I’m tempted to post my review of Mad Max: Fury Road as a series of questions that popped into my head while watching it, but I won’t do that. It’s an early summer blockbuster that is being hailed by many critics as a masterpiece. Some have called it one of the most revolutionary action movies of recent years. There’s certainly something distinctive about it — that much is true. You can tell that just from looking at the pictures.
More than anything, Mad Max: Fury Road has reminded me that moviegoing is a subjective experience. One man’s Speed is another man’s Speed 2: Cruise Control. (I’m probably one of few people who actually likes Speed 2: Cruise Control, and prefers it to Mad Max: Fury Road, but let’s not go there.) Some people can sit through a film and find it wild and daring and completely innovative, while someone else — like, say, me — can sit there and be bored and frustrated all the while.
We all bring a little something different with us into a theater, and we all take a little something different home with us when we leave. Some leave with the treasure, some leave with the empty box that it came in. I was hoping to be exhilarated and dazzled by Mad Max: Fury Road, and from what I saw and heard of the film before its release, I had every reason to expect to be. So what happened?
Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie, I guess. At least, it contains some of the things that movies tend to have in them — driving, explosions, movie stars. It also lacks some critical aspects of most movies, such as a plot and characters. The end credits reveal a lot of cool character names, but I had no idea who any of them were, since few are mentioned by name and we rarely get a moment to bond with one of them. Even Mad Max himself pointedly doesn’t share his name until the very end — and that’s the one character I did know.
Quick question: I get the Max part, because that’s his name — but why is he Mad? He’s actually the most reasonable guy in the movie.
(I guess you can’t build an action franchise around a guy called Level-Headed Larry, though.)
The part of Max is performed by Tom Hardy — I won’t say played by, because there doesn’t seem to be a character to play. The Max character is basically a series of crazy stunts, with occasional breaks for squinting. Max is haunted by… something involving a little bugged-out CGI girl. Given that this is a dystopia, we can imagine that whatever it is wasn’t all sugar and spice and everything nice, but lacking any context, it’s mainly just there to trip us out. At first, Max only wants to escape enslavement by some other bugged-out-looking people, who feed off his blood for… well, there might be a reason. The main one we follow is played by Nicholas Hoult. Like Max, he changes his mind about wanting to help people at a certain point, without much exploration of how or why. There’s no time for that.Mad Max: Fury Road is basically a commute. Its characters all go driving in one direction for an hour, stop for a while, and then go driving back in the other direction. It has about as much story as your average traffic jam. The characters are all either hideously ugly or stunningly beautiful, which makes us wonder how much work it must be to keep up those supermodel good looks in a post-apocalyptic world. The characters are heading somewhere called “the Green Place,” but they should probably stay put wherever they are if they have the supplies to look like Victoria’s Secret angels.
I’m not here to nitpick George Miller’s apocalypse, though — mainly because, if I kept going, I’d never stop. You can ask a thousand questions about how this world does or doesn’t make sense — and I’d argue, it mostly doesn’t — but that’s not a fun way to watch a movie like this. I can forgive many leaps in logic as long as the movie gives me something to invest in, but in my eyes, Mad Max: Fury Road should instead be subtitled Mad Max And The Mystery Of The Missing First Act. As many movies do, Mad Max: Fury Road jumps right into the action, but unlike most movies, it never goes back to orient us in anything resembling a story. Despite the decidedly masculine title, Mad Max: Fury Road asks us to place most of our interest in the women on screen — first and foremost, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), whose parents must have really wanted her to be an action heroine with a name like that. (No ballet lessons for Imperator Furiosa!) Then, a quintet of hotties (the aforementioned Angels) who are only distinguishable by their hair color and very vaguely distinguished personalities, like Spice Girls. (Seriously, we’ve got Ginger Spice, Scared Spice, Having A Baby Spice, and… I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about the other two.) Finally, there’s a gang of badass grannies — cool in concept, but also pretty indistinguishable from each other, and mostly here to up the body count for the third act.
