The Gross Politics and Ugly Truths of The Division

Roughly five minutes into Tom Clancy’s The Division, you will begin shooting at (conveniently) armed enemies in the streets of Brooklyn. These enemies wear hoodies and baseball caps. They uniformly brandish semiautomatic handguns or submachine guns that they tend to hold sideways while firing at you. These enemies belong to a faction known in-game as the Rioters, and they are one of four types of enemies you will encounter throughout Manhattan once you begin the game proper.

The tagline to The Division is “Take New York Back” and after encountering the Rioters, one has to wonder exactly who we are taking New York back from. The simple answer would be “other Americans” but the more accurate answer would be “undesireables.”

To catch up the people who haven’t read up on the game, The Division is your bog-standard Tom Clancy fare. Right-wing nonsense from start to finish, the game takes place in Manhattan after the outbreak of a human-made bioweapon based on smallpox and distributed on paper currency during Black Friday. Dubbed the “Dollar Flu,” this disease apparently wipes out a great deal of New York’s population (within a matter of weeks given the Christmas decorations all over the place) and society itself collapses as a result. The Dollar Flu is spreading worldwide (this fact is not well-communicated to the player), and government agents are sent in to restore law and order as well as work on a vaccine for the disease.

Players are cast in the role of one of these agents, members of the titular Division. The Division is a secretive government organization which is made up of civilian operatives, sleeper agents who are activated in times of great crisis to “ensure the continuity of government.” Yes, that’s just as ominous as it sounds. You are activated in the beginning of the game, and spend the bulk of the story “taking New York back” from anyone standing in your way.

The Division does have a tenuous basis in reality. Directive 51, signed by President George Bush in 2007, is a mysterious executive order that rolls the three branches of American government into a single entity administered by the President in the event of a catastrophic disaster. Not much more is known, as the exact wording of the document is a secret. Directive 51’s existence is widespread public knowledge. While most Americans would probably find this document to be incredibly troubling, in the world of The Division, Directive 51 is depicted as being ultimately good.

Division agents are empowered with “ultimate authority” to do whatever needs to be done to maintain law and order. Mostly this translates to going where you want, killing anyone who is also armed, and taking whatever you please. The game depicts the Rioters as bad because they are looting, but the game is completely fine with the player character entering private residences and taking whatever you can find.

So who are the people opposing you in your mission? Who are you taking New York back from? The Rioters are the first enemies you encounter, and they are representative of racial minorities and the poor. From their manner of dress and speech to their weapons and typical environs, the Rioters are obvious caricatures of non-white and impoverished New Yorkers.

Next up are the Cleaners, former sanitation workers who have built their own hazmat suits and flamethrowers and are set about the self-appointed task of eradicating the disease, and they don’t care whether the infected are still alive. Led by the charismatic Joe Ferro, the game depicts them as unintelligent fanatics, made up of the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The Cleaners take some of the most unappreciated people in America and cast them as the villains.

Then we have the Rikers, who are former prisoners who have escaped and are now heavily-armed and violently opposed to going back to prison. Their leader is Larae Barrett, who is depicted as being as bloodthirsty as she is theatrical. The Rikers hit every American fear of convicts that there is. Every single Riker is a killer (supposedly because if you weren’t willing to kill, you were killed) and are only interested in killing cops/guards and causing as much mayhem as possible. Why the Rikers don’t try to dress in civilian clothes and disappear into the remaining population is never explained. If you have played the Arkham games, you have seen this brand of cartoonish villainy before.

Finally there is the Last Man Battalion, a private military company hired to protect the New York elite and then abandoned after the quarantine was put in place. They answer to Colonel Charles Bliss, who is basically Kurtz from Apocalypse Now with the serial number filed off. Of all the enemy factions, the LMB are possibly the only ones who are somewhat understandable. After all, real-life PMCs like Blackwater have not painted a favorable picture. Even then, the LMB are still average people stuck in a shitty situation, but are treated like fodder with no redeeming qualities.

