Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Dir. George Miller
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Talking about why Mad Max: Fury Road works is difficult, simply because it involves literally every single thing about the film.
Seriously, it’s tempting to call it a ‘miracle’, but to do that would be a disservice, implying that the success the film is currently enjoying is a result of luck or some higher power, rather than the hard work of accomplished professionals. Though, in truth, looking at the nature of the film – an Australian post-apocalyptic quasi-exploitation flick by a seventy-year-old director returning to a franchise long-since finished, helming a production that has taken around fifteen or so years to even get off the ground – it’s hard not to fall back on ‘miraculous’ to describe not just its very existence, but the fact that it exists in such a perfect form. The thing is, it’s not a miracle. What it is, is a taut, expertly-crafted action flick with thrilling set-pieces, an immersive world, acute characterization and intelligent themes. In other words, everything we want and need from action cinema.
Fury Road is set in post-apocalyptic Australia, some years after some unspecified catastrophe which has left most of the world a barren wasteland – in Road Warrior, this wasteland was populated by roving gangs of marauders with penchants for colourful hairstyles and leather outfits, driving around stealing petrol (‘guzzoline’), seemingly for no other purpose than to survive; Societal decay begets moral decay and all that. Here, Miller attempts something a bit more complex. The world of Mad Max has now evolved past its ‘random craziness’ phase, and has settled into some semblance of structure; Ageing despot Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) has established a community – ‘the Citadel’ – using both his monopoly on the local water/fuel/weapons supply and appropriation of Norse mythology to position himself as a kind of messianic figure to an army of devout ‘War Boys’.
Miller has created a dense and fully-realised world, going above and beyond what was established in previous Mad Max films, and yet resists the temptation to overwhelm the audience with encyclopaedic amounts of information (despite that fact that he probably has his own personal encyclopaedia dictating every facet and nuance of the Mad Max world). The world-building is tactful; deployed through aesthetic and momentary details rather than lengthy monologues and artificial expository dialogue (with the possible exception of the opening monologue, but even that’s forgivable in the grand scheme of things – like a book having a blurb). Miller adheres to George Lucas’ philosophy of giving everything on-screen a ‘history’ – behind every car, character, and location you sense a deep and intricate backstory – which he chooses to let the audience extrapolate, rather than slapping them in the face with it. Even the most ridiculous elements (for example, a character whose sole purpose is to play a double-necked guitar/flamethrower) exist for very specific, in-universe reasons. There’s nothing superfluous; nothing is awkwardly crowbarred into the background for the sake of being cool or unique, a mistake that fantasy and science fiction makes all the time.
One consequence of spending enormous amounts of energy and time on the world-building, is that the story often falls by the wayside (see: The Star Wars prequels, the Hobbit films, Amazing Spider-Man 2). Said story doesn’t need to be anything too convoluted or erudite; in fact, some of the best films ever made have had remarkably simple, goal-oriented structures: Rescue the Princess and destroy the Death Star; find the Ark of the Covenant; get back home to Kansas; find and kill a shark etc. Fury Road follows in that grand tradition. The plot begins when Imperator Furiosa, one of Immortan Joe’s generals, absconds with five of his prized possessions – his wives – which he doesn’t take all too well. She must then outrun and outmanoeuvre his entire army across a desolate wasteland filled with all sorts of obstacles, both artificial and natural, in order to reach the fabled ‘Green Place’, setting the stage for what is, in essence, one long chase scene. Oh, and there’s also this guy called Max (Tom Hardy) who tags along.
Max pretty much ticks all the boxes for the archetypal reticent loner character typically seen in westerns: he doesn’t talk much, has a tragic past, only cares about himself, has a gravelly voice, and can handle himself in combat. Hell, switch the car for a horse and give him a hat and he’s basically a cowboy. But Miller and Hardy are smart enough to know exactly how to play this type of character. First, he’s given an arc, the simplest arc imaginable – a selfish man learning to be a little less selfish. This simple tactic transforms him from empty posturing power-fantasy to actual human being. Second, it’s never indulgent. You never want to be Max; his life is never portrayed as anything other than a pretty miserable existence. Miller avoids one of the most common mistakes in modern fiction and never, at any point, tries to make Max ‘cool’. And finally, while he is certainly a three-dimensional character, he’s not the most interesting part of the movie.
