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”Mad Max” and the Quest for Redemption

June 5, 2015


(Warning: Spoiler alert!)

Much of our entertainment these days seeps of Christian imagery and symbolism—what can rightly be called a Catholic imagination—that Hollywood just can’t seem to avoid. Our culture has yet to shake a rooted Christian worldview that served as the foundation of modern Western civilization. Filmmakers who don’t intend to draw on Christianity’s wisdom and beauty, by exploring general human themes and struggles, still find themselves unintentionally pointing to Christ.

One of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster flicks, Mad Max: Fury Road, is loaded with this religious imagery and symbolism. In this case, I don’t believe the director and creator, George Miller, set out to draw parallels to Christ. Yet, with a depiction of a fallen world in search of redemption, it’s hard not to see, at least loosely, a story redolent of the Christian Redeemer.

This film marks Miller’s fourth installment of the cult classic trilogy originally starring Mel Gibson and it’s masterfully done. Aside from the out-of-this-world special effects, oddly endearing though grotesque characters and a gripping story that never lets up, it provides a level of depth that one would not expect from a sci-fi summer action flick. And what a lovely action flick it is.

I’ll be the first to say it isn’t for everyone. Miller’s post-apocalyptic world is frighteningly bizarre and eerily colored by rock, fire and blood. It’s not gratuitously gory, though it is still violent and the amount of explosions is surely not wanting. The film gives sight to a world submerged in darkness. But for the moviegoer that has a taste for something both subtly thoughtful and theatrically absurd, it’s very good.

The story takes place in a desert wasteland in Australia after the collapse of society due to a massive global war. Max (Tom Hardy) is taken captive at the start of the movie by a gang of cruel men belonging to an enslaved community led by a deified, ruthless leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max is marked as a “universal blood donor,” becoming a blood bag used for the sole purpose of nourishing sickly warriors, or War Boys, who protect and fight for Immortan Joe. Max escapes during a wildly spectacular chase scene (one of many throughout the film), and finds himself aiding the heroine, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), in a chase to reach safety and solace and escape Immortan Joe and his legion of war boys fully equipped with behemoth vehicles and pyrotechnically pleasing weaponry. Immortan Joe is obsessed with capturing Furiosa and her War Rig because her stolen cargo includes his five enslaved wives, one of whom is pregnant with his child and future heir.

The world has descended back into barbarism and in this way it’s a perfect representation of a fallen world without Christ or the Church. People are used as a means to an end, whether they’re bred as War Boys, left to starve and thirst as members of the proletariat or used as living blood donors with no inherent dignity or purpose outside of their utility. It’s a world clearly marked by a separation from God and His friendship.

In this God-forsaken world we see the rise of a Norse-inspired mythology. Immortan Joe is worshipped as the “redeemer” of the slaves of his “Citadel” kingdom. Those fighting for him worship him as a god with the power to carry them, literally, into Valhalla should they die an honorable, warrior’s death. In a world without Christ, like our pre-Christian world, we see the conjuring of mythologies that answer that all-too-real human desire for the transcendent. It’s this desire for the transcendent, the search for the immaterial, that G.K. Chesterton writes so eloquently about in The Everlasting Man when exploring the presence of ancient mythology:

“In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt, mixing a most hungry sincerity in the idea of seeking for a place with a most dark and deep and mysterious levity about all the places found.”

We see this desire and “seeking” for something beyond the confines of their war-ridden world explicitly when one of the characters begins praying. Another character asks her to whom she is praying, and she responds saying to someone “who is listening.” She doesn’t have an image of God—or anything—in mind, yet she feels the need to call out to an unseen entity for help, redemption. And so in this hellish fantasy world overrun with Man’s concupiscence for greed, wrath and vanity, we still see the presence of the human need to “worship” something. It’s not grounded in love and an understanding of the inestimable worth of human life, which leads to a violent occultism. However, it echoes the inherent need for us to find meaning and purpose outside of the mere material. It reveals our desire to live a life that matters outside of only matter—one that remains even after death.

Of course, we know Immortan Joe, despite the blind and ignorant allegiance of his minions, is only a man, though an evil and powerful one. Max, a flawed character who is haunted by the memory of those he was unable to save and driven to a subdued madness, begins to take form as the true redeemer. We are given a very “redeeming” image in the beginning of the film when we see Max tied helplessly to a spire protruding from the front of a vehicle—reminiscent of a crucifix—as his blood is siphoned to the physically weak driver named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). As a universal blood donor, Max’s blood has the potential to nourish and save.

As the film continues, we learn that Furiosa’s motivations for escaping with the five wives stem from a desire for “redemption.” In a fallen world without hope, she clings to hope as to fight off the despair that such a world inevitably causes. Eventually, as Max and Furiosa journey together, Max begins to see the opportunity to save Furiosa and the others as a chance to redeem himself for those he couldn’t save. Like Furiosa, he allows a flame of hope to take hold, inspiring him to risk his life in helping the group overtake the Citadel and restore a society built on peace, justice and, of course, hope.

The film again points to something integral to who we are—our human need for redemption and a desire to restore a world that somehow we know isn’t as it should be. Something within us tells us things aren’t quite right, and so we’re left searching, seeking that which will give rest to our weary souls and lighten our burdens. Miller’s film does what true art is tasked with accomplishing, as Pope John Paul II explains in the Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, “to give voice to that universal desire for redemption.”

Yet, we see that this redemption can only come about through sacrifice, and not the type of vain, occultish sacrifice that Immortan Joe inculcates in the minds of his soldiers. Near the end of the film, we see many of the characters’ willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others. In the case of the former War Boy, Nux, who is forced to join Max and his companions, we see a transformation from a willingness to sacrifice for his own glory and pride (to be seated in the banquet halls of Valhalla) into a willingness to sacrifice for others. Whereas his attempts to sacrifice himself for his glory are unsuccessful three times throughout the film, his ultimate sacrifice for his friends is both successful and fruitful.

Max too offers a sacrifice as one of the film’s human redeemers. When Furiosa is stabbed and losing blood, Max gives her his blood to save her life. He survives, but we see again the shedding of blood—literally—for the sake of another. And so, we are left with an image of salvation that comes only through sacrifice, not simply brute force as Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, or in this case Immortan Joe, would contend.

In our fallen world, one that is not too far from that of Max’s in certain places, there is a collective yearning for redemption. And, thank God, we’ve received that redemption already through Christ’s death on a cross—a death that paradoxically leads to life. It is Christ, not a man with great power, or even one with noble and heroic virtue, who can save our fallen world. It’s the God who became man, the one whose blood truly has the power to nourish and save all of humanity, who can, and did, redeem us. Mad Max: Fury Road gets pretty close with this one, which isn’t bad for a summer blockbuster flick.