Remembering The Breakneck, Beautiful Genius that is 'Mad Max: Fury Road's' Pre-Title Scene
Six minutes whipped about like a rag doll inside a tornado filled with metal and fire.
Mad Max: Fury Road is one of my favourite films of all time. Start to finish it’s a ride like no other. But there’s something about that six minutes-long intro sequence specifically. I guess because it’s what shepherded us into the valley—if ‘shepherding’ means to boot down the steepest slope and then leap down after—of madness that would follow. Those six minutes at the start of Fury Road didn’t just draw a line in the sand, they torched a chasm into it, forever dividing the world into what it was before and after Fury Road happened.
George Miller, take a bow. Somebody go find Margaret Sixel and grab her and carry her aloft through the streets while chanting her name. And while you’re at it rename those streets after her.
Because two years ago, over the course of just six minutes, Sixel and Miller completely. wrecked. shit up!
I went to see Mad Max three times in the cinema. I still remember it, clear as day…
First there was the darkness. Then out of the black came the Warner Bros. logo. But not the way it usually does, all shiny and pristine.
No, this was a version of the WB insignia salvaged from a long-forgotten scrapyard. Dead, lifeless. But behind it and around it, dominating the senses was that sound: a fiercely revving engine. Brutal, violent—vital.
Then a fade into black again as the engine receded, still hovering on the edge of consciousness like a threat.
And from that black silence, a voice.
‘My name is Max. My world is fire and blood.’
Jesus H. Christ did Tom Hardy’s ominous quasi-Aussie accent gravel-tone get me pumped. It still does. Mel Gibson, horrible bilge-human that he is, nevertheless once upon a time seared himself into our minds as Max Rockatansky. It was an iconic performance for an iconic character, and going into Fury Road some trepidation could be forgivable. For me, all trepidation vanished pretty much instantly on hearing Hardy’s solemn intonation. Here was our Max. We would never need another one.
Alongside that voice, a swiftly efficient exposition dump by way of a chorus of sound effects and voices, bringing us up to speed and fast-forwarding into the blasted wasteland.
‘Why are you hurting these people?’
‘It’s the oil, stupid.’
‘We are killing for guzzoline.’
‘The world is actually running out of water.’
‘Now there’s the water wars.’
Then back to Hardy.
‘Once, I was a cop. A road warrior searching for a righteous cause.’
More gruff, melancholy epicness. Dammit do I get goosebumps just thinking about it now. Max does not speak very much in his movie—that’s not his role (and it’s not even, really, strictly speaking, his movie, though it does carry his name)—but these few lines at the start are perfect. And the best ones haven’t even happened yet.
More exposition, and then we’re given our first frame: a vision of a monochrome apocalypse:
Well, shit, ok.
THEN it’s time for the best lines of the intro. Maybe of the whole movie. I remember hearing them echo in my ears and literally swooning in my seat. I’m not even entirely sure why; there’s just something about Hardy’s rhythm, his cadence, and the emotional heft he imbues them with that just gets me.
‘As the world fell, each of us, in our own way, was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy…’
‘Me… Or everyone else.’
Maaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn it’s so fuckingggggg goooooddddddddddddd.
And Miller gives us so much time to let this all sink in, as the camera pans down, oh so slowly down, slowly shifting focus from Max to a slight, two-headed lizard, scrambling about on a rock in the foreground.
The little industrious mutant lizard then scuttles off the rock, and snakes its way to the background, nears Max’s foot, and BOOM!—it’s food. Tells us all we need to know. Max is a survivor. In this world, you take what you can, when you can. But as Max munches his double-headed lizard snack he whips his head round, and we see him in profile. Overgrown with hair and beard, his senses nevertheless remain sharp, and he is aware of something that we are not. Suddenly the stationary figure moves with rapid bird-like movements, and he’s off. Grabbing his meagre supplies, jumping into that beloved car of his, gunning the engine and spinning the wheels.
That’s where we first see Fury Road’s trademark jerky frame rate manipulation, and it is glorious. Not only does it convey the mad speed and whiplash survivalism of its world, it also puts us pretty damn effectively into Max’s mind—which is, incidentally, neatly summed up by a later line of his, another instantly iconic beauty:
‘I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers. Haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this wasteland. A man reduced to a single instinct: Survive.’
