Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
My first thought was to open up with a bait-and-switch. Talk about how oh hell yes this is probably one of my most favourite films of all time. How the whole thing is sequenced like one big action scene or better yet – a song. With everything extraneous stripped away so that the whole thing is like a guided missile – sleek, beautiful and deadly. Every single line of dialogue serving a purpose and a hero that could give The Man With No Name a run for his money in terms of how he mostly keeps schtum and just suggestively glowers at people. How the action sequences are so crazy and outrageous that when you look at them and wonder how people didn’t die (all those bodies flying through the air!) – except you don’t really look at them like with other films: you’re there experiencing it like there’s a direct link between George Miller’s mind and your own and he’s just thinking up all of this crazy stuff and then beaming it directly into your mind. The way that every single shot looks like the best frame in the best comic book you’ve never read except it’s better than a comic book because every frame is alive and moving and oh my god the editing is so sublime that it’s almost holy: it’s not like watching a film it’s like being inside something that’s alive and moving in front of you – each cut either breathing in or breathing out or just slapping you across the face and punching you with the awesome stuff you’ve ever wanted to see. People talk a lot about world-building but so much of what’s said is bullshit and/or completely tedious but this is a film that feels like you’re watching real things in another reality that’s so close that you can practically stand up from your seat and step into the screen. Yes it’s all fast cars and post-apocalypse: but when you watch it that taste in your mouth makes it feel so much realer and more tactile than the majority of films set in our plane of existence. And yeah most of all I just love the film for that wonderful and euphoric sense of movement. My personal head theory is that films work best when they’re moving and changing. Stick a camera in a room and I’m bored and listless – but stick a camera on the front of a moving car and you have my full attention. Which I think is why this film casts such a spell on me – because it’s all movement all the time: like ballet poured over with gasoline. And what could ever be better?
And then of course – I’d admit that I’m not even talking about Mad Max: Fury Road. But the film I love a thousand times more (and would argue is actually far superior) is Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. And well yeah if you disagree then I’m sorry but you’re all the way wrong.
Not that I don’t get where you’re coming from tho. I mean: if Mad Max: Fury Road is your first taste of what I guess must be now referred to as The Mad Max Cinematic Universe then you’ve basically priced yourself out of the market. Because yeah I’ll totally admit that Fury Road is way more beautiful, slick, glossy and cool than the Road Warrior which in comparison kinda lumbers around like a dusty dinosaur (or at least one of those guys wearing a dinosaur costume). It’d be like someone trying to convince someone who’s into EDM that actually Tomorrow Never Knows is actual what real dance music is all about and blah blah blah.
Yeah I’ve been a Mad Max fan since way way way back when I saw The Road Warrior late at night on BBC2 and it felt like my horizons had been expanded from – well – inner city London life to the endless expanse of the Australian outback. But I don’t think it’s just a case of the nostalgia bug feeding inside my brain. I mean gosh I was super excited to see Fury Road when it first came out. I was first in line and as excited as a 4 year old on their birthday. I mean: holy shit – Mad Max with a blockbuster budget? And apparently the whole thing was designed so that it was all one big action scene? That sounds like the greatest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life? And well yeah – I think for the first 30 minutes or so I was pretty much convinced that this was the single greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
So – why is not a slam dunk? A home run? A back-of-the-net goal?
I guess maybe it’s because for all intents and purposes The Road Warrior is the perfect movie and Fury Road is merely just very good (ha!)? But wait – let me rewatch it first and see what I think and then maybe I can try and put things into words… At the moment all I have is this vague idea / residual memory about how the most feminist action movie of the 21st century – wasn’t actually all that feminist? But whoops – maybe I’m already said too much so will just leave it here for now.
Instead – well hey: what did you think?
Of a film which has many glorious moments, my favourite is the recently blinded character firing his machine gun maniacally into the darkness, reminiscent of Ash from Evil Dead, I found myself grinning, because it caps a relentless spectacle which has already given a whirlwind tour of an arid post-apocalyptic dystopia, a high speed chase into a giant sandstorm, and the escalation of an entire army pursuing a monster truck fortress. It establishes very quickly that there are different factions and the social dynamics but apart from that it is completely uninterested in the back stories of everyone except for Furiosa, and even then because that (literally) drives the film forward.
