What a day! What a lovely day!
War whoops, tribalism, ultraviolence, souped-up vehicles, and a surprisingly large dose of religion and spirituality are the hallmarks of George Miller's return to the Mad Max universe in "Mad Max: Fury Road." Quite a mix of themes and tropes, but let's get one sticky issue out of the way first: the feminism question that's been burbling around the conservative side of cyberspace. The charge is that the movie is a gyp: Max might be the eponymous hero, the guy featured in the ads, but in truth the movie belongs to Charlize Theron's character, Imperator Furiosa.* That could well be: Theron's performance and screen time earn her at least equal billing, if not top billing, for this film. I had no trouble with this aspect of "Fury Road." True, there may have been some feminist themes** running through the plot, but it didn't take any suspension of disbelief to accept Theron's Furiosa as a gritty heroine. Why? Three reasons. First: because the Mad Max movies, taken as a whole, are so ridiculous that you pretty much have to turn your brain off to accept what you're seeing. Second: because Theron's character fits perfectly into the logic of the story. Third: because Theron herself plays Furiosa with such grim conviction that she sucks you into the action. And for me, that's what it all comes down to: feminist heroine or not, all I want is a good story told entertainingly.
[NB: I loved "Aliens" as a teen, and it bothered me not a bit that Sigourney Weaver was the heroine. When she grated, "Get away from her, you BITCH!" at the alien queen, I cheered along with the rest of the audience. Loudly.]
It's enlightening to compare the experience of watching "Fury Road" with the experience of watching "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (reviewed here). Both movies are stuffed to the gills with action, but I couldn't help thinking that "Fury Road" was purer, less self-consciously constructed, and more the result of a single person's artistic vision instead of design-by-committee. The action, although less gory than I had hoped it would be, was kinetic and frenetic. When I watched "Age of Ultron," I settled into my plush, cushioned chair and stared placidly at the screen; "Fury Road," by contrast, had me gripping the arms of my seat.
So let's talk about that artistic vision. George Miller—back at the helm of a Mad Max film after a three-decade hiatus—had access to a much larger budget this time around, which gave him the breathing room to create a truly sweeping, grandiose vision. The old Millerish tropes are still in place: we've still got people in vaguely punk-style armor, looking for all the world like an S&M party on wheels. We've got nitro-boosted trailers, monster trucks, and 70s sports cars refitted with assault-vehicle treads. We've got scantily clad women (and one who's fully nude late in the movie, but who manages not to reveal her naughty bits thanks to well-placed camera angles, props, and scenery); we've got Max and his iconic leg brace; we've got motorbikes; we've got stunts; we've got the whole goddamn freak show. Visually, the experience is thrillingly overwhelming. I wouldn't be surprised if some Koreans left the theater holding their heads and moaning, "What the hell did I just watch?"
So Miller brings it, and he brings it hard. The interesting question for me is what it must be like, as a director, to revisit and reboot your old vision. Another comparison seems warranted, this time with George Lucas: Miller obviously matured over the decades, whereas Lucas seems almost to have regressed: the Star Wars prequels were a flaccid, post-ejaculatory drip from a spent mind. (Remember when Lucas was an actual auteur? Did you ever see his amazing "THX-1138"?) Miller, meanwhile, still retains his mojo. And the knives are sharper this time: the camera work is different, the stunts and fights are far edgier, the dialogue is more refined and coherent, and even the music is more grandiose, emphasizing that this is an epic.
One thing I did during the movie was marvel at the action choreography. Every major sequence had at least twenty or thirty separate things happening on screen at the same time, but the visuals never once slid into unintelligibility. Things were intense, and I have to wonder how dangerous it was to make this film.*** Scuttlebutt is that computer-generated effects occupy less than a tenth of the movie, i.e., over 90% of the spectacle you're drinking in comes from practical effects. If ever there was a time to praise the stuntmen (and the intrepid actors who may have done their own stunts), this is it. Hats off to that whole crazy crew—some of whom were, apparently, Cirque du Soleil performers. White-painted War Boys dangled from trucks; they jumped from vehicle to vehicle; they dodged rotating spikes; they swung perilously back and forth in wide arcs on crazily oscillating flexible poles, looking like old-time pirates trying to board a ship. This was, without a doubt, a feast for the eyes.
