I Will Now Opine About Mad Max: Fury Road and Movies in General

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road tonight (edit: well, when I started writing this… Been a couple days since). I had some Scene points (loyalty program) that were expiring, and out of everything available I’d heard the most positive reviews about it. I’d not quite intended to write a second post in a row on something creative, but this is how the day turned out. The main reason for avoiding this kind of topic is because I find it’s very easy to voice opinions on entertainment products, but there isn’t really lot of value in merely stating an opinion. This is probably why I generally have avoided reading reviews of things because they generally fail at establishing context (credentials or really any indicator that this is an opinion worth hearing), and I’m usually left without an answer to the all important question: “who cares?” There is nothing particularly bad about the expression of an opinion per se (though I’d hope we’d expect more from the institution of the review), but generally when they are negative they are also matched with an unhealthy dose of scorn for the team behind it. It’s understandable because usually it’s really fun to write in high dudgeon, and as long as everyone’s on the same page, everyone has some good laughs about what morons the people who shot that movie/wrote that book/made that game were.

I think most people are generally on board with the ‘don’t be mean’ sentiment. Generally I think this kind of behaviour is limited to talking about unknown individuals, so something like a development team, and on the occasions that it does take a specific name (ie. Michael Bay), people are attacking the concept rather than pursuing an individual vendetta against the man. That said, the sentiments expressed to these people are no less hurtful to them because they certainly are known individuals from their point of view. Now, this does not make anyone free from criticism (even poorly expressed or ignorant criticism), but it seems to me much more productive to engage these people seriously and do what we can to nurture this talent so that in future we can at least hope for more and better entertainment options. This is partly the motivation for why I wanted to elaborate on the Caves of Qud comments on Twitter (even if, as is likely the case, these views will never inform an actual decision). I also prefer criticism that rises beyond snark because it simply makes for better reading. Compare The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin from Foreign Affairs (which, it is worth reiterating, is a book review. Also likely behind a paywall but I believe there are two free articles a month) to any of the other reviews you’ve read recently. I clearly can’t expect to accomplish what the book review does, but in the spirit of producing commentary that attempts to at least engage with the material, I thought I would talk about what worked for me and what didn’t in Mad Max: Fury Road.

It’s worth mentioning that I believe I’ve seen the original Mad Max, but I don’t recall any details about it, and so some of my comments on character are likely to be informed by this gap. That said, the last Mad Max movie was released 30 years ago, and so I do not think it is unfair to expect that most viewers are not going to be familiar with anything that occurred in the original three films.  I also can’t expect this to be too much of an impediment because absolutely nothing about the promotion or discussion of the film has indicated it is anything but a pure action movie. And in this regard it is absolutely fantastic. It starts off strong and fast and maintains that pace for more or less the entire first half. It may not be for everyone, but I think it’s a ton of fun to watch, and I really can’t think of a movie that’s done it quite this well.

In many ways, I have to suspect that this is what movies on the big screen are about today. From a business perspective, consider the following: almost all of the information is conveyed visually, and the majority of sounds essential to the experience are not spoken words, meaning that it will likely translate better into other languages than, say, a comedy that relies on wordplay. Big sound and big visuals are also still best conveyed in a movie theatre. I have to assume the experience will be somewhat diminished on Netflix. This doesn’t mean there isn’t value in seeing a drama on the big screen, or that there is necessarily a tradeoff between the two (just think of Lawrence of Arabia), but it is much easier to make the case that action is a reason to actually go out to the movies. It’s also easier to see a transition to more action oriented fare in response to the fact that drama can develop greater character arcs over the course of a season of a television show (to say nothing of several seasons) than in the confines of even a three hour movie. It’s hard to imagine seeing Breaking Bad having the same impact restyled as a feature length movie, and it’s even more difficult to imagine The Terminator sustaining a long standing TV series (yes, I know there was the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I never saw it and it appears to have only run for 2 seasons, earning Emmy nominations for technical work only). This is why it may be easy to joke about Michael Bay movies, but there is a certain gift in being able to identify this shift in audience sentiments, if this is actually what’s occurred.