The game does the best it can to give you reasons to hate the various factions. Rioters threaten a journalist with rape. A Cleaner burns an asthmatic childhood friend alive at the drop of a hat for merely coughing. Rikers burn a room full of people to death with a molotov for the fun of it. The LMB breaks into the homes of affluent New Yorkers and drags them off for their own protection. This is a concerted effort to make the player feel as though murdering these enemies is completely justified. This does not change the fact that the player is routinely gunning down American citizens in the street without due process, in clear violation of their Constitutional rights.

And sometimes the game calls your actions into question. Paul Rhodes, an engineer who works in your base of operations, openly mistrusts you and the Division as a whole. He questions whether your absolute authority jives with American ideals (it doesn’t), and acts as a strawman for the game’s right-wing political philosophy. In the end, Rhodes’ questions are dismissed by the over-the-top brutality of the world, as you continue to prove that the Division is a necessity, regardless of how ugly it may be. The normal soldiers of the game are shown to be inept and constantly in need of your help, helpfully displaying to the player that their actions are necessary and righteous.

The reason for this is again rooted in a deeply conservative outlook that is characteristic of all Tom Clancy dreck. One of the largest cities in the world collapses into anarchy within a matter of weeks, with roving gangs of murderers and thieves roaming the streets in the dead of winter. The Division wants you to believe that every single person is a bad day away from either becoming a cold-blooded killer for a can of food or turning into a helpless coward in need of an authoritarian. As you clear out enemies and complete missions, some places begin to return to a kind of normalcy. People can be found out talking in the streets, or out cleaning, moving things back into homes. But again, this occurs only after you have come through, restoring the law with only your gun and your wits. People in The Division are either monsters or meek, with no in-between.

This all contributes to the well-known conservative atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Buy guns, stock up on food, buy protection, and fear thy neighbor. All of this is championed by The Division, which proudly espouses the idea that our civilization is barely keeping us from killing each other at any moment. The game would have you believe that you can trust no one, and that your community will fall apart at the slightest prodding. Even as a cynic, I find this to be a bleak outlook.

And when you look at the kinds of enemies in The Division, you see exactly who the game is suggesting we “take New York back” from. Minorities, the poor, the working-class and the condemned are all seen as obstacles to be overcome. And if you’re wondering exactly who the prototypical Division agent is? The game’s promotional art prominently features a generic white male character front-and-center. To its credit, the game allows you to create a wide variety of characters, and the only other friendly Division agent you meet is an Asian woman.

The game seems to be on some level aware of itself. The main villain of the game is Aaron Keener, a rogue Division agent, and the Dollar Flu was developed by a man named Gordon Amherst (worry not, Clancy fans, Amherst did it all because he is an environmentalist who believes humanity is a threat to all life on Earth). It feels as though some members of the writing team were attempting to send a message in line with Clancy’s gross politics, while others were satirizing elements of the game’s right-wing nonsense.

This disconnect characterizes the overall story of The Division. The game is set in New York City, but shows us a version of reality filled with cartoonishly evil stereotypes and presents a narrative that is almost completely uncritical of the fascist protagonists. There are so many missed opportunities here, more interesting stories to be told. The inherent anti-capitalist message of the “Dollar Flu.” The ethics of stealing to survive and who is allowed to take what versus who is branded as a criminal. The overstepping of governmental powers in pursuit of maintaining order. Regular people knowingly doing the wrong things for the right reasons. All of these themes exist in The Division, but are unexplored in favor of a far safer, more boring narrative that serves as pro-authoritarian propaganda.

The Division is published by Ubisoft, a French company, and developed by Massive, a Swedish studio. I am not accusing the writers, developers, or publishers of consciously pushing an American right-wing political agenda through this game. Oftentimes, products like this are the result of straightforward intentions and a lack of introspection. What’s most troubling to me is that a foreign company can so easily create a game like The Division accidentally. Our anxieties and fears so saturate our cultural exports that The Division is nearly inevitable. The game shines a light on an ugly aspect of our current political landscape, however unintentionally. This is not a mark against the game. I think that through examination and critique we can use this to learn more about ourselves and hopefully improve.

