Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Cult-Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
(Watch out for spoilers!)
It’s been a long time since I felt physically endangered or jeopardized while watching a movie.
That may sound silly, but the best genre movies, traditionally, have accomplished just such a feat. In these works of art, the viewer feels so immersed in the action unfolding on screen that all distance between movie and audience vanishes.
Instead, you are there, in the thick of it, living the action moment-to-moment, holding your breath, clutching your hand-rests.
I felt that way a lot in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
In fact, I felt that way for two full hours. This is a movie that begins with a bang, and then never lets up till the end credits roll. In a word, the R-rated film is amazing.
There is a pervasive feeling here -- one carefully engendered and nourished by director George Miller -- that anything can happen, and anything will happen. In fact, an event that occurs about half-way through Mad Max: Fury Road -- totally unthinkable in your standard summer blockbuster fare -- shatters any illusions that you know how this film is going to turn out.
All bets are off.
This movie is hard-core. It is dangerous, and you feel that danger in your bones and in your brain. At one point, as some piece of cast-off metal whizzed at the screen (and therefore, at my face) I reflexively flinched. That’s how certain I was that I was actually, physically imperiled by the film’s demolition derby action.
I’ll put this another way.
I’m an optimist by nature, but I wasn’t entirely certain I would ever see again another film like The Road Warrior (1982); one that pushed the envelope of decorum so far that it created -- by its sheer kinetic wake -- a whole new movie genre (the post-apocalyptic wasteland movie, for lack of a better descriptor).
But Mad Max: Fury Road has proven me wrong. It is not only a legitimate genre masterpiece, but one that reveals just how shallow, predictable and safe this summer’s other blockbusters have been thus far.
Mad Max runs over traditional movie decorum at 100 miles an hour, and then backs over it two or three times, just to make sure it’s really dead. The film is not only the equal of The Road Warrior, it is superior to that thirty-three year old classic in just about every way imaginable.
Again, none of this happens by accident.
Mad Max: Fury Road is, in a canny way, constructed to augment immersion and unpredictability. Beyond the narrative/structural surprises, the vehicle/chase choreography is a thing of destructive, wild, imaginative chaos and beauty. The film leaps from one sustained, unrelenting, gasp-provoking action scene to another and yet, miraculously, still finds time to be about the people who inhabit this world. And on a wider terrain than that, even, this film is about humanity, or human nature, itself.
Mad Max: Fury Road spoon-feeds you nothing. There are no conversations here in which people sit down and talk about their feelings or their motivations. Some less-than-insightful folks might consider the film dumb because they aren’t specifically told how to feel, or what to think, but these individuals have given short shrift to the power of visual imagery, and director Miller’s skillful use of it. Everything you need to know to understand the movie’s story, world, and ideas is right there, on screen, a true feast for the eyes.
And what is the film about? Nothing less than Max’s (Tom Hardy) one overriding instinct -- survival -- and the conflicts that occur when that instinct runs smack against not one, but two brick walls.
One of those brick-walls is named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She is an individual who is as dedicated to her mission of “redemption” as Max is to his mission of self-preservation.
Another, even more dangerous brick wall Max encounters here is the fanaticism that too often accompanies fundamental religious belief.
In the film, this impediment to continued survival and civilization itself is named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He has set up a society that worship him as a God. People live and die by his command, and that’s exactly how he desires it.
In the last instance -- the exploration of cult fanaticism -- this Mad Max entry very much reflects our age. This is an era in which some people believe it is perfectly acceptable to burn and behead those who don’t share their restrictive, draconian ideology. It is also an era when others believe that their personal religious convictions are more important than basic human decency, courtesy, or the ties that bind a society together.
In both cases (one murderous, and one merely sanctimonious), zealous belief has replaced common sense, community, and the desire to erect a just world. Mad Max: Fury Road’s depiction of this belief mind-set gone mad, in a place called the Citadel is -- like so much in the film -- unforgettable.
I’m not one for hyperbole. Indeed, if you scroll over to the side-bar featuring critic comments about me on the right side of this review, you’ll note that I was once called “ever the judicious critic.”
Well, with that descriptor in mind, let me say simply that Mad Max: Fury Road has not only revealed how fake, flat and uninspired most summer movies are, it has given us the finest action film in the last several years, and perhaps of the 21st century.
Go see it as soon as you can. And hold on tight.
“We are not things! We are not things!”
Following an apocalyptic war and the end of civilization, humanity has attempted to re-assert itself in the desert. But the twisted forms it has taken are horrifying, as a wanderer in the wasteland, former police man Max (Hardy) has discovered.
One day, Max is captured by the forces of the Citadel and Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne). This cult does not see outsiders as possessing any value, and Max is turned into a living blood bag; one servicing Immortan’s “War Boys,” whom he sends on wasteland jihads.
