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'Mad Max' feminism falls flat

When I first heard of the feminism controversy surrounding “Mad Max: Fury Road,” stemming in part from news that the author of “The Vagina Monologues” had consulted on the film, I figured it was just hype.

Moviegoers in America have accepted women as superheroes and action stars, so what’s the big deal?

Then I went and watched the movie.

It turns out there’s a little more to it. Or a lot more to it. Though “Fury Road” is 95 percent action movie and only about 5 percent story and dialogue, when it does take a break from the wanton killing and violence, it returns again and again to themes of men and women. Unfortunately, its ham-fisted attempts at pushing a feminist message seem a bit outdated, confused at best and just plain angry and spiteful at worst.

The movie, a reboot of the previous “Mad Max” films by the same director, presents a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where marauders in weaponized cars roam the desert sands, preying on the less fortunate. It’s a post-civilization world that recognizes when reduced to our base instincts, humans truly are “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Like many sci-fi films, “Fury Road” illustrates one key truth: Humans are messed up, prone at the most basic level to do evil things, and we stand in need of redemption or even salvation. This is actually a significant theme in the film.

Alas, like many other such movies made without a biblical worldview, “Fury Road” doesn’t know where hope of salvation can come from, a point made all the more clear by its empty, hopeless last line: “Where must we go? We who wander the wastelands in search of our better selves?”

As Christians, we have a hope made certain in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know this “wasteland” will be made new and so will we, washed clean, redeemed and renewed. No such hope to be found in “Fury Road.”

But back to this feminism angle.

The pivotal development that begins the story occurs when a harem of young women imprisoned by a cruel warlord assert, “We are no one’s property,” and flee captivity. Women in this warlord’s twisted society are treated only as “breeders” or are literally milked by machines. When the “breeders” go on the run, they use bolt-cutters to snap their chains and metal chastity belts and flee to a society of warrior “mothers” for help. They are aided by “Furiosa,” a strong, female lead played by actress Charlize Theron, who really overshadows and steals the show from the title character.

On the positive side of things, Furiosa and the warrior mothers are great characters. They portray a strength and a resilience while still holding on to their femininity and maternal instincts. Good for them.

On the negative side, why still push the narrative of breaking the chastity belt and women as “property”? It feels dated and bitter, like using coat hangers in the abortion debate. In the U.S., at least, we’ve moved past these charged symbols, and so has the narrative. The “feminism” in this story feels more like angry protests in the 1960s than a positive contribution to the dialogue in 2015.

Finally, it should be noted, too, that even though the film calls for a few attractive females and even a scene of nudity, the actresses are filmed tastefully and artfully, without their genitals and breasts flashed all over the screen. Hollywood has too often – and especially in the 1980s, when the first “Mad Max” films came out – treated women purely as sex objects, as titillating pieces of flesh and little else. It’s dehumanizing and the opposite of women’s liberation. “Fury Road” is rated R in this area, but it’s an honest-to-goodness step forward from films of similar genre.

On the other hand, it doesn’t quite complete that journey. There’s still way more skin than is needed for the story, overly tight clothing and the senseless casting of Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as one of the harem, who brings little to the role other than the advertising boost of having a Victoria’s Secret model in the cast. There’s still an element of selling the movie with women as sex objects that wouldn’t be needed if you had both good story and good action.

And therein is the biggest problem with “Fury Road.”

Even though the visuals are stunning and the action a non-stop roller-coaster ride that has fans raving, the story in this movie is a disaster: virtually non-existent for most of the film and incomplete and confusing when it is present. The title character is so overshadowed by Furiosa, he becomes an unnecessary distraction. All that action could be really compelling if the audience was made to care about the characters, but the director didn’t bother giving us anything to care about. And dialogue? Seriously, you could watch this entire film in Portuguese, and it wouldn’t make a difference.

If all you want – and I mean all you want – in a movie is action, “Fury Road” is a tour de force. If you require anything else, “Fury Road” is a tour to skip.

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