There’s a scene in David Lean’s war epic, Lawrence of Arabia, where the titular character explosively derails a moving train. That moment has a sort of exciting realism to it – because the crew actually blew up a moving train. And so it acts as a sort of touchstone for evaluating action scenes involving artillery, vehicles and the like: is it as insane as Lawrence? Most modern action films, with their reliance on CG, fail the test by a large margin.
Little did I know that George Miller, when he wasn’t directing fare like Babe and Happy Feet, had a career dedicated to picking up the gauntlet that Lean threw down.
I had never seen any of Miller’s Mad Max series until a couple of weeks ago. This in spite of being fond of westerns (and Mad Max is definitely a post-apocalyptic western), and enjoying Battle Angel Alita and Trigun – anime/manga that are obvious genetic descendents of Miller’s work.
When I first heard of Fury Road, I was apathetic; it looked like another bland attempt to cash in on a beloved franchise. But the testimony of some random people on the internet (one of my primary sources of information) stating that it was miraculously the best action movie in decades convinced me to spend a Saturday night on it.
Jumping into the latest installment of a 30+ year old series is intimidating, but fortunately, mythos turns out to not matter very much in Fury Road; the film is largely an extended car chase sequence with occasional pit stops. You aren’t expected to master any complicated backstory or be capable of following intrigue.
But paradoxically, it’s one of the best examples of worldbuilding in cinema. With virtually no expository dialogue whatsoever, the film manages to introduce you to the grimy citadel and its even grimier denizens. Within the first half hour you have a pretty good idea of the society that names like Immortan Joe, Imperator Furiosa and the War Boys, and what exactly is at stake when Furiosa absconds with Joe’s wives, thus initiating said car chase sequence. Max is brought along as a hood ornament/unwilling blood donor.
The fact that most of the runtime is given over to watching things explode is somehow not monotonous, because Miller realizes that things need to make practical sense to the audience. At no point did I feel like I had lost track of what was happening before my eyes, and at no point did things lapse into video game-esque unreality. CG is kept at a minimum in favor of actual people doing actual stunts in actual cars. If Fury Road does not win Best Picture for this alone, I will continue to not care about the Awards.
That still kinda undersells Miller’s accomplishment, so I’ll phrase it like this: Fury Road felt like an entire movie created out of Lawrence’s train-derailing moment.
Thus its lack of characterization and plot feels less like laziness and more like some sort of insane action-purist aesthetic. Even the dialogue is minimalistic to the point where I am sure that the only reason George Miller didn’t opt for title cards instead was that they would interrupt the flow too much.
Fury Road feels like the anti-Phantom Menace, in that it features a creator returning to his material with a big budget and a wider canvas and using them well. It’s also the goofy action shlock masterpiece that Pacific Rim promised but failed to be. As a corollary, I now have even less faith in Star Wars VII’s ability to impress me.
And, an addendum: much internet ink has been spilled over the supposed feminist content of the movie. I think its fair to say that Miller wanted to show some serious female solidarity and agency, but it didn’t strike me as anything particularly novel. Someone compared the film’s sexual politics to Aliens, and that seems about right: Ellen Ripley defends herself and her de-facto daughter against monsters who represent a perversion of male sexuality. Imperator Furiosa tries to save some women from a society which represents a perverse form of masculinity. Both women hold their own against their male counterparts.
That got me to watch the original Mel Gibson starred Mad Max, which I found to be….ok.
Actually, I found it to be quite harrowing and uncomfortable to watch. It’s one of the most nihilistic movies I’ve seen, depicting the ongoing moral and psychological devastation of Australian cop Max Rockatansky as society falls apart around him. Sure, it features crazy car action and all that, but a story about a man who is driven to, well, madness by the brutality around him, with no redemption in sight, is kinda unsettling to watch.
Unlike the other films, which are firmly post-apocalyptic, this is a depiction of society that is in decay and decadence and trying to pretend that it isn’t happening. It does a good job, almost too good a job, in creating an atmosphere of dread out of that.
But again, it overall felt ok, workmanlike. Miller hasn’t quite come into his own here, and it shows. And it’s so frigging bleak and cynical…
…..that things can only go up from there. For Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is about Max regaining his humanity. The plot is in essentials that of Seven Samurai, with Max helping to liberate a small village from local bandits.
And The Road Warrior finds Miller in mature artistic form – this is definitely the same guy who made Fury Road, only with a smaller budget and more Mel Gibson. The worldbuilding, action, etc. Although it lacks the latter film’s monomaniacal focus on car chase set-pieces, it feels even more raw and minimalistic.
This is a consequence of the budget, but also of the setting: the characters are working with vastly smaller resources, and so every bullet is to be used with reluctance. The result is that it feels closer to the world of classic westerns like Rio Bravo than the others do. There’s less flashiness, but more tension.
It seems kinda pointless to try to say whether it’s better or worse than Fury Road; they’re about on par.
I’ve yet to see Beyond Thunderdome, which seems to be the black sheep of the bunch.
So – should you believe all the hype about Fury Road? Well, if you’re squeamish at all, stay clear: these movies certainly earn their R ratings (the older ones moreso than Fury Road, actually). But otherwise it’s about as good as this sort of movie gets.
Hey Josh, a lot of the stuff you’ve been writing about lately is pretty positive. Is there anything that you didn’t like?
I’d might as well get this out of my system now: a few months ago I tried playing Kingdom Hearts II for the first time. You see, I enjoyed the first one as a kid, and thought that this would be a nostalgic romp. It took me fifteen hours to realize that it was subsisting entirely on Disney/Squaresoft pandering, and that it was all empty calories. The Tron world was only interesting because it was the Tron world, and not because it was actually interesting to explore, etc. The gameplay was easy in a mindlessly boring way, and the story was a convoluted, pretentious mess that I didn’t care to see the end of. Auron’s cameo was mildly clever, as was the Steamboat Willie, but those are about the only notable features. And Mickey Mouse still looks incredibly stupid in that coat.