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Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (George Miller, 2024)

“Has there ever been a sequel better than, or even equal to, the original?” is a Twitter prompt so predictably perennial that it has accumulated a canonical—though endlessly debated—set of positive examples: The Godfather Part II, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Before Sunset, and so on. Now, 43 years after George Miller made his own entry into that canon with The Road Warrior, the more successful follow-up to 1979’s scrappier Mad Max, he returns to the Australian Wasteland he reforged with flamethrower and anvil in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road to attempt a much rarer feat: making a great, or even comparable, prequel.

With Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (with Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character, originally embodied by Charlize Theron in 2015), Miller sets about the task nobly, giving us gluttonous quantities of what we thought we loved about Fury Road—all the spectacle and speed that only a fleet of corroded, crudely soldered death-metal machines belching sparks and malevolence can muster. So when it fails to ignite the pleasure cortex in the same starburst way, we are forced to wonder if that actually was what we loved about Fury Road. The earlier film had novelty on its side, to be sure; it’s shocking to recall now, but that was the very first time many of us had ever seen a double-necked guitar that could spit fire with every second kerrang. But it also had a kinetic narrative freedom, a sense of character possibility—even revelation—baked into a story that naysayers suggested at the time was its weakest aspect, but that now, by comparison, looks as intricate as Shakespeare. Furiosa boasts all of the stuff, but little of the story momentum, little of the surprise.

In the lush, much-fabled Eden that is the Green Place, li’l Furiosa (Alyla Browne) has strayed farther than she should have on a foraging expedition. Browne gives an excellent performance, but the most remarkable thing about her is her resemblance to Anya Taylor-Joy, from her wide-set alien eyes to her wickedly sharp Cupid’s bow. So when you discover that it isn’t just serendipity but the pioneering use of A.I. to face-map Taylor-Joy’s features onto Browne’s, it’s oddly deflating and in some way analogous to the whole prequel project, which has also been designed to mesh up perfectly with something that already exists, rather than to originate anything idiosyncratic or new. Anyway. The fruit that causes all the fall-from-grace problems here is not an apple, but a perfectly luscious peach, which has lured Furiosa to the edge of safe territory right at the unlucky moment that a band of Wasteland marauders has happened upon this secret oasis. Furiosa is caught trying to sabotage their motorbikes, and subsequently kidnapped.

The alarm is raised and Furiosa’s mom, Mary (a catwalk-beautiful but convincingly physical Charlee Fraser), gives chase. And what a chase! Anchored by the clear emotional stakes of Mary’s maternal mission (and less maternal side-mission to kill everyone who might be able to lead others back to the Green Place), this early sequence is everything we could ask for from a Mad Max action episode. Full of inventive little bits of business, like Mary upgrading her vehicle mid-pursuit or Furiosa chewing through a gas line, it’s pacy, fluid, and thunderously noisy, and nothing in the rest of the film really gets close for sheer, single-minded purpose.

Furiosa is brought to the tribe’s leader, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, having a rare old time in a fake nose and a harness accessorized with a ragged teddy bear). And when Mary’s rescue attempt goes awry, the young girl is forced to watch as Dementus tortures and crucifies her martyr-mother, then adds to the injury by adopting the kid as a kind of pet-captive-talisman. Furiosa swallows down the secret of the Green Place, silently nursing her desire for revenge, and her promise to her mom to get home at all costs, until she’s old enough to do something about it.

In the meantime, though, she finds herself in the Citadel, having been traded as a slave-wife and potential breeder to good ol’ Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), the Fury Road Big Bad who, even in his younger years, is a far more depraved opponent than Dementus could ever be. She evades this ugly fate by disguising herself as a boy and working her way up through the Citadel’s laboring ranks, in the course of which she morphs into Anya Taylor-Joy. Finally, the opportunity to escape arrives in the form of Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), on whose War Rig Furiosa stows away. Jack, perhaps the Wasteland’s one good man (apart from a certain Max Rockatansky, who can be glimpsed in a fleeting cameo next to his iconic V8 Interceptor), agrees to upskill her in the ways of Road War. An almost-romantic interlude ensues that provides Miller’s ceaseless, up-to-11, heavy-metal album with its soft-rock power-ballad B-side, and, in Jack’s eventual fate, provides Furiosa with even more vengeance-guzzoline for her vendetta against Dementus.

Burke’s casting is canny: women are not a monolith, but Furiosa is in part designed as a thinking-woman’s action movie, and there is not a sentient straight female of my acquaintance who wouldn’t agree that Burke, whether in the postapocalyptic Australian desert or the 1980s London flats of The Souvenir, is worth going to war for. However, the Praetorian Jack subplot is also emblematic of the chief issue with Furiosa, which is, essentially, prequelitis: it’s robbed of any suspense by what we already know from Fury Road. We know Jack’s not likely to make it, just as we know Furiosa must survive. And more crucially, we know that Furiosa will never find her way back to the Green Place—her overarching goal, remember?—because of that unforgettable image of Charlize Theron dropping to her knees on the shifting sands in despair at the discovery that there is no Green Place anymore. All the sympathy and kinship we felt for Theron’s Furiosa trickles down onto Taylor-Joy’s version as something more akin to pity, for this plucky wee slip of a girl running around knowing so much less about her destiny than we do.

The shadow of Fury Road looms so large over Furiosa that the latter film cannot escape it, any more than Taylor-Joy, good as she is, can ever seem like anything but the wispier, less battle-hardened version of the Furiosa with whose hard-won life experience and rangy, wired, but bone-tired rage we all fell in love. This Furiosa’s injuries are fresh, her traumas recent. We even witness (“WITNESS!”) how she loses her arm, leaving a raw gash where the limb gets ground right off. But a scar, or in this case a stump, to which can be attached a leather and metal prosthesis, is so much more interesting than a wound. A wound is an event. A scar is a story, and Theron’s Furiosa was covered in stories all the more compelling for never having been explicitly told. This is perhaps this chapter’s biggest disappointment: it reveals nothing about Furiosa’s younger self that was not already contained in the straining sinews and thousand-yard stare of Theron’s marvelous, heartbreaking incarnation.

From its pumping beginning to its unexpectedly moving no-fate-but-what-you-make finale, Fury Road was just a hell of a lot freer, more gleeful, more peculiar. Aside from Dementus’s baroque comeuppance and the addition of some nifty flying contraptions to the marauders’ entourage, the new film boasts little of the sheer dazzle of Fury Road’s mythmaking. The gonzo grotesqueries of human “blood bags” and breast-milk fetishes and kamikaze War Boy lore have no equivalents here, and nobody has or is as much fun as Nicholas Hoult had/was in the previous installment. “Do you have it in you to make it epic?” drawls Dementus at one juncture. The monotonously well-crafted Furiosa clearly does, but unlike the touching, characterful, towering, and transcendent Fury Road, it is only epic, nothing more.

Jessica Kiang is a freelance critic with regular bylines in Variety, Sight and Sound, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, and is the international programmer of the Belfast Film Festival.