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Life is Strange and the Hidden Cost of Disability

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Recently I decided to play through Life is Strange, which I had seen a lot of praise for over the past year. I booted up the first episode and played it in a single sitting on Sunday afternoon. I was immediately struck by the game’s beautiful visuals, thematic music and interesting characters. Life is Strange stars Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old student at a prestigious art academy in the town that she left behind five years ago. The story kicks off in short order as Max finds herself with the ability to rewind time, which she uses to prevent the death of another young woman.

Before long, it is revealed that the woman in question is Chloe Price, Max’s childhood friend that she has not seen since leaving five years ago. Together, they begin to explore Max’s powers, using them to unravel the mystery of Chloe’s missing friend Rachel all while their small Pacific Northwest town of Arcadia Bay is beset by supernatural phenomena. Max contends with high school problems, a vision of an apocalyptic storm, and the awkward reunion with her old friend.

After finishing Episode 1, I immediately purchased the remaining 4 Episodes on the strength of the first one alone. Few games have the ability to get their hooks into you like Life is Strange does.

HEAVY SPOILERS FOR LIFE IS STRANGE EPISODES 3-5 FROM THIS POINT ON 

At the end of Episode 3, Max discovers a new facet of her powers: she can transport herself back in time to any picture that she is in. Suddenly thrown back into her 13-year-old self, Max finds herself faced with a time-traveler’s golden opportunity. William Price, Chloe’s father, is about to leave home, and Max knows that he will be killed in a car accident. Using her powers, Max prevents William from taking his car and saves his life.

Yanked back into the present, Max races to Chloe’s home to check on her friend. There, she meets the still-alive William, who calls Chloe. Max is then confronted with the consequences of her powers.

Chloe

Yes, I know it is a cliche. The butterfly effect, chaos theory, explored in everything from A Sound of Thunder to Donnie Darko (which the game is quick to call attention to. Our protagonists are genre-savvy). For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Chloe may have her father, but as a direct consequence a spinal injury received in a car accident has rendered her almost completely paralyzed. A classic case of “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” for us time-travelers.

For most people this will provoke a visceral reaction. The player has grown used to Chloe as a blue-haired punk-rock rebel, virtually incapable of sitting still. There was a kinetic quality to her animation and motion-capture that some will surely find familiar. Seeing all of that gone, along with the personality and vigor of the Chloe the player has come to know, coupled with the knowledge that you, Max, are responsible for it all is like a punch to the gut.

But to me, it was something more than that. I may not be in a wheelchair (though we are acquainted), and I’m not paralyzed, but I am an amputee. I could relate to this version of Chloe in that sense. I took a day before playing Episode 4 to clear my head. I could handle this. I’d seen disabled characters in media before, and while it always hits close to home I’ve been able to deal with it.

But after starting Episode 4, I realized that Life is Strange wasn’t going to gloss over the most crushing thing about being a disabled kid. As I wandered through the Price home, I found a whole family, but one that was barely staying afloat. Bills were everywhere, numbering up into the thousands for basic, everyday supplies. Speaking with William Price I found him joking about it, but the reality still hung over his every word.

The Price family was united, but at what cost?

That’s the thing that is so often ignored. This is where DONTNOD really twists the knife for people who grew up disabled. The crushing debt that accumulates when you need specialized equipment, care, doctors, therapies and medicines. It is a tax on our existence that most people don’t even think about.

My parents didn’t have great insurance. My mom worked at a local bank and my dad was a trucker who worked for my grandfather. And as it turns out, losing a foot is very expensive. My parents never spoke to me about it, but I was a nosy kid. I saw the kinds of numbers that were involved for my surgeries, physical therapy and the cost of my prosthesis. As I got older, I became more aware of our position as lower-middle class rural people who just didn’t have a lot of money to begin with.