But in reality, if I’m only going to talk about the action, I have nothing new to say here. If you don’t know that Fury Road has a lot of really good action in it, there’s plenty of other people who can communicate that better than me. What else is there to keep you entertained for two hours? Here is where someone might go for the old saw that it’s ‘good for action but not much going on for the story.’ Again, there’s more going on here than that cliche can permit. There’s actually some interesting ideas going on in this movie, both in terms of setting, but also those weird image systems english majors like to keep talking about. Different fluids keep coming up: Max as a ‘bloodbag’, the rationing of water to keep the population under control, the farm of wet nurses, and the theft of gasoline all keep coming up again and again in the first half. It’s apparent enough that the people are living under an oppressive, extractive system, but the return to this theft of fluids (my Strangelovian phrasing aside), provides a nice coherence to the setting that suggests that this is more than just a string of cool stunt performances with dialogue to keep it respectable.

On this note, we can make a contrast between the two types of review. Someone wanting to regale us with the time they slummed it with the plebes and enjoyed a brainless bit of dumb fun would point out something like ‘why would they use so many flamethrowers and chainsaws if fuel is so precious?’ But, with maybe some reservations, I like this touch and see it as another indicator that a lot of thought and care was put into creating this world. Such extravagance is ultimately a display of such supreme confidence, and I can think of more than a few historical precedents (imagine the complaint “If money is so precious, why do these Romans keep wasting them on spectacle?”). ‘Wasting’ fuel on a flame throwing guitar (or the entire rig with drums and speakers) just as easily is a display of strength and the assuredness that further conquest will bring in more fuel. I’m maybe less sold on the utility of the combat oriented uses (the chainsaws, the flamethrowers) given the presence of more primitive (and reliable) weapons in the film, but this maybe accounted for a fraction of a second’s thought in the overall film. I also thought the design of the different weapons and tactics on display were quite ingenious, and tremendously enhanced by different styles for different factions, and I really like the touch of a post-apocalyptic world where humans can be reduced to tools (Max as a blood bag, the blind guitarist, etc.). It’s certainly possible to create a sequence of high-octane vignettes without putting any thought into the setting, but I think the fact that Fury Road bothered to take the time to fully realize its setting is something that sets it apart and makes it a really good time at the movies.

Unfortunately, I also think there are limitations on this front. I should first note that apparently Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) was a consultant on this film, and so I may simply be missing the mark when it comes to characterization. This caveat aside, I really don’t know what to make of the characters in Fury Road. Max seems to go from a crazy person with a beard who eats lizards to, well, a crazy person without a beard (who may or may not still eat lizards). Furiosa is a bit more interesting with a lot more implied story, but the dialogue is pretty sparse, and generally reduced to orders or directions, so there really isn’t much room for development. This leads me to probably my only real complaint with the movie. I’d say the first half (I didn’t exactly time it) is loud, exiting, and just a grand old time. Once they’ve escaped the army and begin looking for ‘the green place’ things begin to drag a bit, and I kind of feel like I could have gone out, gone to the bathroom, and maybe have gotten a coffee without missing too much. The aforementioned material on fluids is more or less gone at this point (rather than being present throughout the film as is the case with other movies that use these techniques effectively) with possibly the exception of the poisoned water of what turns out to be the remains of the green place. If ‘the big no’ moment (or is it a skyward scream? Comment below) is any indication this is the big emotional lynchpin, but I was sort of indifferent at this point. This is the point without action, but unfortunately it feels a bit aimless which, while perhaps appropriate to the circumstances the characters find themselves in, doesn’t do a lot for me as a viewer. For contrast, the film sets up some really great moments of conflict (admittedly in action scenes) where there are three characters all after the same goal, each completely at odds with one another, so the drag is really noticeable. In face of the fact that the conclusion is much like the opening in terms of thrills and engagement, I do quite literally mean this is my only complaint. The ending may be a bit simple (Furiosa is embraced as a new ruler without question and Max walks off as the lone wanderer he was at the start, possibly in search of a lizard), but it ties everything together, and I suppose gives Furiosia the redemption she’s stated as seeking.

