When walking into a film like Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the problem with prequel stories cannot help but linger in the back of one’s mind: Can there be excitement in telling us a story we already know? Indiana Jones can’t die in Temple of Doom and Anakin Skywalker will grow up to become Darth Vader. It’s inevitable. Some prequels manage to navigate that hurdle by completely subverting our expectations (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), largely functioning as standalone experiences (X-Men: First Class), or by simply parodying their very concepts (Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp). No matter the solution, what we know remains a constant issue that needs to be accounted for. 

In recent years, more prequel stories have strangely embraced that issue. Many modern movie prequels get made because we know almost everything about those stories, those characters, and that world. That is especially true of recent origin stories like Cruella or Solo, which are often designed to make the audience feel just a bit smarter for understanding their many references to existing material rather than to offer the kind of experience that made us fall in love with their source material in the first place.  So it is entirely understandable if you’ve approached Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga with some hesitation. Many of us wanted to see director George Miller return to the Mad Max universe after the modern epic that was 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, but few predicted that return would take the form of a prequel about Fury Road’s breakout character, Imperator Furiosa. Did we really need to dive into the origins of a character whose past often felt like an intentionally ambiguous part of a minimalist narrative? At its weakest points, Miller’s latest film might even seem briefly unsure about the answer to that question.

Though Furiosa doesn’t exactly offer a “from birth” origin story for the character, it does follow Furiosa from childhood to right before we meet her in Fury Road. Over that decades-long narrative, we watch Furiosa (now played by wraithlike Anya Taylor-Joy) go from a relatively comfortable, yet clearly capable, young girl to one of the most respected and fearsome operatives in Immortan Joe’s Citadel. The transition between those pivotal stages of her life is largely driven by Furiosa’s encounter with a Wasteland warlord known as Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) who aims to upset the relative order of things through any means possible.

Furiosa will likely answer just about every major question you may, or may not, have had about Furiosa herself. The very nature of that journey removes the pleasant levels of ambiguity that Fury Road previously presented. There are also times when the obligations of that setup hinder the relentless pacing Fury Road benefited from. The need to hit certain plot points sometimes interrupts the flow of this movie or otherwise alerts us to exactly what will happen in what is otherwise supposed to be a chaotic and unpredictable ride. There are even a couple of specific points where Furiosa gets a bit too cute with the thickness of its protagonist’s prequel plot armor in ways that compromise the sorrow and pain of her journey.

Yet Miller ultimately justifies and elevates Furiosa‘s prequel status by capitalizing on that one thing that so often gets such movies made: familiarity. The director seems to be on the fence about a Fury Road sequel, and it’s difficult to imagine a studio greenlighting an original adventure with the scope, audacity, and budget of Furiosa if Mad Max isn’t the co-signer. In his way, Miller has managed to exploit that aspect of the modern studio system to get a movie made that may have otherwise never seen the light of day. 

Indeed, Furiosa‘s happy luridness sometimes feels like the numerous exploitation movies that followed in the original Mad Max’s footsteps. And I mean that as a compliment. What those movies lacked in craft, they made up for with escalating shock value. Furiosa likewise shocked me repeatedly with its grotesque imagery, general brutality, and dreamlike philosophical sequences. It’s not that we haven’t seen such things in other movies, but rather that it’s hard to remember the last time we saw such things in a movie that will likely be one of the year’s biggest blockbusters. 

Mind you, those who crave more of those glorious, seamless, and often practically shot action sequences from Fury Road will not be left wanting. Even there, though, we see Miller play with new ideas or put spins on old ones. Rather than try to replicate the “one big chase” feel that Fury Road often exhibited (there’s a lot more dialogue and character-building in this movie), Furiosa offers a greater variety of stunts and set-pieces. The highlight for many will likely be a mid-movie battle that is as epic as anything in Fury Road but as primitively violent as the best scenes from The Road Warrior. Additionally, I was even more fond of an early action scene that emphasized the necessary scrappiness of this world’s survivors.

However, even in a movie with multiple scenes that will leave you picking your jaw up the floor just long enough to mutter “How?” the show is somehow stolen by Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of Dr. Dementus. I never doubted Hemsworth’s ability to entertain, yet it feels like a revelation to watch him play a villain who enjoys being evil as Hemsworth himself clearly does. It reminded me of those great performances in bad movies where actors like Raul Julia or Jeremy Irons elevate otherwise irredeemable material through their sheer talent and energy. The difference is that Hemsworth brings that kind of performance in an otherwise largely incredible movie. 

Anya Taylor-Joy isn’t allowed to have quite as much fun, though that’s obviously due to the nature of her character and the story itself. The adult version of Furiosa that Taylor-Joy portrays doesn’t appear until around halfway through the movie, and Furiosa chooses to remain silent for much of her life. While Taylor-Joy doesn’t stray too far from Charlize Threron’s portrayal of Furiosa, she finds little moments to make some kind of tender gesture or tweak a line read in such a way that reminds you that this character is still figuring out how to go from a product of her world to a leader of its people. She also brings the raw physicality and piercing stares that bridge the gap between the two portrayals of Furiosa while verifying the sheer wattage of Taylor-Joy’s star power.

The rest of the cast is filled with excellent actors making the most out of memorable smaller characters, though the biggest stars of the show outside of Hemsworth and Taylor-Joy are found a bit deeper in the credits. The stunt team, the costume designers, and those sound engineers who found a way to make every revved engine shake your soul and reinvigorate your spirit. 

Watching Furiosa, I couldn’t help but be a little angry that we don’t get more prequels like this. No, not exactly like this. There aren’t many out there who could get a movie like this approved much less pull it off. Instead I wondered why we don’t see more sequels that use the familiarity of a world and property as an excuse to be a bit more daring. You’ve already got them in the door by virtue of the name on the marquee. Why give them exactly what they expect when you have the chance to play with a few new ideas, challenge expectations, and… well… you know, have fun with the thing?

You probably know roughly how Furiosa ends. Hell, the movie’s credits feature scenes from Fury Road in case there was any doubt. Sometimes though, we forget to distinguish the story from the storyteller. Yes, a completely new story filled with twists and turns that we effortlessly engage with because we don’t know where it will lead is a great thing. However, there is something truly special about those truly great storytellers who can make even old tales feel new by virtue of their delivery, enthusiasm, and understanding of their audience. Well, George Miller and his crew are such storytellers. They took the origin story (that most dreaded of franchise obligations) and did as Dementus demands in one of this movie’s many memorable moments: “Make it an epic.” 

The post Furiosa Review: George Miller Makes One of the Best Prequels Ever in New Mad Max appeared first on Den of Geek.

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