Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
I’m going on the air today to talk about the Hollywood production and distribution model that leans ever more towards franchises, in which studios demand a certain brand pre-awareness before committing the millions of dollars required to produce, and then advertise, their big-budget blockbuster extravaganzas, and so I ask the following question: would there be any anticipation for George Miller’s new movie if it didn’t have “Mad Max” in its title? In our current universe, it is more than understandable why a filmmaker would want to link a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, expensive to make (at $150,000,000+) – though not nearly as expensive as Avengers: Age of Ultron (at $250,000,000+) – and market, to a proven property like Mad Max, even if that series is 30 years old (has it really been that long …). Simply calling the film “Barren Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland” wouldn’t quite cut it. The titular character had his origin in the eponymous 1979 movie, also by Miller, that launched what, until now, had been a trilogy (with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome following in 1981 and 1985). With a new actor – Tom Hardy (Locke), always good – in the lead role, replacing Mel Gibson, and a plot that is only tangentially related to the original series – though the aesthetics are very similar – it can often feel like a stretch to find continuity between this new film and its predecessors. Fortunately, I fairly quickly gave up trying, and decided to just sit back and enjoy the show.
Wow! What a show it is. From the opening pre-credit sequence to the film’s redemptive conclusion (with a few very brief exceptions), the action never stops. Rarely have I seen such a hyperactive, kinetic film. And unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron and it’s CGI-laden brethren, this movie features stunts and explosions that happen on camera, lending a particularly palpable power to each and every punch. Beautifully choreographed, expertly photographed and production-designed in exquisite detail, Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterful collection of set pieces, held together by a mostly well-crafted script that moves quickly enough to leap over what gaping plot potholes there are. It’s a summer movie such as we haven’t seen since … the second Mad Max film (considered, until now, the best in the series), and my advice is to avoid my problem of trying to figure out how the movie fits in with the other three and to let it entertain you on its own terms. As Miller, himself, has said, it’s a revisiting of the world he created all those years ago (call it a reboot, call it what you will), so continuity is not the point. So be it.
We meet Max as a lone figure against a desert backdrop (see poster, above), telling us, in voiceover, how the world as we know it ended. He’s troubled by quick-cut visions of his past (which seem to link him to the first Mad Max film, and are the least effective parts of the film, for me), but before he can dwell on his pain, he’s attacked and captured. And then he escapes, and then he is captured again. Wham. Bam. Ouch. We soon find ourselves in a medieval community (what’s past is prologue …), ruled by a dysfunctional family, where water is scarce and prisoners like Max are used as “blood bags” to revive injured warriors. Max is “assigned” to one such warrior, Nux – a fine Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) – and is soon strapped to the front of a souped-up dune buggy as Nux and his “war boy” pals charge out into the wasteland in pursuit of a commander gone rogue. That leader, Furiosa – Charlize Theron (Young Adult), tough and rough as sand – has stolen some precious cargo from the community’s sclerotic (but still dangerous) leader, and this act of rebellion becomes the MacGuffin that drives (pun intended) the plot, which is really one big car (and truck) chase scene across the Namibian desert.
I’ll be honest, I couldn’t keep most of the character names straight (other than Max, Furiosa and Nux), but I didn’t care. Leave that to the movie geeks (wait, I’m a movie geek …). I was along for the ride. And though some of the story is confusing, the general meaning of the film resonated: even in the middle of total destruction, there is never reason for despair if we fight back against the evils of tyranny and reclaim our humanity. Powerful stuff, that didn’t need to be underlined (double-underlined, in some cases) with the few operatic moments of raw, plaintive emotion we see when the action briefly stops. Mad Max: Fury Road is not a perfect movie (and as much as I like Hardy, I actually really missed Gibson), but it’s a damn good one, and great popcorn fare. To return to my initial question about franchises, here’s my answer: in a world of often-generic blockbuster sameness, if one is going to reconceive a franchise, this is the way to do it. Don’t remake it. Don’t even reboot it from scratch (as in The Amazing Spider-Man, as much as I enjoyed that film). Revisit the world and tell a different story within it, blending the old with the new. Past may be prologue, but it doesn’t have to repeat itself, and Mad Max: Fury Road is both an homage and an original piece of work, and well worth watching (especially in a theater). Go see it.