Speaking of laughing machine gun man, it’s remarkable how much of a great time the baddies (and it’s made clear they are the baddies at every stage) have in this movie, whether it’s stunt driving, getting high on the blood of their prisoners, high-speed gymnastic pole-vaulting or playing a guitar flamethrower it’s always nice to see people who really enjoy their work. It’s quite rare in movies where the bad guys are either glumly and unquestionably following orders, or really upset about it, or have some sort of elaborate motivation. Apart from maybe Die Hard it’s hard to think of examples of hired goons having a great time with their comrades. Say what you like about the Immortan Joe but he had a real gift for staff motivation.
And I sort of feel that in this regard Immortan Joe is a proxy for George Miller as he led the army of stunt men and women to build a sort of high speed Cirque De Soleil in Lethal desert conditions. Lots of directors seem to have been inspired by this film, and I think it must be the sense of freedom, pace and kinetic agitation where every cast member has no choice but to go full method and let themselves be part of the fun. Presumably this is a world away from the heavily set-based human animation of blockbuster movies where the cast go through the motions reacting to tennis balls on sticks and possibly Andy Serkis in skintight green fetishwear, while studio executives stand around tutting at their iPads.
This freedom was hard fought though. In theory this film should have been dreadful. A fourth movie, years down the line, with no Mel Gibson, and no plot, and no oversight, it had tedious cash in stamped all over it. Famously Tom Hardy was pretty gloomy about it before release, but instead it is actually the film Joel describes in the intro. Perhaps Road Warrior is superior (I don’t know) but it’s beside the point because this film still does its lineage proud by focussing purely on delivering a succession of visual spectacles in quick succession like some sort of movie equivalent of Esports. The key trait of the film is it’s refusal to fuck around.
PS: there has been talk of a sequel and for the record I would like to see Mad Max versus Tremors.
The film’s vision of the future reminds me most of Warhammer 40,000 and to a lesser extent Judge Dredd, and it’s possible that of course there was some cross pollination given when the original Mad Max came out and the proximity to films like Dune which share similar themes. What I liked about all of these is that even amongst the war and the chaos there is a level of social continuity, it’s not just characters roaming around waiting to die, but nor are they even in some sort of quest to solve everyone’s problems. The world ended and the protagonists just have to make the best while society carries on.
In an itinerant, second hand world the focus on cars feels like a sensible extrapolation, not least because it seems highly believable that people will continue to race their cars straight through the apocalypse, just upgrading with nitro and a special shelf for your blood donor as necessary. And what other choice do they have? Narratively the reliance on vehicles creates an interesting relationship between the adversaries beyond just tedious hand to hand fighting or mindless shooting. A problem with the Godzilla movies (I’m told) is that the humans don’t have much to do when shit is going down at behemoth scale, and the simple answer is to make the humans take up more space on the screen. The robots in Pacific Rim achieve this with giant robots, obviously Iron Man has various suits, and Avengers have sheer weight of numbers, but whatever the means the result is that it reduces the physical vulnerability of the characters so they actively participate in events that would ordinarily crush them. Yes Furiosa gets injured with a classic flesh wound you only get in the movies, but also you see the war rig get gradually degraded over time as the fuel pod blows up, the steering wheel breaks, baddies jump on and off etc. and so the car becomes both a character as well as environment.
This reminded me of the film Snowpiercer which takes this to the next logical conclusion. That film writes off the whole world, and the train becomes all of society, with literal class war playing out from carriage to carriage. As each section is overcome so the train and it’s social cohesion becomes weaker, until the inevitable crash.
The constant forward motion is good way to give the impression of plot momentum because theoretically a new obstacle can appear over the horizon at any minute. It’s interesting therefore that given their detour to the unknown Fury Road refuses to give a Garden of Eden or Fresh Hell to the characters. They had what they needed all along and the real “green place” was literally the friends they made along the way! Yes this a tidy resolution but to namecheck a post I made 18 months ago, what makes Castle in the Sky better was the amazing castle in the fucking sky. If Immortan Joe had suddenly pushed some sort of Voltron button and his real War Rig had appeared – a car made of 10 double decker busses strapped together under a Jumbo jet fuselage for example – that would have added a crescendo rather than as what happens instead the move gradually runs out of gas. Not because all films need a last boss, but because this film really did.
