Saturday, May 23, 2015

Movie Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Mad Max: Fury Road and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

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I had never seen any of the original Mad Max movies. I knew that they existed but for some reason, I was never interested in watching any of them. I would have also ignored Mad Max: Fury Road had it not been for the hubbub that was generated by a Men Rights' group that claimed that the movie was “a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick.”

So I went to watch Mad Max: Fury Road the other day and it was amazing. The cars looked like it might have come out of Henry Ford's most feverish nightmares, the music was in-your-face, the sets were over-the-top, the action scene was breathtaking and kept me on the edge of my seat, Tom Hardy's Max did not sound as ridiculous as his Bane's voice (it was still a little ridiculous), Charlize Theron can do no wrong, and there was actually a story in the middle of all that! I thought the cherry on top of the whole movie was an extra who played a flame-thrower electric guitar on top of a moving stereo-car.

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However, having a one-track mind, while watching the movie, I could not help but be drawn to the world's economic system.

The movie's antagonist, Immortan Joe (who was played by Hugh Keays-Byrne who apparently was in the original Mad Max movie) is a diseased old man and the tyrannical cult leader of a desert tribe.

Presumably as a result of the nuclear war that destroyed Earth's mighty civilizations, his back is covered in boils. He hides his back from being seen by everyone else using a plastic body armor, which actually has what looks like military ribbons painted onto the chest plate. He also hides his face throughout the whole movie behind a wicked looking mask. He also promises Valhalla for his soldiers who martyr themselves for him (amazing how despite the fact that almost everyone has very funny sounding names, Valhalla's name doesn't change at all).

Whereas Immortan Joe's subjects look like they're dying of thirst, he lives in his mountain-lair, which only a select few are allowed to enter – those select few being his sons and his harem of slave-wives. There is plenty of clean water that is pumped from underground and the water is used to grow fresh green vegetables. He occasionally releases the mountain's valve system and allows water to fall onto his subjects for a precious few seconds; after which he admonishes his subjects not to become addicted to water lest they become angry at its absence.

During the movie, it is revealed that he considers his slave-wives and the children they bear him to be his property. Some of his slave-wives whom he no longer uses to breed have another job – being milked. Yes, Immortan Joe literally milks his women dry.

Tyrant. Cultist. Slaver. Hypocrite. Liar. Immortan Joe does not possess a single redeeming quality.

That IS a wicked looking mask though.
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While I watched the movie, however, it struck me that Immortan Joe was running a rentier state, which is a state that accumulates revenue through the exporting of natural resources rather than through taxation. To be specific, there are several characteristics that have to be met in order for a society to be considered a rentier state.

  • Revenues are paid to the governments in the form of rent.
  • Revenues are directly accrued by the state.
  • Revenues must be accumulated via exports.
  • A significant portion of the state's wealth must come from this revenue.

Judging from the scenes in the movie, Immortan Joe did not tax his people. For all intents and purposes, there seemed nothing worth taxing. The same is true of rentier states. As rentier states accumulate their wealth from natural resources, rentier governments have very little incentive to institute extractive institutions such as a tax agency or other ancillary bureaucracies that gather information about their subjects. Of course, this is not to say that rentier states do not gather information about their subjects at all. After all, even rentier states have to carry out the census. However, for most rentier states, patronage works far more effectively than legal institutions.

That is why rentier states (such as Brunei, the country that I was born in) tend to be omnipresent in the lives of their citizens vis-à-vis religion.

Immortan Joe's rentier state was certainly an exaggerated and over-the-top version of the real thing. I don't know if the director, George Miller, actually set out to depict an exaggerated rentier state but regardless of his intent, he did a remarkable job doing so.

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Now let's jump to the end of the movie. At the end, Immortan Joe's dead body is brought back to his city, where he is quickly set upon and mutilated by his former subjects. Immortan Joe's only remaining son is a deformed midget who now fears for his life. The bulk of his army is either dead or stranded in hostile territory somewhere in the desert. More importantly, his wives, who are led by the battered but alive Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) are finally free from his iron grip.

Right before the movie ends, however, Immortan Joe's former slave-wives, the ones whom he milked, happily release the mountain's water valves and allow the long-suffering subjects to finally drink to their hearts' content.

From an action movie's point of view, this was a great ending. A tyrant is dead, people are free, and everyone lives happily-ever-after. Down with the hateful patriarchy! Long live the loving matriarchy!

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From an economist's point of view, however, there remain unanswered questions. There is no doubt that Immortan Joe was an evil man, that his regime was tyrannical, and that his belief in his right to own his women and children is a perversion of property rights. But what happens when that water, which Immortan Joe guarded so zealously, is just given to anyone who wants it?

After all, one would think that fresh drinking water is a very valuable, rare, and finite commodity in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world. If all of those pitiful people who understandably and rationally want to drink as much water as possible are allowed to do so, would that not eventually lead to a quick depletion of the water supply and thus be contrary to the best interests of the whole group? In other words, wouldn't this be the perfect example of the Tragedy of the Commons?

In order to ensure that everyone survives, would the new matriarchy establish a socialist utopia where everyone is given just the right amount of water that each person needs? If that happens, then one is immediately reminded of Friedrich Hayek's seminal book The Road to Serfdom where he warned that government control of economic decision-making through central planning inevitably results in tyranny. Will the matriarchy eventually become as evil as the patriarchy it deposed?

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Alternatively, would the new matriarchy establish a form of currency so that individuals can create a rudimentary market and allow market forces to decide how much water can be consumed and by whom?

We will never know. The movie simply ended far too soon.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road four-and-a-half out of five stars.


  1. Great review, and it tackles the movie from an angle that many people likely won't consider. I knew nothing about rentier states before reading your post, so I'm happy to report that I've now learned something new. Strangely enough, I felt some vague unease about the water question as well: the thought was only a fleeting one, but I did have to wonder just how much water was available to the denizens of The Citadel, and at what rate it could be pumped out of the ground. (Pumping is apparently done via slave labor, so that's another aspect of Citadel life that will have to change under the new, benevolent[?] matriarchy.)

    For what it's worth, my own review is now up.

  2. Whether or not the movie had a "pro-matriarchal" message:

    I think it didn't despite some surface appearances otherwise.

    (1) Matriarchy is not exactly portrayed glowingly. Recall that the Amazon-like women's tribe is actually no different from any of the other groups around in its violence and brutality, including the use of deception to lure and kill unsuspecting men.

    (2) Constant "patriarchal" overtones. The movie's central and inescapable message is that life is a struggle -- courage, honor, bravery, and mortal combat in defense of land and group resources is called for. This is a patriarchal message as we traditionally understand what patriarchy connotes.