In particular, Max is the blood donor for a callow youth named Nux (Nicholas Hault), who wishes for just one thing: entrance into Valhalla, the land of heroes. To get there, he must obey Joe, and kill on his behalf. “I live. I die. I live again,” he recites, as if his words are Scripture.
When another of Joe’s people, Imperator Furiosa (Theron) leaves the Citadel in a war rig, events take a strange turn. Furiosa has taken with her on her journey Joe’s five wives, whom he keeps locked in a vault, and is making a run for freedom. Some of the young women are pregnant.
Joe, who also keeps his people starving and thirsty, rallies all his forces to get the women back. Max becomes an unwitting part of the war party when Nux refuses to leave his blood supply behind.
After several dangerous, destructive encounters, Max and Lux end up on the war rig with Furiosa and must re-evaluate their allegiances and belief systems.
With Joe hot on their trail, the group must decide if it can reach the mythical “Green” lands (and land of “Many Mothers”) or if it should choose a different course.
“Who Killed the World?”
At a few key junctures in Mad Max: Fury Road, we see the legend written or spoken, “who killed the world?”
The answer, as enunciated by the film, is religious zealotry.
What killed the world is the perverse, destructive desire of the devout to force their belief system on those who simply wish to leave in peace and freedom.
In the real world, we have ISIS, of course, as an example of just such zealotry. Indeed, the atrocities committed by ISIS remind us that Fury Road isn’t so fantastic as to be unbelievable. The world in the film is only a single step removed from reality, and grounded very much in the truths of today.
Historically speaking, we know that the Mad Max movies feature an apocalypse caused by demand for oil. And we have now waged two wars in Iraq and the wider Middle East, with different ideologies clashing, and oil fields as the coveted prize. Thus, Miller’s sci-fi world even looks more plausible today than it did thirty years ago, during the Cold War.
In the Citadel of Fury Road, those who don’t profess devout belief in Immortan Joe are literally nothing except spare parts…blood to be used by the War Boys. Their beliefs are wrong, so they are worthless as human beings.
In the same culture, women are treated as property, and there are no families. Some women are designated breeders, while others are nurse-maids, but all the boys are raised to be murderous warriors, never knowing the milk of human kindness that a mother (and father) can provide. We see some women in the film, pumping breast milk, but it is just a commodity, not something to be shared in a family. The women and the War Boys don’t mingle.
The boys exist not to be human, but to kill and conquer, and convert more followers to Joe’s holy cause. The Citadel, then, is a theocracy, a metropolis where religious belief dictates all decisions. If you believe, you fight for Joe without question. If you believe, you breed for Joe without question.
But if you don’t believe, you are worthless except that your precious blood may of value to one war boy or another.
This dynamic reflects the religious world view that God has chosen a particular people, and the belief that those people are above all others in terms of value and worth.
We see in the film how Nux -- in many ways the film’s most intriguing character -- longs to die in service of his God. He wants to die and be reborn, and then die again. He wants to enter Valhalla as a proud, heroic warrior. He wants the blessings of his God, and will do anything to achieve that goal, even if it means snuffing out human life. This world and such matters as humanity or family matter very little to Nux. He has been indoctrinated not to want or desire those things, only to “believe” in Joe’s divinity and to serve without question.
It is therefore, in authentic terms, heart-wrenching when Nux fails in direct eyesight of Immortan Joe. Nux slips and fails in his mission, and he sees with his own eyes Joe’s utter disdain for him. He has disappointed his God. He has lost all value and self-worth, and knows it cannot be retrieved.
At this point, Nux’s journey to become a human being and not a religious slave begins in earnest. Isolated and lonely, he reaches out, a little at a time, and starts to see how belief has imprisoned him, given him only the narrowest of visions of life.
In the end, Nux makes a choice that one might think is, ironically, in keeping with his religious beliefs (and the desire to die), but he does so because -- for the first time -- he actually cares about someone other than himself and his “God.” He makes his final choice because he wants someone else to live, not glory in some fictional afterlife.
As I’ve written before, that’s what civilization really is.
It isn’t taking care of your own, or sticking to a tradition you know and practice. That’s simply self-preservation.
Civilization is what comes into being when you think of other people, and their survival, and take steps to preserve those things.
Max undertakes a kind of parallel journey in the film.
Here, he has forsaken so much of his humanity to survive in the wasteland. In part, this may be because of his extreme self-loathing. We know from the events of Mad Max (1979) that he undertook vengeance -- an anti-social endeavor -- even knowing the consequences of that vengeance. He murdered those who killed his wife and son, and in the process sacrificed his humanity and civilization itself.
