If you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet, you’re really missing out. It’s more or less a complete feminist masterpiece, set in a strangely intriguing post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, with lots of awesome explosions. There are so many things I could say about the film, but today I’m going to stick with the way it plays with religion. Fury Road isn’t a movie that hits you over the head with a moral or a message (unless you count the wives shouting “We are not things!”), but like all good science fiction, it has a lot to say. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised at the complexity of the film’s use of religion. It shows us how the power of faith can be used both to inspire the best in humanity and to utterly destroy it.
Spoilers abound below.
I haven’t seen the other three Mad Max films, and you don’t need to going into Fury Road. In this world, fuel shortages have turned the world into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Mad Max is just trying to survive on his own when he’s captured by War Boys. The War Boys serve the powerful Immortan Joe, the Citadel’s cruel theocratic dictator. Joe sends Imperator Furiosa and her team with a “war machine” tanker on a fuel run to Gas Town. But Furiosa has other plans; she’s helping Joe’s five “wives” (sex slaves kept as breeding stock) escape to the “Green Place”, or Promised Land. Max teams up with Furiosa to shepherd the women to safety in what amounts to a glorious, two hour series of chase scenes.
Immortan Joe rules with an iron (chrome?) fist. Whether he’s created or inherited the War Boy religion is unclear, but he definitely uses and abuses it to his advantage. War Boy religion is based on the central belief that those who die in service to Joe will experience eternal life in Valhalla (“we live, we die, we live again!”). Valhalla is one “heaven” of Norse mythology, where half of the warriors who die in battle help the god Odin during Ragnarok. The War Boys put so much focus on their eternal life that there’s a near complete disregard for their actual physical existences. Who cares how crappy your life is now, it’s only a “half-life” anyway! Most of their religious symbolism comes in the form of automobiles. The War Boys huff silver paint right before they intend to sacrifice themselves, to symbolize becoming “shiny and chrome” in the afterlife. They pray for victory before the V8 engine totem/steering wheel caddy. They’re constantly interlacing four fingers of each hand in a “V” formation above their head, a religious gesture and symbol of the “V8” victory totem. The whole religion is completely focused on serving Immortan Joe above all else.
In the clip, Nux (one of the War Boys) is totally convinced that a passing glance in his general direction from Immortan Joe is enough of a sign to mean that he’ll be in Valhalla today… and that’s glorious news to him. Immortan Joe’s religion is totally destructive and self-serving. It’s based on nothing but his own ability to inspire false hope and blind allegiance, rendering all of the War Boys less and less human as they believe harder and harder. Later in the film, Joe tells Nux, “Put a bullet in [Furiosa’s] skull, scuttle the rig, return my treasures to me, and I myself will carry you to the gates of Valhalla… you will ride eternal, shiny and chrome!” It’s nothing more than a manipulation tactic. There’s no evidence in the movie that Valhalla is a real place or that the audience is supposed to believe that Valhalla is a real option in the afterlife of the movie’s fictional universe.
But there’s a second religion in Fury Road that isn’t as obvious: the religion of the Green Place, furiously hoped-for by Imperator Furiosa and the Wives. Before she was kidnapped as a child, Furiosa remembers a “green place” of peace and prosperity. The Wives beg Furiosa to take them to it, and she agrees. These women risk their lives and their freedom on the hope that this place still exists. It seems like this Green Place might be Folkvangr, Norse mythology’s counterpart to Valhalla. It’s ruled by the goddess Freyja, and open to half of those who die in battle, as well as all women and those who die a noble death. Not much is known about Folkvangr, but it’s most often described as a meadow or field. That sounds pretty similar to a “green place”.
With the help of Max, they’re able to outrun Immortan Joe’s army and arrive at Furiosa’s home. They discover that only a few old Mothers remain of Furiosa’s community, and that the Green Place Furiosa remembers no longer exists. The women decide to gather their supplies and head out into the endless salt wastes, with the hope of running into somewhere habitable. But Max has a better idea; instead of facing nearly certain death on the salt wastes, they’re better off trying to take Joe’s Citadel. After all, it’s the only real green place they know actually exists. The women agree, and they risk their lives (and many sacrifice them) in the attempt.
While both religions inspire their followers to risk their lives in pursuit of a higher cause, only one stands as a true religion. We see the fruits of belief in the lives of the believers. We don’t ever see the War Boys pray, but we see one of the Wives fervently pray “to whoever’s listening”. They give up their lives not to seek personal eternal glory, but so that others may have a change to live more fully now. While Immortan Joe hoards resources for himself, more than he could possible need or use, the Mothers freely share what they have with Furiosa and the Wives.
But the most important message Fury Road gives us about religion is that true religion is based on the real experience of the believers. It has a fundamental connection to reality that the mad ravings of a theocratic dictator inherently lack. Immortan Joe never promised anything but spiritual rewards, because he’s a false god. Anything the War Boys did in the name of their hope for Valhalla was in light of their blind obedience to Joe. Conversely, the Wives placed their hopes in Furiosa’s stories of the Green Place, and while the original Green Place turned out to be destroyed, their hopes were not misplaced. These women have the kind of productive faith and hope that is life-giving, not life-taking. The movie tells us that religious belief that is inherently selfish and lacks any connection to what we do in the here and now is inherently flawed, and a source of great evil. It didn’t matter that the original Green Place didn’t exist anymore. The religion of the Green Place had grown beyond its terrestrial confines and inspired its followers to make the world a better place for themselves, each other, and future generations. That is the kind of religious belief that has real value.