Filmmaking is a profoundly collaborative effort, but George Miller was true to his own vision, and I'd say he's a master of the chase movie. "Fury Road" is essentially a rolling "Apocalypto," and lucky for us, it's got a plot that actually makes sense.**** The story begins with Max's voiceover narration, which puts us in the right frame of mind to accept the war-torn scenario we find ourselves in. Max is chased, then captured by the War Boys who serve Immortan Joe, the leader of his own tribe/cult. Joe promises Valhalla to his warriors; he controls the supply of water that he pumps up from the bowels of the earth, keeping his people weak and dependent on him. Max is used as a "blood bag" (i.e., a blood donor) to restore one War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), back to health. When we first meet Furiosa, she's about to betray Immortan Joe by whisking away all of his wives (Joe calls them his "top breeders"; genetic robustness is important when you live in an irradiated wasteland). Ostensibly, she's trucking out fuel, but the wives are hidden in a compartment inside her armored vehicle. Max and Furiosa finally meet when Joe realizes that Furiosa has betrayed him: Max, still functioning as a human IV, gets strapped to the front of Nux's vehicle when Joe sends a war party out to reclaim Furiosa. The chase heads into a titanic sandstorm; Max comes to cautious terms with Furiosa, and the chase continues. I won't spoil the rest of the plot for you, but it won't surprise you to learn that there are plenty of shots of fleets of vehicles screaming across open desert, with people firing guns and weird projectiles at each other.
The movie benefits from a solid cast. Tom Hardy, he of the beestung, Cupid's-bow lips, now takes on the role of Max. Unlike the original "Mad Max," this new film features quite a few recognizable stars: Charlize Theron is a known quantity; despite the fact that Furiosa is missing one forearm (she has a robotic prosthesis that's part "The Empire Strikes Back" and part "District 9"), Theron still manages to radiate amputee hotness. (And, good Lord, that voice! So soothing. I could fall asleep to the sound of Theron whisper-reading a Charles Dickens novel to me.) Hugh Keays-Burne, who played Toecutter in the original 1979 movie, is back as diseased cult figure Immortan Joe—a man who, like Tom Hardy's Bane in the third Christopher Nolan Batman film (reviewed here), relies on a mean-looking breathing mask. Nicholas Hoult, whom you might recognize as the young Beast from "X-Men: First Class" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), is light-years away from his diffident Hank McCoy persona in the X-Men franchise. In "Fury Road," he's wild-eyed, cackling, and insanely kinetic, and he's also the guy who delivers the unhinged "What a lovely day!" line. Finally, a tip of the hat should go, as well, to Nathan Jones as the humorously named Rictus Erectus, burly son of Immortan Joe. I recognized Jones from his brief work as the ill-fated Boagrius in Brad Pitt's "Troy." Here, Jones has a lot more to do.
Along with action, the movie chews over some Big Ideas. The most fundamental theme, as you can imagine, is the human will to soldier on. Roaring cars and trucks may actually be a heavy-handed metaphor for the human drive to survive. Other themes include duty, loyalty, and responsibility, all built on a foundation of hard-earned trust. The word "hope" is mentioned out loud a couple times during the film—once cynically by Max, and again by one of the women. As I noted at the beginning of this review, it was surprising to see the extent to which religion and spirituality figured in "Fury Road": Furiosa is driven by thoughts of The Green Place, an Edenic paradise that she wants to take Joe's wives to; Joe himself uses religion as a tool to control his War Boys, filling their heads with notions of Valhalla, of dining in the land of the dead with their fellow fallen warriors. Max isn't exempt from the spookiness: he's haunted by the specters of his own dead (his wife and daughter, I think, along with a few others, including an aboriginal elder who makes a brief, phantasmic appearance). One nightmarish vision ends up saving his life: he raises his hand to ward off a specter, and his hand inadvertently blocks a crossbow bolt that would have transfixed his brain. Instead, in a moment of Tarantino-style morbid humor, Max's hand gets stapled to his head when the bolt sinks into his skull but fails to penetrate. Above all of this anthropic-level religion, however, sits the land itself: the biggest religious trope of all. This is the post-apocalypse: it's the ravening chaos that remains after the eschaton has come and gone. These are the adventures of those who have been left behind.