I lost my foot at the age of 9, and getting older meant I grew. A lot. This meant more prostheses, more often. More money. Watching William Price bent over a dining room table full of bills is something I can relate to. I remember seeing my mother in the same position, calculator and papers spread out as she did her best to make it work. And as I got older I got more aware of what was going on, of how much debt my disability was putting us in.

When I was in my middle teens I had a pretty firm grasp on things. Around the same time my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer and began to undergo chemotherapy. This only added to the bills, and in my mind, I felt like I was responsible for putting us in such a sorry position.

Most people probably know what it is like to feel low. That heaviness that sets into your bones and weighs down your every movement. You don’t want to do anything, but at the same time you itch because you want to do something, anything to just not feel this way anymore. I felt less than worthless. A worthless thing can be thrown away, but my family couldn’t just discard me. I was worse than nothing; I was a cinderblock tied around their necks, dragging them down.

Chloe felt this way as well. After spending a night with her, she confides in you that she knows that her condition is getting worse, and that she understands how much this is costing her parents. She then asks Max to tamper with her morphine dosage, to kill her quietly, so that she can end her life on her own terms. The decision of whether or not to help her is up to the player, and you can take all the time you want to decide.

My condition was never as bad as Chloe’s. Being an amputee will never kill me by itself. But I can understand her thought process here because I’ve had it myself. There were times when I contemplated suicide because I didn’t want to be a burden to my family anymore. I never attempted it, never even came close. Whether that was cowardice or good sense is, I think, still to be seen. I could never tell this to anyone else. I maintained a cheery disposition publicly for the most part, because I knew that if I told people how I really felt it would make me even more of a burden. I couldn’t add to the list of my family’s problems.

This alternate-universe jaunt ends quickly afterwards as you return to the branching-off point and set things back the way they used to be. Regardless of whether you help Chloe commit suicide or not, it doesn’t matter. But later on, in Episode 5, it is implied that these alternate universes to persist after your consciousness is snatched away, that there are multitudes of Maxes and Chloes out there. And in at least one alternate existence, Chloe carries on, living out the last bit of her life in pain as her family sinks further and further into debt.

That’s why Episode 4 of Life is Strange is an experience I will never forget. I identified with Chloe and her predicament. I saw my family’s struggles in hers, my parents’ worries and problems in hers. I felt the crushing weight of Chloe’s despair as I relived my own experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the game. I’m glad someone discussed the experience of disabled people, and showed the daily struggle that is our financial existence.

There are a great many emotional experiences in Life is Strange. I cried several times over the course of the 5 Episodes. I laughed at puns and cheered for characters that I liked. I experienced the melancholy that the game is so good at producing. But nothing will compare to that alternate universe, where Chloe and her family became the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a representation of mine in any video game. The experience was painful, but worth it.

Barrett – Embracing and Overcoming Disability

In January of 1997, Final Fantasy 7 was released for the Playstation. At the time, I didn’t own a Playstation, still stuck with an old Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo my uncle had bequeathed to me when he shipped off to join the Navy. I was a fan of Final Fantasy 6, but at the time I was only nine years old and didn’t keep up with gaming news, so I had no idea a new Final Fantasy had come out.

Memorial Day weekend, 1997 I was in an ATV accident and lost my left foot. I spent my whole summer in the hospital recovering, but I was back in action the first day of 4th grade. My parents had bought me a Playstation because I was a kid and I had begged them for it. I had 2 games by the end of 1997: Croc and Final Fantasy 7.

In the opening moments of Final Fantasy 7 you meet Barrett Wallace, the leader of eco-terrorist organization AVALANCHE. He’s a foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, high-strung opinionated man who cares very much for his daughter Marlene and the world at large. He and his merry band of terrorists fight against the Shinra Electric Power Company, which occupies that murky space between megacorporation and totalitarian regime.

Barrett1

But to me, Barrett was more than that. He was an amputee, just like me. Only he had a cool gun-arm, which acted as his primary weapon. It isn’t until later in the game, at Corel Prison, when you learn the story of how Shinra was responsible for the loss of Barrett’s hand.

