Our planet’s deserts are sweeping landscapes of variety and diversity, human and otherwise. But if you are looking for imagery of the desert as desolate and threatening, then the new Mad Max movie will do the trick – in spades. "Our world is fire and blood" declares one of the characters, and indeed it is, crammed with deranged creatures, bizarre weaponry, and outrageous vehicles (plus diaphanously dressed young women), all of them in virtually non-stop action, most of which, incredibly, is real as opposed to CGI.
My reason for seeing Mad Max – Fury Road was, of course to see the desert and the geology, but the pace and drama of the film made it seriously difficult to focus on the background scenery. That scenery was originally (this film has been a very long time in the making) supposed to be Australian, the locations planned around the outback mining town of Broken Hill. But the desert did not co-operate: rains came and the post-apocalyptic setting was festooned with wildflowers, creating an ambience deemed inappropriate. The whole production then switched to Namibia and the stunning arid landscapes inland from Swakopmund. Stunning locations and stunning film-making (the jury is, however, still out in terms of the environmental consequences).
I have to say that I enjoyed this Mad Max immensely – I was looking for entertainment rather than intellectual challenge and it most certainly delivered. Herewith, a few of the items I found particularly entertaining – no spoilers, just screen-grabs taken from the trailers on the movie’s website, plus a little commentary.
The scene of Max emerging from being violently buried in the sand is extraordinary – it begins in such a way that the viewer’s sense of scale is completely lost – what are we looking at? It’s only as Max emerges that we become aware.
The mother of all sand/dust-storms, from which, of course, the key characters emerged unscathed – along with their vehicles.
And those vehicles are, in many ways, the stars. Huge and malevolent, inventive and monstrous steam-punk cannibalizations of vaguely recognisable trucks and cars with decayed post-apocalyptic industrial kitchen equipment and weaponry – plus music. The “Doof Wagon” is perhaps the most eccentric, a gigantic hurtling stage crammed with amps and sub-woofers, the crazed blind Doof Warrior strapped to the front with bungee cords, his enormous guitar doubling as a flame-thrower.
At the back of the Doof Wagon are huge drums, whose crazed players beat out the rhythm of war and violence. Oh, and the makings of a brass band – in the final scene of fire and mayhem as the Doof Wagon comes to a violently disintegrating end, I was delighted, in the lower right of the screen to see a tuba tumbling through the air.
Our heroes’ means of transport is the War Rig, fully equipped with a cow-catcher. Although no cows remain on the planet, this comes in handy as a sand-plough to extinguish another raging fire.
No desert is complete without its salt-pans, quagmires after inundation, and, inevitably the War Rig becomes bogged down in the mud and the gloom. I was reminded of Isabelle Eberhardt’s description of the great salt lakes of Tunisia, the chotts:
treacherous expanses where a thin, apparently dry crust hides unfathomed pits of mud . . . And beneath the motionless crystal of the salty waters there are countless archipelagos of clays and multicoloured rocks, in perpendicular and stratified ledges . . . a labyrinth of deep canals, islets, pitfalls, of deposits of salt and saltpetre . . . a leprous region where all the earth’s secret chemistries are on display in the bright sun . . . An inchoate sadness hangs over this lonely region ‘from which God has withheld his blessing’, a vestige, perhaps, of some forgotten Dead Sea, with nothing to boast of but bitter salt, sterile clay, saltpetre and iodine.
It almost seemed as if Mad Max had employed Eberhardt as a script-writer.
As, once again, all seemed lost in the inchoate sadness and desperation, a lone tree miraculously appears in the mist. The poor tree allows the rig to be winched out of the mire, but at the cost of its own destruction.
It makes me wonder whether the true story of the lone Saharan Tree of Tenere, supposedly knocked down by a drunken truck-driver, could possibly be that Mad Max came by…
There is spectacular geology to be seen in the movie, but it does hurtle by at a bewildering rate – as does everything. But it is an incredible and highly-recommended super-charged experience.