When we meet him again in Fury Road (which I believe, chronologically, precedes Thunderdome, but I could be wrong…) Max is still a barbarous “thing,” a man driven only by the desire to see the next minute alive. He is unable to trust, unable to do much of anything, in fact, save for react to attacks.
Over the course of the film, he too starts to reach out, and sees that if man’s civilization is ever to return, that return must occur where civilization has the best chance. And for all its monstrosities and terrors, the Citadel is that place. There is green grass there. There is water there. There are children there. Accordingly, Max convinces Furiosa to return there. They leads the war rig back to take on Joe, and reclaim the Citadel for humanity.
Furiosa is an intriguing character, but unlike either Nux or Max (and notice the similarity, please, in the names of those two male characters) she is in touch with her feelings; with her guilt and shame.
She says she is out for “redemption,” because she has seen Joe for what he is and was still a part of his corrupt regime. She wants to escape him, and run away. She wants to run away and not look back.
Ultimately, however, as Max proves, you can’t achieve redemption by running away. You can only achieve it by reckoning with it at the place where the shame and guilt began. And for Furiosa that is the home of her captors, the Citadel. As Max informs her, from personal experience: “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”
In a very compelling way, Mad Max: Fury Road concerns three flawed characters who must open their eyes to the fact that they have been living in a destructive, anti-human way, and who therefore decide to address it by joining forces to take down the anti-human God, Joe. Not a one of the three is perfect alone, but together…what a team they make. As dangerous as it is, they tall take one final shot at fixing what’s broken.
Some viewers have also picked up on the male/female conflicts in Mad Max: Fury Road, and attempted to state that the film is somehow anti-male, or that Furiosa assumes Max’s role as primary hero.
I don’t believe either accusation is true.
Furiosa and Max make a great team. She helps Max escape from danger, so that survival is not so important to him. And he makes Furiosa return home, so that she can achieve the redemption she desires. It is true that Furiosa, not Max, deals the death blow in the film to a significant villain, but if you look at Mad Max history, that is not entirely out of the norm. If I remember correctly, Max never kills Auntie Entity in Thunderdome (1985), either.
Furiosa is not better or stronger than Max, and Max is not stronger or better than Furiosa. That’s sort of the point. They each possess different strengths and so can work together beautifully and effectively. Max and Nux are “reliable,” as Furiosa notes, and Max sees for himself how committed Furiosa is to saving Joe’s brides from a life of enslavement, as property.
I don’t see why it has to be a competition between Max and Furiosa, frankly. The film provides us several great characters, especially once you factor in Nux. They are all memorable, and they all serve the story well.
The other quality that serves the story well is, as I noted in my introduction, Miller’s structuring of the screenplay.
The most independent and head-strong of the brides, The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is very pregnant in the film, and she demonstrates all the qualities that would make her the movie’s perfect hero. She is smart, brave and resourceful. She is a leader. She knows that her baby must live free, and that she must do so as well.
But what happens to noble Angharad is unexpected and terrible, and totally outside the confines of Hollywood movie convention.
Again, I repeat: she is a pregnant, mother-to-be, and a person who wants only one thing. to be free. But fate is so cruel to her and her dreams. Once Angharad meets her fate, Miller demonstrates that he is committed to his hardcore cause. He will not play Hollywood B.S. games and will not back away from taboo material. Instead, he makes his point about a world in which “believers” treat non-believers as “things” to be used, not as people.
It is a cliché, often spattered on newspaper banners, to claim that a film consists of “non-stop” action. I shit you not when I say that Mad Max: Fury Road is non-stop action. The film never stops moving, either literally or philosophically. And visually, the film not only accelerates to the point of madness, it reveals, along the way, a splendid imagination in terms of characters and art design. The war rig is a miraculous design, for instance, but it is just one such imaginative creation. Max and Furiosa encounter a war party that drives around in giant spiked cars -- an homage to The Cars that Ate Paris (1976), perhaps? -- with wicked buzz-saw attachments. At another juncture, we see mysterious nomads on stilts navigating a swamp environment by night, and the imagery is evocative of a larger, unseen, unexplored world. The action is spectacular on a whole new level, but the imaginative visuals go far beyond the action, and also lend support to the depiction of a (believable) world gone mad.
I don’t know how much money Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) will ultimately make, but I do know that we will be extremely lucky if any other genre film this summer – or in 2015 -- gets even close to Miller’s masterpiece in terms of wild ingenuity, excitement, and philosophical meaning. It’s already made road-kill of Avengers: Age of Ultron on those fronts, and I hope Hollywood takes note.
In future years, I hope when people ask who killed the world of safe CGI summer blockbusters, we can all answer in unison…Mad Max: Fury Road.