You don’t realize just how crappy most action movies are, until you see something like Mad Max: Fury Road — a movie in which there are no “action scenes” because the action pretty much never stops. And the film’s constant sense of violent motion is in the service of incredible imagery and transcendant moments.
No real spoilers here, unless you’re one of those people who refuses to watch trailers until you’ve seen the movie.
Lots of directors have tried to do what George Miller pulls off so astonishingly in Fury Road — the feeling that shit never stops blowing up, the intensity, and above all the sense that the heightened reality of comics and video games is finally appearing in live-action films. I’m thinking of Zack Snyder, Michael Bay, Robert Rodriguez and a few others.
But Mad Max: Fury Road is still in a class by itself. There are so many moments in this movie where I found myself saying, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m seeing this” — either because the visuals were so insane or so extreme, or just because there was intense beauty filling the frame. These moments, cumulatively, turn what could have been a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic fight-chase-fight movie into something actually poignant and emotionally engaging — because your mind is flooded with so much insane imagery, you get opened up to the actually quite good performances by Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy and others.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s the same post-apocalyptic world that you’ll remember from The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, more or less. Everything has fallen apart, and there’s been some kind of ecological collapse — and in a modern twist, there’s not enough water, either. Max Rockatansky (Hardy) gets ensnared with a group of white-painted skull-faced assholes called the War Boys, led by the terrifying Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). And soon, Max is caught in the middle of a custody dispute between Immortan Joe and the insane shaved-headed Imperator Furiosa (Theron).
Cue a lot of shit blowing up, crazy “war rig” trucks, people swinging through the air on big fishing rods dangling off of cars going 100 mph, and stunts that would make the Fast and Furious movies feel slow and sedated. I cannot emphasize enough that this movie almost never stops going — a huge amount of the film’s running length takes place on board moving vehicles. (In fact, this movie reminded me of nothing so much as Snow-Piercer, both in its focus on battles aboard a moving vehicle in an extreme environment, and in its heightened-reality, absurdist take on an apocalyptic world.)
We’ve been judging action scenes by too low a standard: Can you tell what’s going on? Is the camera too shaky, or too blurry, or is the CG so cheap that you’re just seeing smudges? Are there quick cuts that keep you from following the moves? Or a bewildering mixture of too-tight close-ups and too-far wide shots? That’s like judging a gymnastics meet by the number of gymnasts who show up with broken ankles.
Mad Max: Fury Road has action that’s easy to follow, but also incredibly overwhelming in the sheer insanity and complexity of what’s going on at any given moment. We’re talking about, basically, a two-hour truck joust. Miller uses techniques that I’ve seen overused elsewhere — like the “hard zoom” into the face of someone driving crazily — but here, they just add drama to an already oversaturated kinetic frame. The camera is constantly in motion as it tracks in on people crashing their vehicles and launching projectiles at each other.
Which brings me to the nut of what makes Fury Road such a unique theatrical experience. Miller uses the constant motion of the film to enhance its sense of scale (because duh, if you cover a lot of ground quickly, you reveal the true vastness of the landscape). Immortan Joe’s insane villain lair is huge, and so is his horde of unsafe drivers. And the land around them, most of all, is just massive — the untameable, unknowable desert plays a starring role in this movie, at least as much as the vehicles do.
And the hugeness and terribleness of that bleak landscape makes the larger-than-life characters feel weirdly at home, even as it informs the movie’s key themes of trying to fill that dead void with something. After three previous Mad Max films, Miller understands that the post-apocalyptic story isn’t so much about the collapse of society’s institutions, but about what replaces them — and he’s fascinated by the twisted attempts to create a functioning society in the ruins of our own.
In a lot of ways, the Mad Max franchise belongs to the same subgenre as the Judge Dredd comics — it’s about a world that’s been laid waste, but also about the absurdity of surviving in that world. The heightened reality and bizarreness of both worlds is about holding up a mirror to show us how artificial and bizarre our own identities are, and then creating a new, extreme context where only ridiculous and psychotic selves make any sense.
What’s new in Fury Road is an obsession with fertility — one character carries around “heirloom” seeds, that stubbornly refuse to grow in this dead world. Immortan Joe counsels people dying in the desert not to become “addicted” to water. Immortan Joe’s most prized “possessions” are his breeders, four women whose existence is only aimed at carrying Immortan Joe’s babies. And the War Boys have an ideology built around death and birth — if they die in Immortan Joe’s service, they will be reborn. Even the perennial Mad Max concern with fuel is somewhat reinvented, because now it’s also about water, and the ability to create green.
Agriculture is a collective enterprise, in which the individual has to become part of the collective, and so is human fertility, to some extent. So Fury Road is all about the rights of the individual in the face of the obsession with fertility — and in the end, this does become an overtly feminist issue. Imperator Furiosa and the “breeders” are fighting for their freedom, but also searching for an alternative vision of society that doesn’t see them as nothing but objects — without going into too much spoilery detail.
Theron is the emotional linchpin of the movie, channeling so much intensity and grim humor, that she literally drives the story forward. Furiosa is one of the great action heroes, up there with Max himself, and Theron manages to put a lot of nuance and generosity into her. She carries most of the weight of the movie’s themes about self-determination, cult psychology and fertility, and it’s largely thanks to her world-weary performance that the movie can get overtly feminist without ever seeming preachy.
What makes Max unique in this world is that he has no ideology. Every other character in Fury Road voices an idea about how the world works, or what it all means — but Max’s opening voiceover says that he’s been reduced to just one thing: the desire to survive, at all costs. He believes in nothing, but he’s haunted by visions of the people whom he cared about in the past, whom he failed to save. Max spends most of the film listening to other people describe their complicated worldviews, with a mute shrug. He’s such a nihilist, he can’t even articulate his nihilism.
Mad Max: Fury Road is like a really great rock concert, where you hold up your lighter until you burn your fingertips and you scream yourself hoarse and afterwards you feel like you’ve had a personal, beautiful mindfuck. This is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen where the whole audience broke into spontaneous, loud applause a third of the way in. The over-the-top, stylized, absurdist aesthetic is pushed to its limit (and a lot of the film’s dialogue is frankly ridiculous), but the ultimate result is so extreme, and married to such beautiful imagery, that it becomes a great work of art.
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