In cinemas from Fri 15 May 2015

George Miller / Australia/USA / 2015 / 120 mins

It’s been 30 years since audiences last met Mad Max, and both much and little has changed. On the one hand we have a new Max (Tom Hardy stepping into the role that once made Mel Gibson a star), a mega-budget ($150 million, over ten times that of the last film) and a blockbuster culture where big studios and CGI dominate the landscape. On the other, we have George Miller.

Director and co-writer of every film in the series, Miller’s vision is key. Creating his post-apocalyptic, vehicle-driven mayhem using predominantly practical effects – real cars, real people, real crazy – he conducts chaos like nobody else. The scale may have broadened, but if you’d enjoy seeing the climactic chase sequence from 1981’s Mad Max 2 extended into a two-hour film, chances are you’ll love Fury Road.

Yet even if you’re looking for an entry point, there’s little reason why this fourth instalment shouldn’t be it, opening as it does with a brief, scene-setting voiceover. Before the apocalypse, Max was a cop, now he’s a lone drifter (the Man With almost No Name), haunted by those he couldn’t save when society went insane, destroyed by a fuel shortage that left survivors entrenched in a violent struggle for “guzzoline”. That’s it. And away we go!

Making use of economical visual storytelling, Miller throws us in at the deep end, knowing we’ll be able to swim. Almost immediately we see Max captured and taken to the imposing cliff face lair of villainous ruler, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), whose cultish army of sickly War Boys need a constant supply of blood donors to keep up their strength. But when Joe’s trusted deputy, Impetator Furiosa (an excellent Charlize Theron), commits an act of betrayal by fleeing with the maniacal tyrant’s favourite wives, a chase ensues, hundreds of jagged metal vehicles pouring into the dessert to hunt her down. Our protagonist, of course, is dragged along for the ride.

The sheer confidence Miller wields in this world is astounding. Here is a future where a demented warlord keeps a room of full-bosomed women attached to milking machines to provide sustenance for the privileged. Meanwhile, his throng of malnourished yet worshiping zealots, when called to action, choose a steering wheel from a shrine-like collection before taking to barren lands in a fleet of spike-covered buggies and 70s sports cars raised up on tank treads and monster truck wheels. Yet this heightened flow of insanity is balanced by strong doses of humanity. The refusal of Furiosa and her female allies to be subjugated endows the piece with a welcome feminist drive, whilst the character of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a loyal War Boy desperate to ride with Joe into Valhalla, has an arc that deals deftly with issues of desperation and blind faith. ‘You can’t own a human being’, one rebel tells Joe, but when you control the only water supply in an arid wasteland, it’s easy to gain followers.

The most exciting thing about Fury Road, however, is simply how much of it we’ve never seen before. Sure, it may essentially be one long car chase, but what a car chase. Miller’s imagination for unhinged yet physically filmable ideas seems boundless, from men clinging onto bonnets as they spit fuel injections directly into exposed hot rod engines, to people swinging above the action on levered poles, hurling explosives and themselves at the vehicles below. And it’s all backed by Junkie XL’s thunderous score, ringing out like the drums of war – sometimes literally, as Immortan Joe’s truck-mounted band tear through the action with pounding timpani and a flame-spewing guitar.

It sounds anarchic, but Miller’s tight rein on choreography and camerawork, plus the diligent (some would say saintly, given 480 hours of footage) editing of his wife Margaret Sixel, mean there’s not a moment of confusion. There are minor niggles: the film’s intense use of colourisation – the deep reds of a dust storm, the inky blues of the night – sometimes detracts from John Seale’s gorgeous cinematography, and Hardy’s Max voice is somewhat inconsistent, with a few too many of the actor’s trademark grunts. Perfect or not, however, Fury Road remains endlessly unique, exhilarating and unpredictable. Luckily for us, George Miller just might be madder than Max is.