So what might we do with the sagging middle? Fury Road doesn’t fall into the sin of most movies today which is to be too long. It clocks in at an even 120 minutes which is a perfectly reasonable time for a movie. That said, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it were cut down. But as I said, maybe there’s a bit more going on here which I simply didn’t realize, and maybe I’m going a little too far in saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to have a pure action film. How might we change things if forced to keep the present runtime? The following answer almost certainly reflects my present interests, but I hope to argue that this alternative direction is at least consistent with things I think are already strengths of the film, and possibly strengthen points where I feel the film is weaker.

In the present ending, Immortal Joe is killed, and Furiosa’s revelation of this is sufficient to establish herself as his replacement. This may work in the world of the film but is an opportunity for conflict that isn’t explored. Immortal Joe has set up a system through which his access to and limited distribution of precious resources secure his control. Joe was the present warlord, but this system is very much intact after his death and Furiosa needs access to it to accomplish her goals (even if she ultimately seeks an equitable distribution of these resources). In the current version of the film, Furiosa’s successful combat against Joe is all that is required for her to seize power, and it can be possibly justified if we assume the existing administrators feel the need for a display of strength in order to keep the current system in place. But let’s take a step back and contrast Furiosa with a character like Maximus in Gladiator. Maximus initially refuses Marcus Aurelius’ call to lead Rome back to a republic, explaining he is not a politician and cannot handle institutions such as the senate. His soldierly instincts permit him to survive in the gladiatorial arena, but not to achieve success (“Are you not entertained!?”). His journey in some senses is a political one in which he must learn to win the crowd in addition to being an effective combatant. When he  finally defeats Commodus, he delivers his final speech to the crowd, his mastery of both spheres complete. I think Gladiator’s a great movie, and certainly is not short on excitement, so is there anything we can take from Maximus’ journey that we can apply to Furiosa’s?

Let me motivate this further by asking you a question: Suppose overnight Kim Jong-Un was successfully overthrown by US and South Korean forces, who now inherit all the systems of control of his repressive government along with it’s starving, uneducated, desperate population. What would happen? Fury Road’s answer is that they would realize the better way and embrace the new government from the coalition without a second’s thought. This, to my view, is a tremendous missed opportunity. If we shorten down the ‘wandering’ moments to communicate the essential information (Furiosa’s past, meeting the Vuvalini, the poisoning of the green place) and instead make the final confrontation not just a trial by combat, which Furiosa has already displayed considerable skill in from the outset, but instead make the seizing of the citadel the final challenge the characters need to overcome. I think this conflict still allows the film’s themes to come through, and strengthen’s Furiosa’s quest for redemption. The current redemption is effectively granted to her by the whims of whoever holds the levers to bring the party up to the valves that hold the water. While she may go from simply saving herself and the five wives to saving the citadel, it’s a side effect of her fight against Immortal Joe. In contrast, a fight to bring the citadel under her control (ideally one that is at least partly, if not fully political in nature, again, Gladiator demonstrating that these need not be mutually exclusive), makes the achievement that much more meaningful. It presents an opportunity to show more of her character, in addition to providing a better role for Max who is a former cop (and so has a past that involves public service and the enforcing order).

In so far as this is a review I suppose I should finish by saying whether or not I think it’s worth going out and seeing. As always, I need to hedge my bets and say it depends on what kind of a movie you want to see. If you don’t like loud movies with violence, then this is not going to be the movie for you. If you go to movies looking for ‘holes’ to poke in, you’ll probably be able to project them (though as outlined above, I don’t think can be sustained) and so presumably will not enjoy yourself. Likewise, while I think there’s more to the story than what I hear others give it credit for, if you want a bit more dramatic meat in your films, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. But honestly, those individual cases aside, this movie is a fantastic reason to go go out to the theatre and watch a movie. It’s big, the sound design is great, the stunts are great, the soundtrack is a perfect match, and the action has fantastic pacing and tension throughout. And if, like me, you’re worried it’s dying out halfway through, take heart, it’s just as exciting in the climax. I’m happy to have spent the time and money.

The preceding contains what some might consider spoilers and probably shouldn’t be read if you don’t want to know any details about the plot before seeing the movie.

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