Obviously I’m a lot more booo on this movie than most people.
I like the way it starts. Good old Max Rockatansky doing his stuff and the chase scene where he’s being chased by all of those actually-white white guys and all the cool editing stuff where he’s running through skulls and stuff. And yeah it all looks beautiful and Charlize Theron is a badass and it’s all as propulsive as a motherfucker and obviously if I don’t like it then that means that I’m obviously a Nazi that hates female-powered action movies right?
Yeah. Well. No.
So. This exact moment when the rot starts to kick in for me:
I mean yeah ok this is almost a cool line. But it’s not quite there. It’s like they tried to shoehorn in a coolness and instead it just kinda lands with a thud. Part of it is I think the fact that Judge Dredd got there first and did it a lot better…
(I wonder how much to read into the fact that Brendan McCarthy who co-wrote the Fury Road script used to be an artist for 2000AD / Judge Dredd… Hmmmm).
And yeah ok I’ll admit that maybe I’m being far too precious and after all it’s just a signal line of dialogue and how important is the talking in the film supposed to be anyway? But well yeah I don’t know for me it’s a very jarring moment that kinda pops me out of that blissful trance-like movie watching state and it kinda feels like where the film starts going off the rails.. Which I guess is where we need to start talking about the ending…
First up the bit with this guy:
I mean: I think we can all agree that Immortan Joe is one of the baddest badasses that’s ever been bad. Dude has iconography for miles – like a cross between Darth Vader and an evil skull. He’s also stingy with water so you know right off that he’s a bad guy and literally treats women as his property which is very not cool dude. And oh shit I’ve gotta admit that right from the off I was rubbing my hands in glee at the thought at what kind of comeuppance this dude was going to get because well yeah – the best thing about having a good bad guy is watching their good death scene right? Obviously it’s not a good thing and helps to reinforce outdated notions of punishment and justice but still: it’s a fun fast exciting action movie right and we DEMAND CRAZY EXCITING BLOODY DEATH.
Pop quiz for anyone that hasn’t seen this film since it first came out – does anyone remember how Immortan Joe dies?
Well yeah exactly.
Furiosa climbs up on the side of the car says “Remember me?” and then you blink and there’s loads of blood and Joe gets his mask ripped off and erm that’s about it? Something something and he’s gone and I’m all like: “Is that it?” and Fury Road is all like: “Oooh yeah baby – that’s it.” Which was around about the time that I started boo-ing at the screen. Because I mean seriously – way to short change both Immortan Joe and Imperator Furiosa. After all that build up and tension and anticipation to just do something so short and so boring and so unimaginative seems almost…criminal.
Like Jonathan says – it’s almost as if the film just kinda… runs out of gas.
(I would like to second the idea of The Real War Rig = “a car made of 10 double decker busses strapped together under a Jumbo jet fuselage”)
And it doesn’t really stop there.
I mean everyone obviously made a very big deal about how Fury Road is a big feminist film and all the rest of it – and there was something about Daily Mail trolls or something when it was released? Oh yeah there we go. And there was another thing that George Miller brought in a special feminist consolation to help do the script? Oh right yes: Eve Ensler who did The Vagina Monologues. All of which is to say – can anyone tell me why it ended in such a shitty way that actually erm – makes the film kinda not really feminist at all?
Like: the ending is the conceit right? And if you tell a gangster film and the gangster gets caught at the end the message is “Crime doesn’t pay” and if you tell a gangster film and the gangster escapes at the end with all their money then the message is “Do crimes kids!” so what’s the message of Fury Road and who gets to be the hero?
He gets to smash the truck and sacrifice himself honorably like he’s Jesus Christ and it goes all slow-mo and sad but also at the same time kinda cool. So hooray for him. (In fact if anything – the way it plays on screen you could be forgiven for thinking that he’s the hero of the entire film).