That honour goes, in part, to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. The characterization in this film is wonderfully adept; like with the world-building, Miller employs restraint and subtlety with his characters. I find there’s a misguided notion that characters need to deliver lengthy monologues and in-depth anecdotes in order to convey depth (Game of Thrones makes this mistake from time to time); this is not true at all, and Furiosa is abject proof. She is a human being, as fully realised as the world she lives in, complete with wants, needs, motivation, and history. She is defined both by her own character and her relationship with others – a strong female character in the best possible way. Part of this is the writing (all-in-all, the script is genius), but Charlize Theron’s contribution to the role is integral. Theron is the kind of actor who can convey a gamut of thought and emotion through her eyes alone, which makes for a very intense performance – she’s an absolute joy from start to finish.
Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is great to watch as well, simply because of how his character might have been handled in the hands of a less skilled creative team. He’s one of the War Boys, and so has been brainwashed into thinking a glorious death will give him new life in Valhalla. He could have been written as a walking plot-device, a reoccurring secondary villain to be killed off by one of the good guys sometime in the final act; or he simply could have not been written in at all. But Miller wanted to give a voice to the ‘other side’ – or at the very least, lend some form of nuance to the bad guys. Nux not only has as much personality and humanity as Max and Furiosa, but he also exists as a metaphor for toxic masculinity and ridiculous machismo, an attitude which embodied entire generations of young men who died pointless deaths for the sake of glory or honour.
Which is one of the reasons Mad Max is so damn resonant – the refusal simply to be another entry into the canon of mindless action movies. Fury Road has something to say; the theme might be delivered in a somewhat unsubtle manner (e.g. the refrain ‘Who killed the world?’) but I don’t think films should be ashamed of being bold and overt with their messages. Especially if that message runs parallel to modern society; Fury Road is about patriarchy, and how both women and men operate within large oppressive systems that treat them as commodities. To put it simply: it’s about freedom. By having the gall to be an entertaining action film with a resonant theme, Fury Road is imploring us not to accept stupidity/vapidity in our popcorn flicks. It serves as proof that we can do better.
Obviously this has been a rather large treatise on the themes and characterization (read: the writing), but the most tangible joy of the film is the blistering action. Miller has stated that he likes to edit without sound, as it allows him to construct each scene with emphasis on visual storytelling, and it works wonders. It’s easy to forget that what separates cinema from other artistic mediums is the A/V component (with the obvious exception of theatre, and even that differs a considerable amount), that a movie is a precarious combination of movement and sound and colour conveyed through performance, visual effects, choreography and editing. Luckily, Miller has not forgotten this. Here’s an experiment: at the nearest possible opportunity, watch the film without sound. Chances are you’ll have a near complete understanding of the stakes, the geography and narrative rhythm of each scene. The major set-pieces are never designed to confuse or obfuscate; there’s never any doubt as to where everyone and everything is in relation to each other (which is especially impressive on the part of Miller and his creative team, considering most of the action sequences have multiple disparate elements which need to be arranged temporally and spatially so that the audience can connect them together seamlessly and automatically. This is Spielbergian craft here).
Miller’s never restricts himself attempting to remain ‘naturalistic’. Sure, he adheres to practical effects wherever necessary (I don’t really have a problem with excess CGI, as long as it’s done well, but lots of people do, and I have to admit practical effects to lend a certain tactility to a scene), but he never shows restraint where it’s not needed. Miller constantly break the boundaries of what you might call ‘realistic’; from the editing (for example, every now and then he uses a lower framerate, which could make a scene seem choppy and ugly, but instead works wonders for imbuing the sequence with excitement and intensity) to diegetic elements (I mentioned the guitar, right? Other examples would be how old women can fight like twenty-year-olds, and how people can get back up from being shot in the head with a crossbow, and how at one point Max is literally saved by a hallucination). But that only serves as proof that realism is not important. What’s important is that it’s never gratuitous.
That’s really what makes Fury Road so special. It never tries to simply distract, to throw bright lights and loud noises and clunky characters and lazy plots in our faces for two hours, simply because that’s good enough. Fury Road never underestimates the audience. It treats us like we deserve the best.
If you’re deciding on whether or not to watch this film (if you haven’t already, and there’s no shame in seeing it again… well, maybe if you’ve seen it the number of times I have), I can categorically state it has something for everyone. Want ludicrous entertainment? Check. Want deep characters? Check. Want a film that doesn’t smack you over the head with exposition? Check. Want something original, innovative and inventive? Check. Want a feminist think-piece? Check. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron sharing the screen? Check. Car chases? Check. Things blowing up? Check. Hot women? Get your mind out of the gutter. Seriously though, this is one of the best that action cinema has to offer – you’d be mad to miss it…
… Sigh. Just go see the fucking movie.