Barrett was a man who had chosen to turn his disability into a literal weapon. Rather than get a prosthetic hand, Barrett opted for a gun, which has some rather obvious uses but lacks the utility of a true prosthetic hand. In effect, Barrett chose to remain disabled because his devotion to his cause was more important than the ability he would regain with a real prosthetic.

More than anything else about Barrett, this tells you all you need to know about him. Aside from martyrdom, you don’t really get more hardcore than turning a part of your body into a weapon that you can’t remove or put away.

I understood Barrett’s devotion. When I was getting my first prosthesis, they offered me a cover: a layer of foam and latex matched to my skin tone, to give the impression of a whole leg. I turned them down. I wanted the metal and guts of my prosthesis exposed. I knew there was no going back, and I wanted to show everyone that I was comfortable with who I was. Barrett chose to attach a gun to his arm, and I chose to show my disability to everyone and take pride in it. Both carry a certain social stigma, though I wouldn’t realize that until later.

I always kept Barrett in my party. He was my favorite character because I could relate to him. I saw a bit of myself in him, because I was also impossible to shut up and I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind or show my prosthesis to people.

As an adult, it does seem very irresponsible of Barrett to use a machine gun prosthesis while also caring for his daughter. He won’t win any father of the year awards, and not just for carrying Marlene around with a loaded gun grafted onto the end of his forearm. But this once again reinforces the strength of Barrett’s beliefs, both in AVALANCHE and in making a better future for his daughter.

Barrett2

And Barrett gets a better future for himself as well. In the film Advent Children, made a decade later, Barrett appears sporting a prosthesis that mimics the function of a normal hand. To me, this is how Barrett moved on. The world was saved, Shinra was gone, and his fight was over. He let go of that grudge and with it went the machine gun hand.

As for me, I still go without a cover on my prosthesis. And I still like Barrett because he doesn’t hide or apologize for what he is. He’s still one of my favorite characters in video games because I see so much of myself in him, and he was a comforting character to see portrayed onscreen. Barrett didn’t let his disability hold him back, he turned it to his advantage and even saved the world. What more could you ask for in a representation of yourself?

Furiosa: Disability, Representation and Empowerment

Let’s be honest. Who would have thought that Mad Max: Fury Road would be such an empowering movie to so many marginalized groups? The latest entry in the franchise, coming 30 years after Beyond Thunderdome (1985), is rife with representation and inclusion of people generally ignored by Hollywood movies. This is in addition to being a masterfully-made action film that still holds an unbelievable 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 89% on Metacritic. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that this film, helmed by director of the originals George Miller, would perform this well critically.

But what I want to talk about is Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, and her prosthetic left arm. From the very first trailer we see Furiosa and her prosthesis, and it looks very cool. In the vein of all things Mad Max it looks like it was cobbled together out of machine parts in a dusty workshop. It is all iron and wire mesh and tubes and doesn’t look comfortable at all.

furiosa

Nerd moment: We can clearly see Furiosa move her mechanical fingers at certain points, which leaves me to wonder at the exact inner workings of her prosthesis. I wouldn’t describe anything in the Mad Max films as “electronic”, but a crude myoelectric setup isn’t impossible, or it could be an electric-powered device. I don’t see the cables normally associated with a body-powered device, nor does Furiosa seem to use her right arm to operate it. I imagine that more than anything her prosthesis runs on movie magic, but that’s okay. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief!

Now, I was prepared for the inevitable “moment” in this film that I’ve seen too often in movies and TV shows where an amputee character shows up. The moment when an able-bodied character gawks at their prosthetic or comments on it in some passively negative way, doubting the amputee’s ability. I figured that in this movie it would be Max who would say or do something and Furiosa would have to prove herself to him.

I was completely wrong. Not only do Furiosa’s soldiers, the War Boys, never say a word about it, they never even glance at it. Her arm isn’t commented on, the camera doesn’t linger on it, they never treat it as something strange. Believe me when I say that this is highly unusual, that a movie may never comment on a person’s artificial limb, but there will always be a cut to it or the camera will pan over it for several seconds, as if to say “look at this, isn’t it weird?”

