Watching George Miller’s new apocalyptic vision, Mad Max: Fury Road, is like having your head stapled to the side of a fireworks factory strapped to a rocket on top of a tanker truck launched at a zombie/punk pyromaniacs convention in the middle of the desert.
It’s loonier than the looniest of Looney Toons. It’s nuttier than a squirrel farmer’s underpants. It’s more absurd, bananas, and ridiculous than a blind mutant punk named Coma The Doof Warrior playing an electric, flame-throwing guitar on a bungee cord at 70 KPH.
Or no. It’s exactly that ridiculous. But more. So much more.
And the guitar? It’s real. Doof is actually playing it and it’s actually spewing flames. Or as production designer Colin Gibson put it, “[Cabaret artist iOTA] had a month or six weeks of getting used to it, of actually being able to play at full speed, while bungee jumping and blind.”
In a sense, everything that happens in Fury Road is done while bungee jumping and blind. Tom Hardy, stepping into Mel Gibson’s shoes as Max, has a metal cage bolted to his face for almost half the movie. Charlize Theron, as warrior/truck driver Furiosa, has a robot arm. And Hugh Keays-Byrne, playing the demonic heavy, Immortan Joe, wears a skull mask over his lower face from start to finish, channeling the Humungus from The Road Warrior.
Fury Road, one must assume, takes place sometime post-Beyond Thunderdome, and like that movie, outposts of civilization—or whatever passes for it—have sprung up, in this case out of the living rock from which mad cult leader Immortan Joe draws water for his followers. Exactly no time is spent introducing this world. The movie begins with Max’s capture, his attempted escape, and Imperator Furiosa driving a massive armored tanker truck—the war rig—to Gas Town to fill up.
Only she’s not going to Gas Town. She’s fleeing altogether, and taking with her Immortan Joe’s five beautiful wives/sex-slaves/baby-makers. It’s post WWIII, after all, and Immortan Joe is looking to father some non-mutant children. Realizing what Furiosa has done, he and his religious army of white-painted War boys give chase. So too do his neighbors from Gas Town and Bullet Town.
And there’s your movie: She’s running away! Get her!
No one films chaotic car battles like George Miller. It’s not just his insane imagination, or the phenomenal production design (those cars!), or the seemingly endless supply of brain-liquidating stunts on display, or the sureness of the editing, that sell it. It’s the details. Some, like the Doof Warrior, are not subtle. Many others are. Miller is known for giving his every character a back-story, a reason for existing in this society, and that attention brings his mad cartoon to life in a way other movies only dream about.
It’s not only the character details, it’s the details of the entire world. The bevy of large women being milked to supply Immortan Joe and his children with mother’s milk. The War Boys, when about to give their lives to the cause, spray-painting their mouths chrome. And Max, his universal blood donor status tattooed on his back, shoved in a cage next to which a sick War Boy sits, Max’s blood flowing into him.
This particular sick War Boy is Nux (Nicholas Hoult), and rather than sit out the chase, he straps Max, his “blood bag,” to whom he is chained, to the front of his car, and drives after Furiosa intent on joining his kin in Valhalla. Nux will turn out to have quite a ride in Fury Road.
The major set pieces are simply too bonkers too describe. Yet Miller, as he showed in The Road Warrior to great effect, knows how to shoot and edit these sequences better than anyone. You’re never lost watching his action sequences. You know where everyone is, you know where the vehicles are, you’re always given a sense of space and a sense of relationships. Miller knows when to pummel you furiously, and when to pull back for a wide shot to re-ground you before diving back in. It’s a miraculous display of action directing that shows up the reliance on confusion and rapid-fire editing of so many other summer spectacles.
Much has been made of Miller’s reliance on practical effects-work, and well it should be. The vehicular vehicle slaughter is non-stop and completely insane. Trucks flip over themselves, cars bounce and twist and blow up, men on giant poles flop back and forth across the sky, and everywhere our heroes are shooting, punching, knifing, leaping, and just plain driving, always driving.
Until they get to where they’re going. And decide to turn around.
But I’ve told you too much. I don’t want to spoil the plot.
