George Miller, 2014, Australia-USA
I’m inclined to believe that most if not nearly every modern trailer makes a film look bad: they resort to a list of clichés instead of capturing a flavour and the constant fading to black is a tic that really makes me twitch… CGI usually looks worse in a trailer too, flaying about out of context. I confess I wasn’t exactly eager after the first trailer for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. “From mastermind George Miller” it said. Oh? I countered, raising an eyebrow. Keep in mind that I think “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” is one of the best action films in the genre and its influence should not be underestimated (there were a lot of films where the gangs seemed dressed for the bondage club after a little post-apocalyptic delinquency). But the “Fury Road” trailer was full of people apparently driving through fireballs, etc, and that threw up for me the same red flag that warned me off, say, “Pompeii”. That is: it looked like it might be another CGI-fronted effects picture that didn’t care much for the basics of physics; and the original “Mad Max” films were nothing but full of dirt and grime and sand and injury, however silly and unrealistic things got. Also, initially I thought they had made Max a woman now. In fact Charlize Theron. Then I heard Tom Hardy was playing The Road Warrior, and as I was always a great fan of “Mad Max 2” and am a fan of Hardy, I went to see “Fury Road”, but with cautious expectations.
Of course, many people were legitimately excited by the trailer for “Fury Road” - I was in the grumpy minority - but even that cannot prepare you for the film. The opening is laden with a voice-over just to explain a few things and is soon followed by quick-quick editing, both choices that puts my guard up, but once the film has Max in the clutches of the unhealthily white war boys and, meanwhile, has the brides of the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keayes-Byrne) make an escape bid, things start to settle down. By which I mean if that small synopsis sounds busy, that is because the whole film is packed full. The plot is slender but as soon as Max is strapped to the front of war boy Nux’s (Nicholas Hoult) car, chasing after Furiosa (Theron) across the desert, the screen and details are so hectic that many will only become evident on repeat viewings.
For example, the war boys: diseased and delusional, poisoned by Immortan Joe’s suffocating and self-serving view of the world; they are a stunted population suffering from Joe’s patriarchy. They are both mentally and physically scarred and seem to want only to go out in a blaze of glory to meet better lifetimes in Valhalla: it is hard not to see an affinity with the suicide bombers that grace headlines. Beware fundamentalism.
Women are either milk-makers or baby-machines, it seems, giving the film perhaps the first of its alarming images with a row of large apathetic women hooked up to milking mechanisms. They are barely humans at all, not in the eyes of the society that Immortan Joe has propagated. And he holds the precious resource of water whilst trying to tell the population not to become addicted to it. This one man would seemingly hold all the power and keeps the people and his children so deprived (of resources and education, etc) that there seems no one to question it. Immortan Joe has made the world to his bidding and everyone around him is kept weakened in some way so they would not think beyond this world. It seems the desperate people know no better. Except the brides, who do receive some education to make them better breeders, but this also leads them to want more – and it should not be missed that Furiosa used to be a bride. In fact, intelligence seems to be mostly housed in the female protagonists.
All this comes across as a scathing satire on the kind of world that the wealthy patriarchs of today would imagine: for example, the CEO of Nestle opining that water should be privatised; or that a baby will be carved from a woman’s body in case it might live and be healthy seems the logical end to pro-life activism, to stories such as this. The comic of 'Mad Max: Fury Road - Furiosa' implies other sexual deviance for Immortan Joe (all those war boys) but this is an unneeded tweak to the story which would be just as strong with Joe simply being a woman-hating patriarch.
That is to say that the complexity and ramifications lay within the details of the film rather than its narrative, which is a typical chase scene through a hellish post-apocalyptic world. Where it succeeds is in a vision that equality will come through the direst conditions, eventually. There are hints that the women have been left no choice but to blame men for a world in ruins, but the male-hating is not consummate: is not a smidgeon of sympathy that converts Nux, showing that women have not lost that capacity (and Hoult's vulnerability has never been put to better use)? It is simply in this vision, women will not wait for men to save them, do not even consider it and cannot afford to. Theron will do what is necessary in an action film without resorting to machismo posturing and quips. Miller consulted female perspectives from such as playwright Eve Ensler to help ground it’s feminist credentials, and certainly some “Men’s Activist” groups have called for the film to be boycotted, which implies the film is doing something right. Miller uses the language of the Action Genre to show how narrow and male-centric it has been; it comes across as fighting the genre from within. It is no mistake that I mistakenly if briefly thought from the trailer that they had changed the gender of Max.
Speaking of which: into this merciless world comes Mad Max. Ever since the first film, Max had been more a facilitator of other people’s dramas: he turns up in some ongoing scenario, just trying to get by, and finds that his action skills come in handy in helping out. He tries to be amoral, because audiences love that anti-hero angle, but this doesn’t last so long. He’ll try to be mercenary but in the end he always helps the underdog. The opening pace of ‘Fury Road’ is frenetic, but this is misleading: it’s just to put Max to where he needs to be so that he’ll on the front of Nux’s car when Furiosa makes her escape bid. There was square-jawed blankness to Mel Gibson onto which a sort of “madness” could be imposed, but Tom Hardy can convey emotion and inner turmoil with the faintest facial tics so he is perhaps seems a more vulnerable Max as a consequence: not so much “Mad” as troubled. No matter: this isn’t really his story, but you get the idea that Max knows this, that he’s just trying to get by and hold himself together. Nux’s story gains more flesh and is more intriguing, changing from wannabe-suicide-assassin and rejected damaged son to finding a genuine place amongst the escapees. His is self-sacrifice for another, not martyrdom for a twisted cause.
Yes, there is all this and you would be foolish to ignore these details – or, for example, how casual the film present Furiosa’s prosethic arm, a unfussy approach that is surely progressive in how little attention it presents this as a “disability” or a character trait. There are mis-steps, the most discussed being the shot of the brides hosing themselves down beside a tanker, which is as Andy Nayman says “at once parodic and pandering.” But here, again, the moment is slightly complicated from looking like a lad’s mag photoshoot by one of the women being pregnant (which, by the way, won’t stop her from being an action star either). It’s true that for all its feminist credentials, the film can’t quite stop gawping at these pretty women – but maybe that has some point: of course Immortan Joe would choose the most attractive. Nevertheless, the film doesn’t quite overcome some objectification where the brides are concerned. Along with this I still have some reservations about the opening narration (unnecessary) and the flashbacks that are meant to show Max’s Madness, despite looking like they’ve been inspired by some James Wan idea of a nightmarish vision, all music-video quick editing and ghostly faces etc. I could also do without the yelling-your-agony-in-the-sunset-atop-a-dune and the nods-of-understanding-across-a-crowd clichés, but these are minor glitches, swallowed up and overcome by the whole.
I enjoyed it more the second time round, knowing what I was looking for.
What you will be watching mostly are the stunning visuals and John Searle’s cinematography. You’ll be trying to work out the vehicle designs, which include cars-welded-to-cars and cheeky spikey swipes from ‘The Cars that Ate Paris’. Yes, the look of it and the action sequences are delirious, beautiful, crazed, spectacular and host of other superlatives. And the stunt work is incredible (just look at the stunt crew on IMDB to get some idea of what a massive undertaking you’re witnessing). How wrong I was in the impression I got from the trailer: the CGI here aids and abets genuine jaw-dropping stunt-work. The ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ flaws and achievements are as obvious and loud as the metal guitarist that fronts one vehicle, gleefully and manically bouncing around, motivating this remarkable spectacle. But it’s the satire and the targets of its ire, the themes and details that glue the stunts together that really add resonance and will surely make this one to return to and something of a instant classic.