New Media

Mad Max is the Most Theologically Important Exodus Narrative in Film

[Spoiler Alert – this review contains spoilers and depends on prior viewing of the film]

Mad Max is being appraised as a smorgasbord of brilliant special effects, stunning visuals, and second wave feminism, but these lauds I will leave in the capable hands of the critics. I want to talk about the theological implications of this film’s narrative, for Mad Max may well be the most important Exodus narrative in film thus far.

We’ve seen this story before – a group of enslaved people are abused and mistreated by an overlord, a warlord, emperor, or some other tyrant. The unlikely-but-strong savior figure emerges and leads the oppressed out of bondage into the Promised Land. This is the story of the Israelite exodus out of Egypt. In Mad Max, we find what at first looks like a repetition of this age-old plotline. In a post-apocalyptic world, the film’s eponymous protagonist, Mad Max (Tom Hardy), is a half-crazed man who ends up aiding Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escape from the tyranny of the Citadel. The Exodus imagery is too abundant to be coincidental. The movie takes place in a desert wasteland, and though the escapees never refer to a “Promised Land,” they refer to a “green place” – an oasis and refuge from the tyranny of oppression and from the barrenness of the scorched earth. In a subtler hue, one of the defecting soldiers reveals that he is afflicted by boil-like lumps on his skin and lives under the threat of death by night fever. In another scene, we see a locust crawl across his skin. While not outright references to the ten plagues, these three taken together make it impossible to claim this is not an allusion to the plagues of the Egyptians. While stopped to do maintenance on their escape vehicle, one of the women cries out to the distant tyrant to forgive her and urges the others to return to their enslaved life. This incident echoes the Israelite’s constant complaint against God and Moses that they were better off in Egypt than wandering through the wilderness. When the “chariots” of the tyrant are in heavy pursuit of the escapees, they flee into a sand storm, where a wall of sand rising up on their left obliterates one of the pursuing vehicles. While this passage echoes the Scriptural description of the Israelite journey through the Red Sea, safety is not yet achieved and the pursuing army is not yet obliterated.

With these allusions and the basic plot structure of the movie, I was expecting a retelling of the Exodus story, only set in a post-apocalyptic world with stunning special effects. What I didn’t expect was that the explosions and the visual imagery is accompanied by a theology that acknowledges the shortcomings of Exodus appropriation and supplements it with a rich apocalyptic theology.

The Exodus narrative has been a powerful inspiration to many cultures in a variety of settings. In the U.S. the Exodus story was taken up both by white settlers seeing America as a Promised Land free from old European structures and impositions, and also by black slaves identifying with the not-yet freed Israelites in bondage to the Egyptians. This latter interpretation has been lifted up by liberation theologians to describe God as particularly concerned for the oppressed, a liberator, and one who delivers the poor from the powers, structures, and tyrants keeping them down. The problem this interpretation runs into is the unfortunate fact that the next episode in the saga of the Israelite journey to the Promised Land is the extermination and genocide of the people already living in Canaan. The genocide of the Canaanites prevents the narrative theology to move forward, for while affirming the unique particular love of God for the Israelites, streams in the Bible also acknowledge the love of God for all people. Some have thus wondered if the Exodus story is a dead end in liberation theology as it leads to a conquest narrative that displaces and exterminates the Canaanites, leaving no place in God’s kingdom for them.

Mad Max acknowledges the shortcoming of the Exodus narrative and pushes through towards a new ending to the traditional story. After escaping the territory of the tyrants, the escapees realize that their Promised Land has been destroyed and is not the place of refuge they had imagined. They prepare to cross a salt wasteland on motorcycles with enough supplies for 160 days (40×4) and no idea what lies ahead of them. Thus far we have seen a relatively faithful retelling of the Exodus narrative: there is a tyrant who enslaves his people, the people escape the pursuing armies, and the people prepare to wander through wilderness in search of a new promised land. And this is where the narratives diverge, for the escapees turn back. The fugitives (aided by a dramatic and terse Tom Hardy) realize that the only way to find life is by returning, overthrowing the tyrant and redeeming their home.

And this is the interpretation of the Gospel that takes into account the full account of the Scriptures. I was sitting in Central Park the other day speaking with a friend about one of her sermons on Isaiah (43). At the center of this chiasmic passage is the assertion that God loves Israel and they are precious in God’s sight. However, also in this passage is a statement about how God will hand over Egypt and other nations to suffering in order to ransom Israel. Clearly, Egyptians would hear this passage very differently from Jews (or anyone hearing this passage who was not from Egypt, Ethiopia, or Seba). And that is the fundamental problem with the Exodus narrative – some people groups are excluded and cast out from the kingdom of God. But in this same book in Isaiah (19), we know there is a bigger story. We know that the God will bring all nations to God’s self, including Egypt.

This is the gospel. All things will be made new. All people will be brought before God. The Greek term apokatastasis is used to indicate this renewal of all things as all of creation is redeemed. Mad Max acknowledges that the world is broken, some powers need to be challenged and even removed. But even the oppressors are not without a need for redemption. When they arrive back at the place of captivity, the Citadel, it is the young boys being bred for war that lower the drawbridge and raise them back up into the city. The oppressing people, without their tyrannical leader, are offered redemption. The narrative of the film does not downplay the importance of the role of the oppressed, the differently abled, or those struggling through psychological trauma. But in the end, it is not just these who are saved, but they lead the whole of the people, oppressed and oppressors, into redemption.

In this retelling of the Exodus narrative, the particularity of the oppressed is highlighted, but in the end, the change in structure and power affects all people. And this is the way forward in using the Exodus narrative theologically – the story does not end with deliverance from oppression and bondage. The story continues until all people, including the oppressors, are included in the kingdom of God.