The “moment” never comes in Fury Road. And when Max and Furiosa meet, well… things don’t go quite as I had imagined.

furiosa2

This is possibly the most brilliant aspect of how the movie treats its disabled character. Furiosa seems as comfortable without her prosthesis as she does with it. In the scene where she meets Max, she almost kills him, and is only beaten because War Boy Nux helps Max subdue her. Without her prosthesis and without even a working gun, Furiosa takes on the the title character and fights him to a standstill. I was bouncing in my seat during this fight, as it’s something I never imagined I would see. At one point, Furiosa even smacks Max across the face with her stump, which I know from experience can be just as painful as a punch.

See, Furiosa’s comfort with herself mirrors my experience as an amputee. I feel just as home with or without my prosthetic leg, and seeing that onscreen felt fantastic. Furiosa removes her prosthesis several times during the movie, and each time it is shown to be normal, her confidence never wavers.

Furiosa’s prosthesis is never commented on by any character in any capacity. It is allowed to just be a part of her, and everyone seems to know that and accept it. I expected some backstory, some discussion of it, but that never happened. Please understand that the “tragic story of how the amputee lost their limb” always appears. Miller assumes that the audience will accept Furiosa’s prosthesis just as the other wasteland dwellers do, and it works. Charlize Theron plays an amputee perfectly by doing nothing differently from an able-bodied person.

Furiosa never has her prosthesis taken from her. She never has it break at a critical moment or hamper her in any way. While there is drama to be found there, it happens so often in other movies that it was refreshing to not see it happen here. Furiosa is just as capable as Max or anyone else in the film, and her amputation never gets in the way of that.

Her capability comes from being a badass, by the way. Her artificial arm doesn’t grant her superpowers like the Winter Soldier, it is just a replacement for her limb. A common trope in movies featuring prosthetic limbs is that they empower the amputee beyond a normal person in some way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t count it as amputee representation, because having a prosthesis doesn’t grant me any special powers. The cyborg badasses of fiction are a method by which able-bodied people map their desire to be even more able onto the bodies of amputees, just another power fantasy.

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The one time Furiosa ever uses her arm as an out-and-out weapon is perhaps one of the coolest moments in the movie, and certainly one of my favorites. This is another thing that fiction does all too often: showing an amputee (or worse an able-bodied person “borrowing” a prosthetic limb) using their prosthesis as a weapon. Again, nothing wrong with that. It is a valid tactic (believe me), but too often it’s a one-note moment, or a gimmick that defines the character. Fury Road earns that moment, and in doing so made me forget the trope for a moment.

The treatment of Furiosa and her prosthesis in this movie blew me away. By the end, I was so impressed that it brought a tear to my eyes. This movie sets a high bar for future films to pass when it comes to representation of the disabled. Not just representation: empowerment. I felt empowered by watching Furiosa in this movie. It is incredibly rare for me to see an amputee character in a movie who makes me feel good about myself.

I hope that in the future, movies take note of Mad Max: Fury Road when including disabled characters. More than anything else, this movie takes the image of a disabled person, an amputee, and makes it normal. Furiosa isn’t treated like a freak or a fragile prop because of her amputation. She is arguably the main character, the driving force of the movie, a badass fighter who also displays compassion, empathy, and rage. Furiosa is a complex character, one that I had no problems rooting for. In a world of gas-guzzling death-trucks, white-painted barbarian mutants and grizzled old women warriors on motorcycles, Furiosa and her prosthesis are just… normal.

Mad Max: Fury Road

I went into Mad Max: Fury Road with just the trailers and my vague memories of the old movies in mind. I hadn’t read any reviews or looked up a plot synopsis, so I had no idea what I was in for. It doesn’t really hit you when you watch it, but Fury Road is a 2-hour chase scene with a barely a break in the action. The characters aren’t in constant motion for maybe six minutes of screen time, and the plot (what little there is of it) shares that same unrelenting pace. That’s not a dig at the movie, the relatively small amount of exposition and dialogue is a strength of the film.

