Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
-The First History Man
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
– T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
The landscape is riddled with absence rather than destruction, a bleak, rusty horizon choked with sand and dust and the faint presentiment that the desolation barely obscures a society that has been razed to the ground and buried beneath a distorted, eerie ecosystem. The cause of the barren plateau, while revealed in pieces during dialogue between characters, emerges more immediately from the environmental dystopia our own world is slowly sinking into—the exploitation of natural resources, climate change radically reshaping our national boundaries and provoking disasters on a prodigious scale, our air polluted by the very materials that seem to drive modern economic production. It is a once lush, diverse biosphere ravaged by recklessness and irresponsibility, a fallen world that at once represents the hubris of the human race and the fragility of civilization, our sense of self in a world warped by fire and blood. George Miller’s masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is notable not only for the politics of eco-feminism, the slow burn of condemnation for those who ruined the world, but also for the new cultural configurations that emerge from the society built by war lord and post-apocalyptic sovereign Immortan Joe. In a highly stratified, regulated society driven by the desperation to survive, the film manages the concept of waste in a number of economic, spiritual, and political ways, revealing the intricate world-building in order to establish a waste land community imbued with a sense of frugal conversation and purpose.
The environment of Mad Max: Fury Road is not the only space that suffers from the plight of pollution and environmental destruction—the bodies of the film’s inhabitants are all marred by the toxicity. Men’s bodies are far more visible than women during the first section of the movie, revealing a bodily topography of injuries, a deathly pallor, and the far more threatening marks of cancerous tumescence. The War Boys’ are marked by illness, painting their bodies in the image of death to mirror the more insidious disease growing inside them. Even their ruler and literal patriarch, Immortan Joe, is riddled with tumors. Yet he transforms his illness through paint and military decoration. The breathing mask affixed to his face throughout the movie is a form of armor, its mechanical design reminiscent of the vehicles that form the foundation of their maniacal religion—the cult of the V8. Like a car, therefore, even if parts of the body break down, there are always ways to salvage the parts and refurbish the machine. The film itself provides no explicit commentary on the spiritual ardor of the War Boys or the charismatic ideology that elevated Immortan Joe to his tyrannical status, but I would suggest that Immortan Joe’s power lies in the religious script he offers, which transforms a human life—otherwise wasted by illness and a lack of purpose—into one suffused with meaning. The War Boys may be fated to die from the moment of their birth, but their status as warriors provides purpose and a higher calling. Though they will only live “Half-Lives” due to the profusion of health complications left by the nuclear fallout, their lives will not be wasted. They can serve Immortan Joe and transcend the pall of death to ascend to Valhalla, where even their brief, painful lives will have been significant. The act of witnessing one’s ascension—which often comes about when a War Boy sacrifices himself for the war party or to defeat an enemy—carries this spiritual narrative. Rather than spend each day struggling for life, the pursuit for glory, honor and oil create a pathway for existential redemption amongst men and boys, in service to the only god who has given them a sense of hope amidst the destruction.
The women in Immortan Joe’s society are given far less agency, yet their bodies are similarly constructed to either avoid waste or demonstrate the symbolism of waste. The older breeding mothers are farmed for their milk, affixed to pumps that funnel away the liquid like so many dairy cows. These women are far more corpulent than many of the War Boys who are quite literally wasting away, yet these women are also treated as things, objects used and exploited solely by Immortan Joe. Their size is therefore a demonstration of their value, an outward expression of Joe’s prerogative to distribute resources however he sees fit. The older wives’ size is therefore a symbolic extravagance, not unlike Joe’s fountain of water released before Imperator Furiosa’s War Rig departs. Water, a scarce resource, gushes from three pipes upon the scrambling, thirsty masses. Yet gallons of water were doubtless lost in the deluge. Some have argued that the act was wasteful, but I would posit that the water was as much symbolic as it was material. Immortan Joe not only has the power to allocate water but he also has the privilege to waste that water, reifying his dominance and the populace’s dependence on his good graces. Like the ineffable, sometimes cruel God of early American Puritans, his will is ultimately unknowable, yet his parishioners must trust in the rationality of his higher plans.