Much has also been made of Fury Road’s lack of plot. But is it just one long chase? Not quite. Miller breaks up the action sequences with moments for the characters to become characters. Or close to characters, anyway. One of the strangest and most surreal visuals is Max’s first sight of Immortan Joe’s wives, clad in diaphanous white, washing themselves off beside the war rig. None of them quite becomes fully fleshed out, but they’re not interchangeable. We may not get to know them well, but they seem like real people, at least as much as anyone is real in here.
If anything, I’d say there’s too much plot in Fury Road. Which is maybe a strange thing to claim, but at two hours the movie felt a bit long. To sustain its length, it might have needed to plunge a bit deeper into its characters.
Max, for example, felt too thin. The movie ultimately belongs to Furiosa. It’s her decision to betray Immortan Joe that gets it rolling, and it’s her character’s journey that moves the story forward. Max is along for the ride, for the most part. Which wouldn’t be a problem if not for the movie being ostensibly about Max, and not just because of the title. He’s presented as the hero, or anti-hero. He’s the one we the audience are meant to invest in. And yet he has no motivation but survival.
I’ve been trying to figure out why The Road Warrior is more emotionally powerful and resonant than Fury Road, when in both cases, Max is driven solely by selfish needs, and I think it comes down to his having a pro-active goal, and a highly specific one. In The Road Warrior, Max wants gas. That’s it. That’s his entire motivation. What does he want gas for? Simple: so he can keep on driving. When his car is destroyed and him just about with it, he’s left with literally nothing. Only then does he agree to drive the tanker. What else has he got to do? What else has he got to drive? Nothing.
In Fury Road, as in Thunderdome, Max’s goal is to not be held captive and/or killed by crazy bad people. He’s not trying to do something, or get something, he’s trying to avoid being killed. His goals beyond survival are unknown. He’s just running away. So for one thing, he’s reactive, for another, his reactive goal is non-specific, it’s just “don’t be killed,” and finally, it doesn’t play as selfish.
Because we all want to live. You can’t blame a guy for that. But for just wanting gasoline? Now that seems pretty fucking petty.
Max shows a conscience in Fury Road. He helps Furiosa and the wives escape and live, instead of only fighting for himself. Which is all well and good. But I didn’t feel emotionally affected by Max’s journey. The Road Warrior has a real heft that’s missing here. Max’s visions of a girl he let die are an attempt to give him a backstory that didn’t work for me. His visions feel out of place and distracting.
Furiosa is the more interesting character, but since she’s not, in a way, the focus, she too feels distant. Miller says he’s already written the next Mad Max movie, and that’s it’s titled Mad Max: Furiosa, so with any luck it’ll delve a little deeper into her character.
Fury Road is not nearly as free of CGI as I’d been led to expect. Yes, the stunts and the explosions and the vehicles are real, but it’s as though all of them have a shiny veneer of CGI laid over the top. Fake bodies fly through the air. A CGI guitar and steering wheel dangle before an explosion. Cars tumble and crash and their occupants pop out unharmed. And the colors, oh my: orange and blue gone mad. All together it creates a feeling of fakeness at odds with the realism of the action.
Considering how everything was shot, it’s too bad realism takes a hit in Fury Road. Why remove the realism with insane color correction and CGI fakery? There’s less weight to the action when you realize a character might survive even the craziest of crashes. In The Road Warrior, when someone is flung off a speeding truck, they’re dead.
The CGI isn’t all for naught. The dust storm with its lightning and interior tornadoes is beautiful and otherworldly. And scary. Eerier still are the stilt-walking bird people of the swamps, glimpsed only once. What strange society have they built, one wonders?
There are way too many visual wonders to recount here. I’m going to have to see this one again. Now that I know what it is, and what to expect from it, I bet I’ll get into the cartoonishness of it all without being bothered by any lack of depth and character.
The Road Warrior it ain’t, but what the hell is? Mad Max: Fury Road is as badass an action movie as anyone’s going to make until George Miller makes another one. If every summer spectacle were this much fun and packed with this much imagination, I would be a very happy man. Now let’s go blow some shit up.