Hell has gone out of fashion a bit in the last few years. Generally speaking – and as a culture at least – we've lost our belief in a literal place of eternal, conscious torment and replaced it with more sanitised visions of an afterlife for the sinful. Hell is just an absence of God; Hell is a place of short-term suffering; Hell is instant, total annihilation.
At the same time, popular theologians such as NT Wright have also begun to blur the lines between this life and the next. He argues that God, and Christians as his co-labourers, are re-making the world, ushering in the Kingdom, and watching heaven break into the here and now. But in this kind of a worldview, the opposite is also true. The darkness is also staking its claim; the devil and his hordes are also on the offensive. Hell is a place on earth.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, writer/director George Miller creates a visceral, nightmarish vision of exactly that. Mad Max is the great survivor, wandering the apocalyptic wastelands of a nuclear-scorched earth, trying to stay alive in a world of violence and death. Humanity has taken itself to the edge of destruction, and the survivors have swiftly established an even more intense version of our unequal culture. A few men have grabbed what power they could, and subdued the rest into starving peasantry, where water is scarce and death is everywhere.
In the opening shots, Tom Hardy's Max is captured by one of these powermongers, the hideous masked monster Immortan Joe, and taken deep into the bowels of his 'citadel'. As a result he becomes dragged into a family dispute involving Joe, his harem of wives, and the heroic traitor Imperator Furiosa (a movie-stealing Charlize Theron) who smuggles them out of the villain's clutches. Driving a huge, armoured rig, Furiosa gets a five minute head start before Joe and his assembled forces (and Max) set off in pursuit in a variety of customised vehicles, and so the heart of the film unfolds – an epic chase across deserts, wastelands and treacherous terrain.
What follows is an extraordinary piece of action film-making that makes Fast and Furious 7 look like two toddlers playing Scalextric. It's an adrenaline-pumping, eye-popping, head-spinning marathon of fire and speed, where Miller unleashes wave after wave of insane stunts, high-octane smashes and handbrake-turn plot twists against Junkie XL's thumping, relentless soundtrack. Like some ancient army, Joe's convoy includes its own war musicians, and as a result the film's many action sequences are undergirded by the music of post-apocalyptic madness. It's one of the most memorable elements of the film, alongside the vivid and beautiful use of colour which makes it so visually striking. It's an assault on the senses which doesn't give up, leaving you gasping for air as you sprint for the cinema exit.
It is a quite amazing film, in the truest sense of the word. Miller has fully committed to his central idea – of a world gone completely mad without hope – and as a result has managed to create both a dazzlingly, brutally brilliant action movie, and perhaps the most theologically interesting film of the year. In fact, so packed is it with religious ideas and imagery, it's hard to know what to pick out and point to. Each tribe in Max's world has developed its own religious rituals and beliefs; a water-of-life metaphor looms large throughout; heroine Furiosa tells us she's driven by 'redemption.'
Most notably though, Mad Max: Fury Road is concerned with where we're all heading, both as a culture, and more eternally speaking. Living in this hell on earth, every character in the film has clear ideas on hope. Immortan Joe enslaves his army with the promise of 'Valhalla' for those who serve him well; the wives are focused on a more imminent promise of 'the green place', an area across the desert undamaged by nuclear holocaust. Most of the people trapped in this horrific existence spend their days yearning for salvation. Max himself is much more sober: 'hope is a mistake', he tells Furiosa at one point; he's lost the ability to believe in a better world whether in this life or the next.
While the people in the Citadel hold on for an afterlife, the reality is that their King is the only thing keeping them in their waking nightmare. He's holding back the resources; vast reserves of water, and greenhouses full of natural growth, and so holding back the potential for light to break into their darkness. But it's right there – the hope of a better world is just one tyrant away from being a reality.
The idea that in any place, both heaven or hell could break out on earth is, in Christian theological terms, a representation of the real battle between good and evil that precedes Christ's return. A nuclear near-apocalypse is perhaps the most extreme form of this, but a picture of ruthless men stealing power and subduing the poor is another, and an altogether more relevant one. Max and Furiosa are the liberators who – despite Max's pronouncements about hope – face oppression head-on and bring the darkness crashing to its knees; a picture perhaps of what is possible even in a world that hasn't quite yet gone murderously mad.
The closing moments are evocative of that great passage in Revelation 21, where John writes in v4: 'he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' Hope isn't a mistake; it's a reality we can embrace, and not just for the afterlife. As Mad Max illustrates, while hell can break out on earth, heaven can still extinguish its flames.