Okay, I have to take back some of my criticisms of The Road Warrior. For all its flaws, that is a far better film than Mad Max Fury Road.
I approached this film with an open mind, but right from the start it set my teeth on edge.
Apparently, George Miller has the same problem as George Lucas: given an unlimited budget and three decades to think over an iconic series, both of them have no idea what actually made their films great.
Thus: Miller ‘reimagines’ Mad Max as a guy who is emotionally crippled but physically invulnerable. What this means is that at crucial moments where Max can solve a problem, he will fail due to a flashback but that’s okay because he’s so unrealistically tough that he will get through it just fine.
This in turn destroys dramatic tension because nothing is at stake and so all one has left is to watch a very long special effects demo reel.
The Lightsaber/Car Wreck Paradox
Both Georges decided that when they finally had enough money, they could load their films with crowd-pleasing spectacles. This ignored the fact that the original films already had adequate levels of action. I mean, no one walked away from either a Mad Max or Star Wars film saying “You know, that was rather dialogue-heavy and spent too much time on character development. I wish there was more action.”
This is where the paradox comes in – yes, people like sword duels, space fights and car chases, but they also want them to have meaning. As the smart dudes at Red Letter Media pointed out in their exhaustive critique of the Star Wars prequels (which also guided my re-write of them in The Man of Destiny series), lightsabers aren’t just gadgets in the original trilogy, they are flags that signal an important plot point.
As they note, every time a lightsaber is ignited, something significant happens. A life is either taken, saved or changed. It’s very cool. However, in the prequels and subsequent films, they’re just used for whatever is handy. Cut open a door, engage in an inconclusive water-treading blaster fight, whatever.
Similarly, the original Mad Max films treated action sequences as the culmination of various events, the result of steadily increasing tension. That’s how stories are supposed to work, with rising expectations leading to an explosive climax.
Because almost the entirety of Fury Road is a car chase, it becomes background noise and the narrow escapes accumulate to the point where they are unremarkable.
Characters? What Characters?
While the earlier movies have cool action scenes, they also feature actual drama, where the characters talk to each other and debate what they should do without driving or shooting or whatever. These sequences give the audience a chance to get to know the characters and thereby care about what happens to them. This in turn serves to heighten the dramatic stakes. And let’s be honest – a clash of personalities can be just as – if not more – tense than an action sequence. When you combine the two, you get quality entertainment.
Fury Road has none of this. There is zero tension. The storyline is set almost from the get-go and lurches forward without fail. I’m trying to think of any time where the cast has to make a decision about something, a moment where there’s a non-event driven discussion (i.e. it isn’t sandwiched in an F/X sequence). I can’t come up with one. Yes, there are technically some decision points, but they’re fake, because everyone knows what’s going to happen (i.e. the movie will just sort of end if the characters don’t choose to take the opportunity for more violence).
Speaking of characters, these people are total NPCs. Charlize Theron’s character is completely uninteresting. She literally is reduced (like so many characters these days) into the standard-issue “diversity points” of being female and having a prosthetic hand. That’s it. No personality to speak of because by 2015, checking the diversity boxes was considered enough.
Ironically, in 1985 that wasn’t enough. Tina Turner’s character in Thunderdome isn’t just an “empowered black woman,” she’s fascinating to watch. Her lair, her manner of speech and the fact that she has a court blues sax player – all of these make her much more interesting than Theron’s character. When Turner finally climbs into her ride, it’s something we’ve been wanting and expecting. “Yes! The showdown at last! Now let’s watch Max and Aunty duke it out.” There is nothing even approaching this in Fury Road.
Partly this is because the character of Mad Max had been reduced to a trope, the Shell-shocked Veteran. As I noted above, he’s roving the wastelands looking the part of the badass, yet he’s barely functional. Seriously, if the flashbacks (which are never explained) are so bad, why not retire to Gas City and pump oil for a living?
By the way, this is a complete inversion of the original Max, who has been hardened by events to be a pitiless destroyer. The story arc of both The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome are about how in both cases he can leave but instead risks his life to help others. It’s a callback to his “beforetimes” life as a cop.
The whole flashback thing reminds me of the dramatic choices in the remade Battlestar Galactica, where the guiding concept seemed to be that the only way to introduce depth or authenticity was to make the characters as flawed and unlikeable as humanly possible. [Yeah, this is a Very Special column – you get my hot takes and Star Wars and BSG. You’re welcome.]
It’s the Stupidity, Stupid
I mentioned that I hated this film from the start, and that’s not an exaggeration. The opening sequence was pathetic. How do that many screamingly loud vehicles kicking up clouds of dust get the drop on anyone?
Oh, and someone needs to tell George Miller that while it’s “subverting expectations” for The Last of the V-8 Interceptors to lose a straightaway race once, that doesn’t work when you do it a second time. What it does is make your iconic vehicle pathetic.
Fury Road is filled with stupid and improbable setups. Take the bad guy’s lair, for example. Where does the water come from? How do they pump it up into the butte and out of those pipes with such pressure? What do the bucket people do when it doesn’t flow, just sit there and be thirsty? Bartertown was a plausible trade center and had a power source. Okay, there are hydroponic gardens, but how does this all work?
Also: who maintains these roads in the middle of nowhere? A big sandstorm would completely cover them and there are no markers so that they can be dug out afterwards. I’m not trying to be pedantic, just pointing out that instead of carving stone monuments and building impossible mashup vehicles, maybe some road graders would be useful.
From Space Orks to Chaos Marines
Okay, this is a niche bit of fandom, but for those who’ve ever played or even heard of Warhammer 40,000, it is clear that the Space Orks owe their entire aesthetic to The Road Warrior. The whole over-the-top boyo mentality, salvage-yard gone mad tech, it’s great.
Fury Road, on the other hand, has changed that into some sort of Norse death worship, reminiscent of the Chaos Marines. The guitar player with the sound wall is right out of the Cult of Slaanesh.
I guess I’ll give Miller half a cheer for finally putting a more formed religion in his film, but of course it’s evil and oppressive. Yawn.
And Now, the Wokeness
Because it was 2015, Miller had to demonstrate his wokeness. How smart and forward-thinking to crib a plot line from The Handmaid’s Tale! And look, an Empowered Woman Doing Things For Herself!
One of Hollywood’s more pathetic psy-ops is to claim that exploiting women is okay so long as it’s empowering. Thus: having a bunch of lithesome babes wearing next to no clothes isn’t about appealing to The Male Gaze, it’s empowerment! I mean, you’d think that part of the plan for their escape would include a change of clothes more appropriate for the environment. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Everyone knows that the best clothing for surviving in a harsh desert environment is translucent white linen bikinis.
I’m not even going to get into the Biker Granny thing, I’ll just say Monty Python did it first, and did it better.
Once again, we have a film franchise that can’t repeat its earlier successes simply because the writers have no idea why it worked in the first place.
Even the soundtrack sucks.
Taken as a whole, the film was as exciting as taking the Amtrak to Chicago – loud, tedious and the only uncertainty about it is now annoyed you’ll be at the end.
Come to think of it, at least the Amtrak has the virtue of going somewhere.