Anatomy of a Scene: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ rides headlong into a sandstorm

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George Miller persevered with a fourth entry in the Mad Max franchise for 30 years and faced countless setbacks along the way that would have dissuaded a lesser filmmaker, but action junkies and awards bodies alike couldn’t have been happier that he refused to give up when Fury Road was unleashed.

Striking the exceedingly rare balance between being a high-octane popcorn flick and a genuine awards season contender, Miller’s jaw-dropping apocalyptic epic put the pedal to the metal from the very first minute, parachuting viewers right into the middle of the Wasteland before seizing them by the throat and refusing to let go until the final frame.

Although a huge amount of praise – and deservedly so – has been lavished on Miller’s reliance on tangible, practical effects and death-defying stunt work in an age where the majority of big-budget offerings would take the easy route and rely on visual effects, the most CGI-heavy set piece in the entirety of Fury Road remains one of its best and most vivid.

Drawing the first act to a grandstanding conclusion and illustrating that the surface had barely been scratched in terms of the sheer insanity that would follow, Nicholas Hoult’s Nux sets out in pursuit of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, with Tom Hardy’s title character strapped to the car of the War Boy he’d previously been serving as nothing more than a ‘blood bag’.

Max, being Max, though, manages to use the inclement weather and his sheer bravery to the fullest, manoeuvring himself free and finding himself staring death in the face in the midst of a roaring vehicular battle. Befitting Miller’s view of the franchise as mythological in nature, once Max extricates himself from being a hood ornament, the storm becomes downright biblical.

The arid dust bowl crackles with lightning, the sky turns blood red, and the armoured rigs may as well be made of cardboard the way they’re casually tossed around by the sheer elemental power of the Wasteland, with vehicles and their drivers alike being reduced to mangled combinations of flesh and steel.

As if the terrain wasn’t hostile enough before, the sandstorm has no issues propelling anyone and anything in its path into the air before sending it plummeting back to earth as nothing more than fiery wreckage and body parts. Nux’s dedication to Immortan Joe and desire to reach Valhalla has him willing to set himself ablaze to destroy Furiosa and achieve a glorious death, but Max has other ideas and robs him of his explosive demise.

A feast for the eyes and the senses, Miller’s camerawork, Hoult’s frenetic performance, ear-splitting sound design, and vivid use of colour combine to form an action scene of cataclysmic proportions that’s almost otherworldly in nature. It’s a sign of what was to come that Miller decided to use it as the grand finale of the first act, knowing there were still two more to come.

The VFX team at least had plenty of time to prepare, with supervisor Andrew Jackson telling IndieWire that the sandstorm “was the first sequence George Miller passed to us.” Because it was so “pivotal to the story,” they’d been informed by the director that he “needed it resolved as soon as possible.” Much of Fury Road feels like seat-of-the-pants filmmaking in the best possible way, but for the most labour-intensive scene in the film, even the maverick auteur needed his crew to be ahead of the curve.

The end result is nothing short of spectacular, a testament to an instant classic that fired on all cylinders from moment one. The sandstorm indicates that Miller threw everything into the mix to realise his grandiose vision on the largest possible scale, which he did with aplomb.

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