Opinion: What ‘Furiosa’ gets right about the climate crisis

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.

Ecological apocalypse is a common theme of many Hollywood films, which specialize in visions of future devastation — the decapitated Statue of Liberty in “Planet of the Apes” (1968), the emptied planet’s surface in “12 Monkeys” (1995) and even the invasion of flying killer fish in the “Sharknado” franchise. Yet despite the imaginative fascination of movie-makers and movie audiences, the public sense of urgency about global warming remains limited, and government action over the decades has been sporadic at best. If we’re all worried about ecological destruction, why aren’t we moving more quickly towards ecological solutions?

Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky
Noah Berlatsky - Noah Berlatsky

There’s no one answer to this complicated question. However, George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) and its new prequel, “Furiosa,” provide some possible explanations. (The distributor for “Furiosa” and CNN share a parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)

These films connect ecological devastation to patriarchy and hierarchy; the collapse of global ecosystems and the scarcity of resources are inseparable from violent (and gendered) exploitation. Dealing with climate catastrophe requires a fundamental challenge to the systems that have created the climate catastrophe in the first place: something that Hollywood, and people outside Hollywood, have trouble imagining or embracing.

Like all the Mad Max films going back to the 1979 original, “Fury Road” and “Furiosa” are set in post-apocalyptic wastelands following some indeterminate eco-catastrophe. Food is scarce, water scarcer and civilization has disintegrated into warring gangs.

“Fury Road” and “Furiosa” focus on a citadel ruled by tyrannical, bloodthirsty and toothy-masked Immortan Joe (played in “Fury Road” by Hugh Keays-Byrne and in “Furiosa” by Lachy Hulme). Joe controls a water supply pumped from an underground aquifer; women serve as his wives and bear him children, or else are hitched to giant milking machines. Male children become war boys — fanatic fighters convinced that they’ll go to heaven if they die in battle for Joe.

Joe keeps most of the population subjugated: They’re thin, dirty and wait desperately for a sip of life-giving water. The control of natural resources gives Joe control of women’s reproduction and of male violence — or vice versa.

Charlize Theron stars as Imperator Furiosa in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' action adventure "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Charlize Theron stars as Imperator Furiosa in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' action adventure "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Either way, or both ways, Joe’s rule depends on mechanics of exploitation and hierarchy. Patriarchal power is built on treating both people and the environment as things — to be expropriated for the greater glory of Joe. A better world requires not just a better use of resources, but a different relationship to resources and each other.

In both Furiosa films, such a society emerges in the Green Place, the home from which Furiosa (played in “Fury Road” by Charlize Theron and in “Furiosa” by Anya Taylor-Joy) was stolen as a child. We only get glimpses of the Green Place, but it appears to be ruled collaboratively by women, and resources are shared, conserved and allocated to all.

Again, many Hollywood films address climate crisis. Yet calls for sweeping political change often sit uneasily within genre conventions and corporate moviemaking. There are some exceptions — such as the acerbic “Don’t Look Up” (2022). But in general, creators have largely tried to avoid the insight that “Furiosa” makes plain — to solve the climate crisis, we need to resolve a crisis of political exploitation and inequity.

One common narrative choice is to make the most fervent environmentalists the bad guys. Supervillains such as Thanos of “Infinity War” (2018) and Orm of “Aquaman” (2018) understand that the political status quo has to change in order to protect the earth’s resources and oceans. But their preferred response is genocide and/or dictatorship. We’re asked to view the superheroes (be they Avengers or Aquaman) the way the war boys view Immortan Joe; they’re the embodiment of good and of the law, and to overthrow them is to sow chaos and evil. In both films, heroes focus on defeating the threat to the status quo, and the climate dangers raised by the villains get largely shunted aside and forgotten in the roar of the plot and the blare of CGI.

"The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) follows a global warming apocalypse. - 20th Century Studios
"The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) follows a global warming apocalypse. - 20th Century Studios

Another typical Hollywood approach is to suggest that we can trust the powerful to enact change with enough time and faith. That’s the message in “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), an early global warming apocalypse story, where a Dick Cheney-esque figure at first pooh-poohs the dangers of global apocalypse. But as things get worse, the Cheney analog understands the error of his ways, and becomes the kinder, more environmentally conscious Immortan Joe we need.

In line with “The Day After Tomorrow,” a lot of disaster movies focus on standard heroes committed to conventional verities like courage and family, as they battle the apocalypse and defeat it through predictable heroics. In such narratives, there’s limited or nonexistent discussion of the possibility for necessary political or social change. In “A Quiet Place” (2018) or “Underwater” (2020) or “Moonfall” (2022), climate or environmental apocalypse merges with monster movie. The goal in such films is generally to defeat outside invaders rather than to rethink how society works.

“Furiosa” too, arguably, shies away from some of the insights about power, climate and apocalypse that define “Fury Road.” Immortan Joe is not really the villain of the piece; that role goes to another warlord, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth).

It’s Dementus who kidnaps Furiosa as a child, and its Dementus who is the focus of her wrath and her revenge narrative. With Joe and Dementus at odds, Furiosa ends up on Joe’s side. Joe’s stable, responsible repression is at least more predictable than Dementus’ erratic, pointless brutality. If you’re going to be ruled by a violent patriarch, better to pick the one that delivers water on schedule, even if the rest of the world goes to hell.

In the latest film, Furiosa is plunged into such horror and trauma that she can’t focus on anything but her own survival and rage. Under constant assault, it’s difficult to imagine a better world. The worse world, in fact, can seem like the only available security. “Fury Road” and “Furiosa” can be seen together as Furiosa struggles to stop perceiving the Green Place as an ideal past, and to start thinking about how to change the current world so it becomes sustainable and just.

That’s a difficult fight, though. When the status quo feels like one rolling disaster, it’s easy to imagine various disasters getting worse. It’s harder to imagine how to change the world to make things better — especially when many people with money to do things like fund movies don’t want things to change too much. Immortan Joe likes the world the way it is, climate crisis and all. “Furiosa” both points towards a different road and shows us how hard that road is not just to travel, but to see.

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