TTAC At The Movies: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
I don’t mind being preached to. Or being preached at. I mean, I’ve played guitar in a few church bands, and not all of the churches in question would let me sleep in my car during the sermon. Once in a while, I’d toss a couple of bucks in the collection plate, as well. So you could even argue that I’m okay with paying for the privilege of being preached at.
Insofar as I have an Internet connection and the ability to use it, I knew prior to walking into the new “Mad Max” film that I’d be effectively paying to be preached at, and the sermon would be the American-media orthodoxy of 2015: Women are just like men, only smarter, braver, and tougher. Old white men are the source of all the world’s evil and they are always trying to “own” babies, er, fetuses, er, tissue, that should be the property of women. Only by becoming a “feminist ally” can a man have any worth in society.
I knew all of this before the first digital frame of this movie appeared on the screen, and I was prepared to live with it. What I was not prepared for was this: Mad Max: Fury Road just plain sucks.
Have you seen the original Mad Max? If you haven’t, you’ll be surprised at the fact that it’s not The Road Warrior. It’s not dystopian, really, and it doesn’t take place after the wholesale collapse of society. It does, however, feature a scene in which Max’s wife and child are killed by gang members. This fact – the death of Max’s family – is alluded to again and again during Fury Road, but it’s never explained. It’s just the subject of endless flashbacks that become more and more intrusive. The tiresome trope of “the hero is overcome by his visions in the middle of the action” occurs again and again.
Max is captured by the minions of a local warlord in a scene taken nearly shot-by-shot from The Postman. The warlord practices hydraulic diplomacy in the region, literally, and has power over a variety of intricate and complicated steampunk-style machinery. It becomes critical to send a “war wagon” to “Gastown”. Although Gastown is visible from the warlord’s “Citadel”, it’s still necessary to invest this run with an astounding amount of ceremony. The best driver of the war wagons is Charlize Theron, who doubles down on her identity politics by also being short an arm. Predictably, she and Max end up on the same side.
That much you can get from the trailers, and I won’t spoil any further details if I can help it, other than to say that the movie is essentially a cross between the previously-referenced The Postman and the even-more-reviled Kevin Costner vehicle, Waterworld. I’d so far as to say that Fury Road is essentially “Waterworld on dirt”, with all the ridiculous plot holes, over-the-top acting, massively expensive set-piece battles, immortal primary characters, and inadvertent tedium associated with that film. If only Tom Hardy could manage to express even the minor range of emotion displayed by Kevin Costner in those box-office disasters.
Tedium: that is Fury Road‘s worst sin. It’s the same battle repeated a dozen ways, each action utterly predictable and each moment less interesting than the one before. I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief (where do the desert people get their food? Why are all the machines in perfect repair? Is there a motorcycle-parts superstore somewhere over the next dune?) if the action is exciting enough. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case here.
There is one bright spot, and that is the spectacular menagerie of over one hundred and fifty custom-built post-apocalyptic vehicles that swerve and explode and just plain preen across the desert wasteland. The double-decker cars-on-tractor-trailers are the literal stars of the show, in particular a W123 “Lang” that pulls two trailers’ worth of chaos. The aftermarket-nose 1973 Ford Falcon appears at the very beginning and periodically afterwards. You can read a very complimentary recap of the major “star cars” here. There’s even a C3 Corvette!
(Bloomberg’s article has a hilarious correction: “Correction: A previous version of this article described Nux’s car as a five-door coupe. It actually has five windows—and two doors, as is the traditional definition of a coupe.”)
The last time I walked out of a theater during a film was twenty-four long years ago, about ten minutes into Highlander 2. I wasn’t alone in my distaste: the film’s own director walked out on the premiere. Everybody agrees that Highlander 2: The Quickening was a terrible film. Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, has a coveted “98% Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been the subject of universal praise everywhere movies are discussed – yet, the only thing that kept me from walking out was the fact I’d paid for the large soda and wanted my free refill. What did I miss?
