering on the brink. The film depicts a not-quite-postapocalyptic Australia, where gangs of high-octane galoots rove the roadways on motorbikes and souped-up muscle cars, attempting to outrun the last of the lead-footed policemen: Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatanksy. Revisiting the film is exceptionally rewarding—and not just because of the grit, oddball humor, and verve of Miller’s directing. It reflects something of the ambient tensions of a world of potentially perilous fuel shortages, which threatened the whole petrol-and-plastic framework of our modern world.

Miller recalls this era with no particular fondness. He remembers, in the mid-’70s, all of the gas stations in Melbourne shutting down. Save for one. The mood was sour. The tension was thick. “It only took 10 days,” Miller says, “in this very peaceful, benign city for the first gunshot to be fired. Someone got ahead of a long queue, that went on city blocks, to get fuel. If that could happen in just 10 days, what would happen in 100 days?”

Across five films, including the new Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, Miller’s franchise tracks this decline. In the original picture, the world is still fairly intact. There are diners and hospitals and happy families. People even dress more or less normally. It can feel a bit like our world: one which is collapsing but hasn’t yet totally buckled. By the time of 1982’s Mad Max 2 (released in the US as The Road Warrior), any vestiges of civilization have been blown away by an accelerated period of resource warring, nuclear conflict, and ecocide. Humanity survives in clans and roving bands, dressed in feathers and dusty leathers.

By 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, civilization relies on bartering for commerce, harvesting pig shit for methane, and conflict resolution by way of gladiatorial combat. In the smash hit 2015 long-gap sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road (which recast Rockatanksy, putting Tom Hardy in the lead), things were almost cartoonishly bad: Fertile women were ferried across vast wastelands in tanker trucks, access to fresh water was hoarded by tyrannical d...

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