Picture a world where a 70 year old director whose last outings were Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City, is able to secure $150 million from a big production company, reprise a 30 year old franchise and construct arguably the most visceral action movie in over a decade.
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That world is our world, because that’s exactly what happened when George Miller was, after 25 years of trying, finally able to convince Hollywood to part with an exorbitant amount of money in order to recreate the post-apocalyptic action-adventure masterpiece that is Mad Max: Fury Road.
The film is his most ambitious work to date, a fact no doubt betrayed by the inordinate sums of money required to bring it to life. Apart from Christopher Nolan and perhaps Neil Blomkamp, no other director working today could conceivably be given this much money then carte blanche and final cut on subject matter which isn’t either a franchise sequel, remake of an earlier successful film or a classic studio genre film which ticks all the focus-grouped demographic boxes.
Film is after all a business and studios are not incentivised to push the boundary artistically or creatively due to return on investment pressures and mandates to keep various constituencies contented. It’s from this perspective firstly, that Fury Road is an important film (and it’s important that it succeeds commercially) as the studios will be given evidence that loosening the shackles on artistry for directorial talent can result in critically and commercially viable products.
Preamble aside, I was somewhat astonished by the finished product that was Fury Road. I experienced it in IMAX 3D (and would encourage anyone whether you’ve seen it or not, to try the IMAX treatment) and was moved to watch the movie again the subsequent weekend, albeit with slightly less audio-visual grandiosity (read: Not IMAX). The first viewing was one of almost pure tension, adrenaline and catharsis with the films technical and audio-visual artistry taking centre stage. The second viewing was more to appreciate the classic filmmaking, character development, world building and the story. In recalling the last blockbuster films I’ve actually seen twice at the cinema I could only chalk down The Matrix, Gladiator and The Dark Knight – each momentous films which affected me deeply in their own right, and I’m happy to install Mad Max: Fury Road in the same prestigious pantheon of great movies and ground-breaking cinematic experiences.
The film, shot in Namibia, is set in a post-apocalyptic world with humanity having clustered into rival factions – seemingly the most powerful being led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), undisputed head of a Citadel which coordinates activities that keep him in control of key resources in the area. The world he lords over is dark, cruel and grotesque. The world-building in this film to realise it is equal parts ambitious & detailed; mad & beautiful. Miller and his production designer deserve commendation for thinking through everything to ensure the world appears lived in and very real. The cinematography itself is a thing of wonder, with beautiful bright wide shots soaking in all the detail from the environment and framing the action without the modern tendency for ADHD jump-cuts and post-production effects.
The lead protagonist here you would expect to be Tom Hardy’s character, Mad Max. To the surprise of many and the chagrin of some, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa comes very close to stealing the show. In fact her motivations and actions are both the driving force of the film and its emotional centre and this first instalment, in what is surely to be a franchise trilogy, could conceivably have been called Mad Max: Furiosa Road! The interplay between Hardy & Theron is powerful here and the scenes where they share screen-time are expertly acted. Beyond the two leads, Nicholas Hoult’s character, one of the so-called War Boys in the film, takes an unexpected and welcome turn and the idea of humanising what could easily have been a henchman in this way was a wise and important one.
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An intriguing facet of the world Miller builds here are the economics and politics in this dystopia. Elements of how some semblance of an economy and governance structure can be built on the ruins of the old world are expertly realised with an attention to detail on how this world functions that I only got a true appreciation for on second viewing. On the political standpoint though, I think it’s safe to say black people don’t make it into the post-apocalyptic dystopian future. I say this only half-jokingly though as Zoe Kravitz is fairly conspicuously the only person of colour in the film and given she’s mixed race, it asks questions about who her father/mother may be in this world and what’s happened to them. George Miller clearly decided not to tackle this hot potato (perhaps he saw how things went with Ridley Scott and his tribulations around the ‘Moses’ casting). What is tackled with aplomb here of course are gender politics – something some on the internet haven’t taken kindly to, calling this a feminist bait-and-switch and calling for the movie to be boycotted!
No doubt gender was always going to play a major role and The Vagina Monologues’ Eve Ensler was actually brought in to consult on some aspects of the movie. At its simplest, Furiosa is every bit Max’s equal, both in terms of physical prowess and smarts. At a more complex level the car-chase essentially running throughout the entirety of the movie is spurred on by rebellion against women being seen and treated as physical objects (e.g. industrial-scale milking of captive women). There is a real sense of social justice and rejection of oppression pervading the entire enterprise. There were two very powerful messages running through the film and encapsulated in a quote at the end of the film which many weren’t too sure how to interpret.
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Without getting into spoiler territory, the first is the message of empowerment – which requires physical action and sacrifice, which is demonstrated throughout the film via the tale of Immortan Joe’s wives, Furiosa’s story and the story of Nicolas Hoult’s War Boy. The second is more subtle and is to do with the need for one to make a stand and take action in whatever context one finds themselves in. You hear reference to realms beyond the known in the guise of Valhalla and The Green Place peppered throughout the film – and some of the most potent commentary involves not looking towards unseen lands and things outside oneself for answers, but rather turning inwardly and rolling up your sleeves to solve problems. A pivotal conversation in the final act of the movie between Max & Furiosa hammers this point home and changes the direction of the movie.
Mad Max Fury Road is of course not for everyone and it truly earns the Mad in its title. This is an uncompromising movie in terms of its style, where a steampunk aesthetic permeates a world inhabited by flame-throwing guitars, lizard-eating drifters, gun-carrying grannies where our titular protagonist is essentially an intravenous blood-bag for bare-headed War Boys on a slow march to their deaths due to physical affliction. It is also an incredibly important film, not just for giving us hope that studios are still willing to spend millions of dollars on artistic projects but also for reminding of a very important message we sometimes lose in the morass of social media: We can and must be the change we want to see in the world.
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