There is an old saying about prequels: If the material in them had been genuinely important in the first place it would have been part of the original film. By their very nature, prequels are narratively superfluous. Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga certainly is — although it also proves quite conclusively that a film can be narratively superfluous, viscerally exciting, imaginatively designed, and sick as hell all at once.

For two and a half hours, the movie unfurls the tragic early years of the true hero of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road: Imperator Furiosa. Decades in the making, but spanning just a couple days of nearly nonstop action, Fury Road gave only the faintest wisps of a backstory to Furiosa, a warrior who frees the enslaved wives of post-apocalyptic despot Immortan Joe and tries to sneak them in her “War Rig” tanker truck to her childhood home in “The Green Place,” an unspoiled oasis hidden in the midst of Mad Max’s future wasteland.

Furiosa finally gives viewers their first glimpse of the edenic Green Place, and shows how Furiosa (played for the prequel’s first hour by 14-year-old Alyla Browne) was taken from it by the forces of a futuristic bully named Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). Over the course of five deliberate chapters, Furiosa witnesses countless horrors and endures brutal mistreatment as she matures into a young woman played by Anya Taylor-Joy. At that point, she becomes a pawn in a long-simmering feud between Dementus and Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, taking over the role from Fury Road’s Hugh Keays-Byrne, who passed away in 2020.

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The only chapter in Furiosa that really plays like a crucial piece of Furiosa’s origin is the first; the part that shows the nuts and bolts of her capture and the Green Place’s subsequent rescue efforts. For my money, this section best captures the all killer no filler flavor of Fury Road: Almost no dialogue, badass stunts, crystal-clear visual storytelling.

Director George Miller, making his fifth Mad Max saga, is so good at breaking action down into its component parts, and in showing how a chase unfolds step by step, like a chess match taking place on the back of a monster truck at 120 miles per hour. Miller follows Furiosa’s mother (Charlee Fraser) as she takes a horse and follows the bikers who have kidnapped her daughter, then observes the minutia of how an experienced survivor might chase someone across an endless desert. (You don’t just kill an enemy, for example, you immediately cannibalize their vehicle for parts and gas.)

One aspect that made Fury Road special, even within the Mad Max franchise, was Miller’s recognition that he didn’t need dialogue to make the ultimate action movie. Befitting its status as a prequel, Furiosa plays like a story conceived by Miller before he had that revelation. The new movie features moments of revelatory visual splendor — including an elaborate (if shorter) redux of Fury Road’s epic War Rig sieges — and also a few talkier stretches about the world of Mad Max and its various citadels, gas refineries, and bullet factories. These sequences are punctuated with action, but not always dominated by it the way Fury Road was. And in a surprising number of these scenes, Furiosa is either a passive bystander or not present at all.

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If you’re the sort of Mad Max fan who likes to ponder how its bizarre future actually operates, you could very well love these sequences. Personally, I find Mad Max reaches its artistic zenith in motion. When it slows down, I start to get caught up in the logistics of Immortan Joe’s empire, which is more than a little bizarre.

The script is by Fury Road co-writers Miller and Nico Lathouris makes some attempts to square this universe’s quirks, and to use them as a metaphor for the class struggles and political infighting in our own society. This, too, may speak to something innate in prequels: They exist to clarify earlier works. And some fictional universes — like, say, the very peculiar reality of Mad Max — function better with a little mystery. When Furiosa got into explainer mode, it came close to losing me.

What always brought me back was Miller’s bravura direction, which has not lost a step in the decade since Fury Road debuted. Now 79 years old, Miller stages action with the enthusiasm and intensity of a filmmaker a third of his age. There are wild car flips and explosions and horrible impacts to the human body that will make your jaw drop. (Miller’s restraint in his careful and judicious use of editing is, perhaps, more in line with a director a bit closer to his age.) I sometimes felt myself disengaged from Furiosa’s meandering story, but I was never less than gripped by the vehicular chaos swirling around it.

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Just as Furiosa was the true star of Mad Max: Fury Road, the actor with the most screentime in Furiosa isn’t the one playing the title character; it’s Chris Hemsworth as Dementus Despite hints at a tragic backstory of his own, and despite an outsized performance from Hemsworth — complete with a massive fake nose and a beard and mustache that remain surprisingly well-maintained despite the total lack of haircare products in the post-apocalyptic wasteland — Dementus never really develops into a three-dimensional menace worthy of opposing the titanic, tortured Furiosa (or the still-terrifying Immortan Joe, for that matter). Maybe Miller intends to reveal the true depths of his character in a Dementus prequel down the line.

Like The Road Warrior before it, Mad Max: Fury Road felt like more than a movie. These are pure myths, epic and elemental, like animated cave paintings scrawled by the survivors of some ruined future. Furiosa, on the other hand, feels like a movie. A very good movie — and a great prequel by the standards of that sort of thing — but a movie nonetheless. In another franchise, it would stand as a significant achievement. In this franchise, it almost qualifies as a disappointment.

Additional Thoughts:

-There are a couple moments in Furiosa that exist solely as fan service for people who want to see characters or moments they remember from Fury Road. This, too, may be another inescapable element of making a prequel. They always need to include a little pandering.

-To the person who brought the stinkiest shrimp scampi I have ever smelled in my entire life to the press screening of Furiosa: Thank you for helping me experience the true horror of living in The Wasteland first hand.

RATING: 7/10

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