Above all, women are valued for their fertility. Immortan Joe’s five wives—Splendid, Toast the Knowing, Capable, Dag and Cheedo the Fragile—were selected for their physical perfection in order to breed a new generation of healthy War Boys. Their reproductive capacity, however, is sealed to all but Immortan Joe, so that their youth and vitality isn’t wasted on less worthy sexual partners. Initially an offspring of The Many Mothers, Furiosa is infertile and therefore incapable of fulfilling the reproductive destiny expected of her sex. Her incorporation into Imperator Joe’s military forces is largely a testament, therefore, to his philosophy on waste. Furiosa became a productive member of society due to her fighting skills rather than her maternal capacity. She does not daub herself in white pain, as the War Boys do, but her appearance adopts a masculine quality in an attempt to adapt to the male setting of her position. Despite Immortan Joe’s strict discipline of the wives, there are instances in which bodies are used to subvert his ideologies. Miss Giddy, the wives’ teacher and protector, has covered her skin in tattoos to document the history of “The Fall.” Each inch of her body is a testimony to the creation of the Wasteland and a demand to remember such history and demonstrate a dimension of functionality to her memory of the past. In this instance, Miss Giddy’s body still serves a certain utility, her skin a discursive map that informs the lessons she teaches the wives.
Even Max, an outsider to Immortan Joe’s domain, falls victim to the same bodily regulation. For the first section of the movie, he is nothing but a “blood bag,” a vessel of fuel for the ailing War Boys and a donor if any of Immortan Joe’s warriors need spare parts. Max is literally branded as material for consumption within The Wasteland. Even once he has been unmuzzled and teams up with Furiosa, he refuses to provide his name. What use is a name when humans and bodies are disposable, when survival is hardly feasible and individuality is interchangeable? The possession of his name serves no function—a waste of breath and memory on a concept that isn’t ultimately useful. Tom Hardy’s entire performance is an exercise in concision—he rarely speaks, but rather communicates through a series of grunts and moans. Language has become a luxury in a world where voices are choked with dust, without the lubricant of water or polite conversation. Max is laconic to a fault, having learned the hard way that you must carefully invest in words. When any breath may be your last, it isn’t difficult to imagine the thrift of communication that follows, particularly when the very air can be conceived as a deadly enemy. The value of silence amidst a cacophony of sound, the War Party out to play.
The Vuvalini, the Many Mothers from the Green Place, approach the problem of waste through the hope of sustainability. The Keeper of the Seeds carries a bag of the same on her travels, carefully planting where she can in an effort to promote fertility. Whereas the war industry of Immortan Joe, the Bullet Farmer, and other inhabitants of Fury Road further contribute to environmental degradation through the exhaust fumes of their cars and pollution of Gas Town, the Many Mothers seek to cultivate a green place where fertility and healthy cohabitation with nature is still possible. They enact a different ideology of regeneration than that of the cult of V8 and the promise of Valhalla for the War Boys. While some have argued that the Mothers’ participation in violence and death during the climax of the movie undermines its feminist politics, their role as warriors is also explicable through this framework of scarcity. They have trained to be able to defend themselves and restore a sense of balance in the world. By raising Furiosa and envisioning a world of growth and renewal, they planted and cultivated the seeds for rebellion. Their fighting capabilities were necessary to achieve such a rebellion and ensure that the wives’ escape had not been for nothing.
Like any great work of fiction and world building, Mad Max: Fury Road causes us to reflect on the environmental factors that contribute to our culture, illustrating the adaptive and imaginative capacities of humankind under hostile circumstances. The entire narrative of the movie pivots around the promise of a Green Place, so how much are we willing to fight to ensure that such a wasteland never comes to pass? If the world is to survive, humanity with it, which comes first—the regeneration of the environment or the redemption of man?
Miller, George (2015). Mad Max: Fury Road. Village Roadshow Pictures.