Perhaps I didn’t miss anything. It’s possible this quasi-reboot of a picture is popular for the same reason that Thomas Bowdler’s revisions of Shakespeare were well-liked. As a film, Mad Max: Fury Road is utterly without merit. It is simultaneously boring and overwhelming, slow-paced yet carelessly plotted, predictable and joyless. It’s remarkably like the so-called “Christian rock” of the Eighties that attempted to paste a “message” onto an incompetent pastiche of the cues and styles used by secular bands. In this case, The Road Warrior is Led Zeppelin and this is Stryper, and it sucks just like Stryper does. But it sends the right messages, again and again, so the media wants you to see it for the same reason that many of my headbanger friends were given Christian-rock records as gifts by their well-meaning but clueless parents.
The problem in this is that the message, in this case, is so fundamentally incompatible with reality that it strains belief even when it’s part of a movie where people are driven through the desert at 100 mph while swinging back and forth on giant pivoting poles with engine blocks on the other end. At one point in this film, we’re treated to a fistfight between a buffed-out twenty-year-old man and a sixty-year-old woman – and the old woman wins. Then there’s another fight like that.
The same goes for Charlize Theron’s character, who proves herself effectively capable of fighting Tom Hardy to a standstill despite, you know, missing an arm. This would make more sense if we didn’t then see Hardy indifferently dispose of a dozen buffed-out, combat-trained “warboys”. Come on. I’ve dated a woman who was pretty good at fighting men on even terms, but she was six feet tall and 180 pounds of muscle that included two functioning arms. I suppose it’s business as usual for a generation of “men” who are obsessed with pornography, video games, and Japanese comics, and who dream of the day a strong feminist woman will come rescue them from their mothers’ basements.
Is it possible to dislike a film where dirt bikes jump over trucks and their riders drop grenades into the sunroofs of those trucks? I’d have said “no”, but now I know differently. The stunts are brilliant, but in the end, Fury Road says nothing worth hearing, and nothing you haven’t already heard before.
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Fury Road is an awesome action movie. Unlike most other blockbusters these days, it has some faith in the audience and trusts you to figure out things from context and the visuals. In other words - Show don't tell. I feel like most of your criticisms would be addressed by paying more attention (I mean you don't even get the name of the War Rig right). The feminist angle is overhyped. The movie is notable for having competent female characters which are sadly missing from most movies, but it's not preachy. "We are not things" is the theme for all the protaganists, not just the wives. Max himself is used as a "blood bag" and the war boys are battle fodder. This is why Joe is the villain- he treats people (not just women) like objects. The cars are in good shape because they're extremely important to the war boy's society- so much so they're treated with religious significance. All the gas being wasted is actually commented on by the leader of Gas Town- it's not a plot hole. Joe is obsessed with having a healthy child and will expend any amount of resources to retrieve the wives- he even leaves his Citadel undefended because he doesn't care about anything else. Furiosa is a badass because she's worked her way up from child slave to a trusted commander in a warrior society. Max has a character arc- he goes from just trying to survive on his own (kicking Furiosa out of the rig) and seems to barely remember how to speak, to risking his own life to save the other characters. It's just that we see this through his actions instead of dialogue and exposition.
Wow, watched this on a plane this afternoon. I could do the suspension of disbelief (food, wastage of ammunition etc) I was OK with the strong female characters (motorcycle grannies who randomly leave one of their women naked in a cage tower?) But I couldn't take the repetitiveness. It's like watching the last 10 minutes of The Road Warrior 12 times back to back. I used some of my spare time to make up an alternative script for the motorcycle trip / salt flats scene: Max: Well, we've arrived at the end of the plot and I still don't see any green stuff. Furiosa: This is quite inconvenient, the movie isn't over yet. Max: Let's not bore the audience by further driving across this endless wasteland. Let's bore them by doing the first half of the movie over in reverse. Furiosa: We could try something different. Max: Nah, director says we're only tooled up for truck chases. Let's do it and maybe let the kid drive for a while. Furiosa: I'm in. Ok grannies let's go.