Alas, in this film, the land in question is mostly Namibia, not the Australian Outback. That was disappointing to discover when I began reading the trivia related to this film. Another disappointment was that Joe's wives weren't written distinctly enough to be truly memorable characters. I didn't even know the wives' names until I read the Wikipedia entry about the movie after I got back home. Zöe Kravitz, daughter of musician/actor Lenny Kravitz (who played Cinna in the Hunger Games series), was the bullet-counter, then later a kidnappee. One blonde was the moony mystic. The redhead was distinguished by the fact that she began to fancy Nicholas Hoult's Nux. The pregnant one... well, we won't talk about her, except to say that we're told she's Joe's favorite breeder.
Despite these disappointments, feminists can cheer: the movie's main female character, as well as the tough older women she meets up with later in the movie, have enough backbone for any hundred women. Even better, the movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors: two female characters do indeed talk to each other about a topic unrelated to a man.
Then there's the movie's general quirkiness, which certainly deserves a paragraph of its own. Miller still loves his frenetic, slightly sped-up camera work; that hasn't changed from the late 1970s. His addition of the truck-riding drummers and heavy-metal guitar player (with a guitar that shoots flames for no reason at all) adds an edge to the movie that is both bellicose and ludicrous. The actors' accents are all over the place, making it hard to know whether we're in Australia (what accent was Tom Hardy doing?). Most of the action scenes contain moments of often-corny humor; I'm not sure how well the Korean audience understood some of the more culturally specific gags (e.g., one woman hears Max's plan to storm Joe's fortress and whines, "I thought you weren't insane anymore!" I had a good laugh, but no one else did). Then there are the little touches, like the weird binoculars and spyglasses that the characters use. Miller obviously invested a lot of time and thought in making this seared, sere world as alien as possible, while still telling a recognizably terrestrial story.
Overall, I found "Fury Road" thoroughly enjoyable, in contrast to "Avengers," which was merely entertaining. Miller's editing has improved vastly since 1979's "Mad Max": the action was coherent, and nothing was confusing. It's good to see a director who has matured and not merely aged. There's no denying that the entire Mad Max franchise is fundamentally stupid, but if you're looking for good, stupid fun, this movie enthusiastically brings the fun—and the stupid—to you in spades.
*Why the bad Latin? Imperator is masculine while Furiosa is feminine. All I can say is: just go with it. The world of Mad Max is an apocalyptic hell filled with freaks, boils, elephantiasis, dwarfism, constant thirst, and neck tumors. Do you think anyone in such a universe really cares about baby-naming conventions?
**We could argue about this all day. On the one hand, how feminist is it when the heroine simply incarnates traditionally male virtues like bravery and aretê (the ancient-Greek virtue of excellence)? On the other hand, you could argue, as a feminist might, that virtues like bravery and aretê aren't uniquely male.
***It might not have been as dangerous as all that. This B-roll footage (catch it before the link goes stale) shows that many of the top-of-the-truck scenes were filmed in front of an outdoor green screen on unmoving set pieces.
****Except for one thing: there's a scene in which a canyon is blocked by explosives. Later in the film, Max suggests going back through that same canyon to attack Immortan Joe's fortress, and he and his friends do pass more or less smoothly through it. Was the blockage cleared away that quickly? Did I miss a crucial plot point? I swear, I didn't leave the theater to take a dump this time—I really didn't. UPDATE, August 14, 2015: I purchased the movie on Amazon Prime just yesterday and watched it today. There is indeed dialogue about the canyon's being open—dialogue I must have missed or forgotten the first time around. And when our heroes plunge into the canyon for the second time, we do, in fact, see bits of the cleared-out rubble lining the sides of the route through the canyon.