Imperator Furiosa and the Holograms are on the run from a bad guy named Immortan Joe, whose main villainous quality is that he’s very ugly. We never see him actually do anything to threaten or harm these characters, until they’re all on the run and everyone from Column A is trying to kill everyone from Column B anyway (and vice versa). Immortan Joe is apparently in charge of some kind of water supply he occasionally likes to spray at people, but how much water is there and where does it come from? Is he being stingy, or does it make sense to ration it in, you know, a bone dry apocalyptic desert? The heroes’ plan, in the end, is to just turn all the water on at full blast and let it spray everywhere and seep into the desert, which doesn’t seem like a very good idea. It made me wonder if, five minutes after the movie ends, they all run out of water and realize they probably should have used it more sparingly. (Immortan Joe was right all along!)In the end, overthrowing Immortan Joe’s evil power regime is astoundingly easy and probably required zero driving. (An old lady in the first few minutes of the movie could’ve done it if she was just a little less terrible at shooting.) A lot of water is wasted, which is celebrated as a good thing. We have no clue what will happen next, because the rules of this world have not been established. We know nothing about what Imperator Furiosa and Mad Max will do now, because we didn’t really know what they were doing in the first place. Imperator Furiosa claims she wants “redemption,” but aside from being kidnapped from the Green Place a while ago, it’s unclear what she’s been up to that she needs to be redeemed of. About Max, we know even less. Maybe he’ll go see what that googly-eyed girl is up to. (Except she seems kinda dead.)
There are several jarring CGI effects that feel at odds with the rest of the movie: a phony-looking sandstorm, the unconvincing nighttime effect that basically just dyes everything blue. It’s enough to make one wish Miller had stuck to his guns more in favoring practical effects — so much of the movie looks so good that when it looks bad, it looks terrible.
That’s true of the world-building as well — what’s good is so good that it only highlights the weaknesses all the more. As dazzling as the visuals are most of the time, so much of this world is underimagined, leaving an endless parade of basic questions unanswered. Such as: if resources are so limited, what do these people eat? (Max takes a bite out of a lizard at one point, but I have a hard time imagining that’s the most viable sustenance available.) If these people don’t get any water, how can they survive? This doesn’t feel like a world anyone could survive in for five minutes, let alone however long it’s been since the apocalypse. Gas is scarce, but apparently more abundant than everything else, given all the driving. How? (I will spare you any questions pertaining to the baddie playing an electric guitar suspended from a truck, though plenty arose.)It’s not that I need the answer to every question that popped into my head. A little mystery is great! Too much exposition can be even worse than not enough. But for all the sound and fury of Fury Road, there’s nothing to care about. No real characters, and no story. Grand scale epics work best when we can identify with some aspect of what the protagonists are going through, and there was none of that here, because I’ve never been in a car chase. That’s all this is. We never saw where these people came from, we have no idea what they really want out of life. We know nothing about them, except that they’re probably really thirsty. (For all the business about water, though, we don’t actually see any of them lusting for hydration.) The movie is incredibly spare with dialogue, particularly of the conversational kind, and that’s fine. Imperator Furiosa has an immediate goal that’s clear enough — to get these women to safety — but we still don’t know why she cares whether they live or die. Or why she picked today to try. Why now? Where did the sudden desire for redemption come from, all of a sudden? And, given how erratic her plan is, are we sure these ladies weren’t better off where they were before?
(Had this movie had a first act, it might have shown us that these women were, in fact, not better off in the clutches of Immortan Joe. As is, we have no idea.)
As for Max, well… I defy anyone to come up with a single adjective to describe his character.
(No, “mad” doesn’t count.)
A lot of action movies these days have similar problems — barely-there characterizations, plot holes, a serious favoring of style over substance. The trouble is, I didn’t expect Mad Max: Fury Road to be one of them. George Miller clearly knows how to stage an enthralling action scene, and in concert with the cinematography by John Seale, the visuals are mesmerizing. On a technical level, Mad Max: Fury Road is exquisitely crafted. The film has a visionary quality that lingers in the brain like a fever dream — but so what? I didn’t care. The characters are as deep in the movie as they are on the poster. The stakes? If these characters die, then… they’re not alive anymore. (And many of them do die, with no emotional consequence.) There’s a lot of driving, but they’re going nowhere; a lot of stuff that would be super cool, if only it made any sense.
For my money, I found Miller’s Babe: Pig In The City a more thrilling and visionary film. (And not an entirely dissimilar one.) It had sharply-defined characters and a real narrative to go along with arresting action and enticing visuals. (Yes, I’m being serious.) We knew where that pig came from, where he was, and where he wanted to be… and why.
Some will call Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller’s masterpiece, and I will say he peaked with Babe: Pig In The City.
Like I said, we all come in and come away with different things when we visit the movies. Keep your sound and fury, and I’ll keep my adorable piglet, and we’ll all be happy.