I mean – yeah. He doesn’t really get to do much at the start of the film and he’s mostly pretty useless and spends too much time brooding and not trusting people. But then that’s his arc. By the end he’s let his defenses down. Led everyone to victory (when they wanted to ride to their certain deaths in the salt desert) and told whats-her-face his name. Oh – and given his blood too. What a hero.
She kills Immortan Joe yeah but then she’s all wounded and stuff and spends the last ten minutes or so being sad and dying so that Max can come along and save her and then she takes over this little village of thirsty nameless indistinguishable idiots that we have no real connection with whatsoever and erm that’s it? End of movie which Max doing his Bruce Campbell at the end of Darkman thing and cut to black (omg we should totally do Darkman for a Film Club).
I guess this is the problem with designing a film so the whole thing is one long action scene – because you’re always on the move stuff tends to get lost along the way. And well yeah at the risk of being that guy: compare and contrast the way that the village of the water people or whatever (who basically are only one step up from “faceless masses” – I mean do they even have a collective name?) are just – a bunch of randoms
As compared to the tribe in Mad Max 2 that actually feel like a bunch of real people.
(Even if yeah I know their dress sense leaves a little to be desired).
I mean: did you even need all the people in Fury Road? I guess it makes it more triumphant for the ending when everyone is going up on the platform and all the people are cheering (Classic Liberal Ideology right? The most we can hope for is a change in who the leader is as opposed to getting rid of the power structure altogether – because I guess that’s a step too far? Altho ha wouldn’t it be interesting if the film had an epilogue that was set 5 years afterwards and everything is exactly the same?).
Oh but wait – I was talking about Furiosa…
I mean: yeah I get that maybe if you’re got water on the brain then you’re like – but at the end of the movie Furiosa is the new leader right? And she’s surrounded by all of her cool girlfriends – what could be more feminist than that? To which my only objection is: well yeah I see where you’re coming from but it doesn’t really mean anything? In fact it kinda reminds me of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film where a big deal was made that the President of the Wizarding World was a black woman.
I mean yes hooray for representation and all the rest of it (and hopefully this will help to end racism in the western world) and I hate to be the arsehole that points this out but – there’s a difference between how things are in the world of the film and how we see things when we watch the film. Or to put it another way: it doesn’t matter if a black woman is the President of the Wizarding World when she’s a minor character in the film that only gets a few lines and no one can even remember her name (altho if you read that and correctly said “Seraphina Picquer” then congratulations you win 5 points). What’s important is how close the character is to us and how much we see of them and how much agency they have. And yeah of course for the first half of the film Furiosa is a consummate badass and doing all of the badass stuff but then towards the end she follows the course of the rest of the movie by kinda… running out of a gas. And if she has an arc it mainly involves well – getting upset and getting more injured and beaten as the film goes on. Which I guess is kinda the problem with stories in that they’re all about change so you can either start with a character who’s cool and have them become less cool as the film goes on (or learn a lesson about helping others like Han Solo) or have a character who’s not cool and has to learn to become cool (like Luke Skywalker who starts as a dork and basically becomes savior of the Universe) and with Furiosa – because of this need to make a cool kickass feminist action hero – they kinda just have this cool badass who gets weaker as the film goes on and has to be saved by Max with a blood transfusion which means that’s the lingering image you have as you leave the cinema (the ending is the conceit etc) which means that by the end she’s not really much of a badass at all (sigh) and in this super-amazing feminist film that everyone raves about where all the bad guys are men and all the good guys are women you still have an ending where the people who saved the day were… oh two guys.
Given the film’s long production schedule it’s hard to say whether its intentional, but I feel that Fury Road has a lot to say about modern action movies.
On one side it largely eschews the complex lore of Marvel movies, instead featuring uncomplicated characters with uncomplicated objectives doing uncomplicated (but challenging) things. At the same time it’s not a throw back (more on this later), it’s an upgrade on how a fairly old-fashioned style of film can be refreshed. I rewatched Mission Impossible: Fallout this week and it has the same understanding that a footchase across the London skyline is exciting; A helicopter chase is fun to watch; Tom Cruise calling Superman a prick is the sort of one liner that should have won the academy award for best screenplay; that you can add tension just by adding a countdown. The plot is kind of nonsense (although it is also to do with water), but serves purely to move things along.
