Rocky canyons, unforgiving salt flats, sandstone cliffs, gloopy gray quagmires—everywhere you go in Mad Max: Fury Road, you're faced with a world that isn't all that interested in helping you get along. The only thing harsher than its bleak-but-beautiful landscape is the apocalyptic time period in which the movie takes place. It's a mad, mad world, and Max is just (barely) living in it.
A Wasteland for the Wretched
Long after the water wars, and the oil wars, and the nuclear wars, the characters of Mad Max: Fury Road find themselves stranded in the wasteland to waste all wastelands. While we don't have a lot of details on how the world got quite so terrible, we can assume that civilization has experienced some sort of post-industrial eco-collapse. As the Vuvalini point out, nothing grows anywhere anymore—the earth's "too sour."
That's all very tragic and we feel bad for mother earth and all that, but what's really terrible about this unforgiving desert wasteland is what it does to our characters. With few resources to go around and radiation sickness spreading throughout the land, people have been reduced to their basic instincts to survive: Max devours lizards, Furiosa does the bidding of a bad man because she has so few options, and Immortan Joe exploits everyone around him to hang onto what small amount of power the apocalypse will allow.
See, when the world goes south, our souls go south, too. Just as The Walking Dead. As with any characters in a post-apocalyptic story, the wanderers in the wasteland must wrestle with how to hang onto your humanity in a world that asks you to fork it over in exchange for survival.
Every big fish has his pond. For Immortan Joe, that's the Citadel. Arranged as a sort of vertical society—in which your lot in life improves the farther up you go—the Citadel is a fortress and an oasis all at once. Made up of three rocky towers, it sits over an aquifer, which pumps up clean, drinkable water from the earth. Seeing as how all these folks are stuck in a desert, water must be a pretty hot (or cool, as it were) commodity to Immortan Joe, who treats that water as if it were gold—his own gold, to be exact.
From high atop the fortress, he doles out water on his whim, giving the Wretched below him just enough to tantalize them, but not enough to truly sustain them. The tops of the Citadel are lush and green, and as Immortan Joe makes his way through the halls, we can see that he controls farms as well. Basically, all the good things we love in life—yummy food and tasty water—are under Immortan Joe's not-so green thumb.
Think of the Citadel as a visual representation of Immortan Joe's cruelly stratified society. Up top, he's living the life, holding his princesses captive and drinking all the mother's milk he can get his hands on. Moo. As you work your way down the towers, you've got folks like the War Boys and the workers, who aren't exactly on permanent vacation, but hey, at least they're taken care of. And way down there at the bottom are the Wretched, forced to beg for scraps—and slim pickings at that.
Out on the road, things aren't necessarily better—just a bit more equal. The road is where Furiosa, Imperator and War Rig driver can really show her stuff. It's where Max, resident loner and total weirdo feels most at home. And it's where anyone with a car and the wherewithal to drive it has a fighting chance to make it.
See, the road offers a chance of escape, but it's still pretty oppressive in many ways. That shows you just how desperate things are for the breeders—they're willing to trade the relative safety and comfort of the Citadel for the risk of the road, even with Furiosa's stern warning that "out here, everything hurts."
And by everything, she means everything. They've got to contend with war parties on their tale, scorching heat, dangerous landscapes, and muddy quagmires, and of course the dust storm to end all dust storms. Seriously, it's a dust storm with its own tornadoes. How'd they manage to get through that one? Well, let's just say we want Furiosa on our Zombie Apocalypse team. She's invincible.
Throughout the movie the road is depicted as dangerous in its openness. When we're shown long shots, we see magnificent vistas and the dangers they hold. Consider, for example, the shot of the War Rig, hauling butt back to the Citadel, with—miles in the distance—Immortan Joe's wild war party descending a hillside in hot pursuit. Sure, the wide-open spaces convey a sense of freedom, but they also remind the viewer that danger can come from any and all directions.
Inside the War Rig
Of course, when you're out on the open road, you are inevitably crammed into your vehicle. In this case, we've got the War Rig, which has room enough for Max, Furiosa, Nux, and the five wives—but just barely.
The cab of the War Rig is oppressively small, but it also acts as a second home for these characters. They spend most of the movie crawling around inside and outside the rig, fixing her on the go and making use of her many defensible spaces. That's the thing about the War Rig—it may look dangerous, but with all its fortifications and weaponry, it's a place they're able to be safe, and those places are hard to come by.
Those cramped quarters also help them to work as a team. Check out how Max and Furiosa work together to take down their motorcycle-riding pursuers. They use all the windows and openings available to them, including the sunroof, the side windows, and of course the back window, which Max shoots out to take down the man who's about to shoot Furiosa. This scene cements the duo as a team, and it wouldn't be possible without the War Rig environment.
World Building After the Apocalypse
Fang it. Thunder Up. V-8. Confucamus. Mediocre. Witness me.
In genre fiction and film, we refer to "world building" as the details a creator imbues their story with to make a world that is not ours seem real and probable. Fury Road is rife with world building, and it's all in the details.
The best example? The language the War Boys use. Their slang demonstrates their commitment to Immortan Joe's cult. "By my deeds, I honor him," says Slit, and everything they say and do is indeed about maintaining Joe's power. And that slang also reinforces the "kama-crazy" car culture they participate in. Everything in their lives goes back to war, cars, and their tyrannical leader. If they thunder up enough, they can commit kama-crazy, shout "witness me!" and find themselves in possession of a one-way ticket to Valhalla, where they'll ride "shiny and chrome."
Ah, the afterlife. It's gotta be better than the wasteland, right?
"Dust is our friend."
Or so George Miller says. Since they shot the entire movie on location in Namibia, the cast and crew had to get used to the desert elements messing with their plans. But according to Miller, the dust of the desert was essential: and the fact that everything is gritty and grimy only adds to the authenticity of the visuals in the film.
But of course shooting in remote desert locations has its own challenges—and shooting a kinetic movie like Fury Road only makes things more difficult. As Andy Williams, a special effects supervisor puts it on the DVD extras, "The whole film is on the move, so your set is constantly moving, through a very dusty environment at fifty, sixty kilometers an hour."
Still, the unforgiving landscape does have its benefits. As one producer puts it,
The locations really did become a major part of how you determine what the sequence would be. We were never restricted. In Namibia, we had nothing but open spaces, so there was never a thought of trying to frame something out. So you could actually include the frame totally […] it was just a unique landscape.
In other words, the visuals in the film were as much determined by what the Namibian landscape provided them as they were the movie's script. The cast and crew allowed their environment to become an integral part of the movie's storytelling.