Max Rockatansky, played by Tom Hardy, is a man of few words, as he should be. I’m pretty sure Max has more grunts than actual lines in the movie, but Hardy sells them perfectly. Max has been around too long, seen too many people die on his watch and its gotten to him. At the start of the film he’s been broken by the wasteland.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the real driving force behind the film. She is the most well-developed character as well as the most interesting. Her distinctive look, shaven hair, forehead anointed with grease and elaborate prosthetic arm, distinguishes her from the War Boys. She looks the part the battle-scarred general. From her first appearance we can tell she’s up to something, a note of uncertainty in her sun-induced glare, but her confidence never wavers as she leads the War Boys out on the titular Fury Road.

Rounding out the main cast is Immortan Joe, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, an aging warlord who uses theatrics and a costume to maintain his image as a powerful warrior while controlling a vast reserve of fresh water from his mesa stronghold, The Citadel. Joe provides the water, and the dusty masses below provide worship and (presumably) children that are pressed into service as War Boys, the white-painted warriors who make up the bulk of Immortan Joe’s forces.

While on a routine mission, Furiosa deviates from the plan, and Immortan Joe realizes that she is helping his harem of slaves escape, and quickly calls up all his forces to pursue her. Max finds himself used as a hood ornament for one of the pursuit vehicles, driven by War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). During the first leg of the chase, Max manages to make his escape and reluctantly joins up with Furiosa and the Wives.

The relationship between Max and Furiosa is one of uncertainty and mutual distrust at first. There is one early scene where Max methodically grabs every gun and weapon in the cab of the War Rig and throws them into a bag, all while keeping a gun on Furiosa. But slowly they come to an understanding, one that is shown rather than told, as we see them relying on each other more and more in each conflict with Immortan Joe.

There is another scene later in the movie where Max attempts to make a difficult shot with the group’s only rifle. Down to the last bullet, Furiosa requests the gun. Without much hesitance, Max gives it to her and she uses his shoulder as a stabilizer to make the shot. With minimal dialogue, the film shows how Furiosa and Max now trust each other to a degree, and recognize each others’ strengths.

These small moments do more to characterize both Furiosa and Max than any amount of dialogue could. You see them begin to trust each other and work in tandem over the course of the film, which proves to be one of the best parts of the experience. There is barely a moment for characters to have the peace for a conversation, and rather than leave the characters hollow, director George Miller chooses to show you their development instead.

The action is the big draw of the film, and it succeeds at being one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a long time. If you like car chases, you will like Mad Max: Fury Road, because that’s what this movie is: one long car chase. But what a car chase it is, filled with practical effects, great stunt-work and a bizarre array of vehicles, no two of which are the same.

In addition to the cobbled-together vehicles of Immortan Joe, there are three other wasteland groups with their own interesting vehicles. I call the first group the Porcupine People, because seemingly every vehicle they have is covered in an absurd amount of spikes. Then there are the Canyon Bikers, who look very much like Tusken Raiders and employ the vertical terrain of the desert canyon along with their grenades to bring down travelers. I won’t say anything about the third group to avoid spoilers, but they also have an interesting aesthetic.

Fury Road is a more than worthy addition to the Mad Max series. Furiosa carries most of the movie, with Max acting as sort of an audience-insert, someone who is unfamiliar with this particular part of the wasteland, but knows the score. Like Max, the audience knows the world, at least in broad strokes. We know how these apocalypse stories usually go, just as Max knows roughly what’s going to happen. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the plot of Fury Road, but the characterization, action and cinematography are what make in an excellent film. The wonderfully understated performances of Theron and Hardy keep the audience invested, and the action rarely lets up, giving our capable heroes lots to do and plenty of chances to show off. So far, Mad Max: Fury Road is my favorite movie of 2015, and I highly recommend you go see it.