But just then and there, as he guns his motor and shoots off into the wasteland, the camera stands still, not following. A moment of stillness in which everything hangs on a needle. What’s going to happen? and then CRASH—
Now we know. They’re in pursuit. We don’t know who they are but we know when they chase, we run; when we run, they chase. Max’s sense of danger warned us this would happen; we’re primed for it; and yet when that violence hits and the motley collection of spikes and edges races past and after him we’re still shocked. Finally the camera cuts, and we’re in front of the pursuit. And the beautiful thing? It stays on the chase. Let’s us see it unfold as the barbarian horde closes in on the lone barbarian. As is true for the rest of the movie, there is no editing trickery here to disguise a lack of commitment to its stunts. Fury Road is ALL commitment. We notice those poles sticking out of some of the cars. Suddenly one is thrown. Boom!
Max’s car rolls like a motherfucker, destroying itself in the process. And the camera? ALL COMMITMENT! We see the whole goddamn thing really happen.
We cut close, down into the dirt with Max as we see him emerge out of the sand and dust, alive but doomed. A boot steps on him and a weapon threatens him. He is captured. Visions of his past and the ghosts of his failures assail him at the same time.
We find out the raiding party is taking him somewhere. How do we find out? With a slobberingly gorgeous shot is how:
From this point on, we’re with Max.
And it’s not pleasant to be with Max, as we’re introduced first-hand to the gonzo termite’s nest that Miller has conjured as Max is first tied down and shaved—
—then marked with crucial information (much of which hints at a far larger and more thoroughly worked out universe than we’re ever actually shown in the movie but which nevertheless informs every single frame and lends the film weight; seriously, buy the ‘Art Of Fury Road’ book, it’s incredible)—
—and finally about to be branded.
Such a cavalcade of batshit imagery is almost too much to bear. Turns out, the branding is too much for Max, and he berserker rages his way free from his captors. Temporarily at least, as he is still very much in their hive. All credit to Tom Hardy and his hyper-expressive face in this, as he conveys exactly the level of enraged panic that he needs to.
Running at breakneck speed down endless, dark corridors, his hands chained and his mouth gagged, Max’s attempted escape is claustrophobic and thrilling-as-fuck. Shafts of light bring color into this dim world. Max’s run of this gauntlet serves as our horrifying, speedy tour of this strange labyrinth, infested by strange, ghoulish pale white men. It’s disquieting, disorienting, and a little bit sickening. In the best way possible. That mad frame rate helps.
At one point, we’re in an area with a pool of water. Max tries to climb up onto some bars, but the visions and the hordes conspire to plunge him face-first into it. The blue of the pool works as a momentary relief from all the intense reds and blacks everywhere else—a strange sort serenity amidst the madness, even as we’re still technically in the middle of a life-or-death foot chase.
Look at these disgusting fucks and their disgusting swarming! Who kicked this rock over?! They’re everywhere now!
But Max’s worst enemy, as the rest of the movie will show, may not be those external agents who seek to do him harm, but the internal ghosts of harm already done, as visions continue to plague him during the chase.
But then, maybe, finally—some sort of light?
Max races towards it, camera hot on his heels. He burst throu—…HOLY SHIT NO!
Bad. No. Huge drop. Massive drop. Don’t even wanna post the image here. Get vertigo just thinking about it. After the tight corridors and low dirt ceilings the sudden open—way, way too open—air is disorienting as all hell. Max takes it all in, eventually letting his eyes drift upwards.
To a vision of a verdant paradise amidst the apocalypse.
In this moment again, we are Max: ‘What the fuuuuuuu—…’ But there’s no time! The pale hordes are still in pursuit. For Max Rockatansky, there is only ever one way to go. Forward.
If you saw the movie in the cinema and your anus didn’t clench up during this terrifying vertiginous nonsense then you’re a goddamn liar.
Finally after a valiant but ultimately fruitless effort, Max is caught, again.
The score swells menacingly as the grasping arms pull him back into the darkness, away from the sun. The screen goes black too, and that title card smashes:
That’s what it feels like to get fucked by a hurricane.
That could’ve been the whole fucking movie and it would’ve been better than 90% of the stuff released in this decade. As it happens, the very next shot made sure to double down on the magic…
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