The embodiment of stripped down story telling gradually devouring itself is Terminator. The first film, like Fury Road is just a relentless chase against unstoppable forces, the second film sensibly just amps that up, but then they disappeared down the rabbit hole of developing a non-existent plot and the curse of modern cinema – world building. Matt Groening said in response to fans demanding a stand alone Itchy and Scratchy cartoon was that people don’t want what they think they want. Itchy Scratchy is amazing as a cartoon in a cartoon, but it’s just furniture. That’s not saying the fans are unreasonable, they are fans, they were given a spoonful of tasty dessert and they want just more dessert next time. Marvel have hacked this to some extent because if you loved a specific character or object from one of the movies there is probably a trade paperback with their life story in readily available. Do we want to know more about Immortan Joe? Well yeah he’s super cool, but the film didn’t waste time on him because it understood that not dwelling on things was a feature not a big and that a mind bending car chase through a post apocalyptic wasteland is better than any of the interminable Fast and Furious movies which crowbar acres of back story and motivation in-between violent over-reaction and extra-judicial punishment beatings.
If anything the previous criticism is that having set that agenda they didn’t commit enough to this in the same way the speed racer goes into its high speed victory lap. They put loads of plot in at the backend to make it all mean something, because so many films have 18 endings which stitch up all the exposition, plot twists, character arcs in many films and just add dead weight. I wonder why I even mention it and it brings me to the permanent film club questions of are films not as a good as they used to be? Is it just me? Is it the bias of only remembering the classics?
Like the 80s had so many action classics ,which were problematic in many ways, but just so much fun. Robocop, Aliens, Back to the Future, all theoretically “nerdy science films for nerds” or “Raiders, Conan, and Big Trouble in Little China “fantasy films about wizards for nerds” but all stone cold classics which appealed to everyone. And all held together but a combination of pace and invention, so the uneven performances, ropey FX and cheesy dialogue weren’t just politely ignored but became part of the signature.
The “I fucking love that guy” Guy; the “Game Over Man”; “Get your arse to Mars!” why are these pieces of weird dialogue, these memes before there was a place to put memes, endlessly quoted at Prince Charles re-screenings and movies nights across the world for 30 years? Well lots of reasons obviously, but I put it to you that in all three of those performances the scripts were there to move things along quickly and the actors and their random sound bites were left to do the rest. [extreme Morpheus voice] what if I told you most dialogue in current movies is more about conveying information rather than meaning. Maybe twas ever thus, but it seems like everyone is secretly Basil Exposition.
In a time when all those 80s guys have become caricatures of themselves or the films have been remade into weird nonsense like new iterations of Alien, Terminator, Indy, Predator and Robocop which either lack sophisticated or try so hard to be clever that they don’t make any sense. Fury Road doesn’t fix this, but it feels like it recaptures some of that original spirit.
Just to swing back to the ‘how feminist is this?’ question, the cardinal sin of Mad Max: Fury Road may be that it has Mad Max in the title. The filmmakers may have been aware of the risk of having the main character swoop into a situation and save some pretty girls from the evil warlord (the plot of almost every video game ever), which is why they included a female badass character that can stand up to Max and mastermind the escape. Except that then you have to give Max something to do as well – and he is the one that has the distance from the situation to halt Furiosa and co driving to their deaths and bring them round to the ultimately successful alternate plan.
Max and Furiosa end up as surrogate parents seeking their dependents’ freedom in an obvious contrast to the villain’s attempts to maintain an oppressive patriarchal control over women’s bodies and lives. That’s a straightforward feminist message. The film does attempt to differentiate the girls and give them the semblance of a personality. They have agency, and even manage a couple of frags towards the end. That said – Joel’s right that Max remains the principle agent. It’s his name on the billboard (perhaps the sequel should be called Imperator Furiosa). I’m minded to give the film props for trying even if ultimately doesn’t resolve the dilemmas inherent in its structure.