Saturday, August 15, 2015

Review - Mad Max: Fury Road

          There were (or are) a handful of movies that I have seen (or plan to see) this summer. Perhaps the most significant of which was Mad Max: Fury Road. You could say that I had somewhat of a personal investment in this one: the Mad Max series had been very influential on me when I first discovered it as an adolescent, and The Road Warrior still remains one of my all time favorite films. Accordingly, if Fury Road is going to earn its way not just into that elite group of top-tier science fiction movies, but earn its status as a worthy installment of the Mad Max series, The Road Warrior has set the bar exceptionally high. That said, almost anything would be an improvement over Beyond Thunderdome, so Fury Road shouldn't have any problems competing with that at least (which is not to say that Beyond Thunderdome was particularly bad, but it is certainly lacking when compared to the first two installments of the series).
Needless to say, and to my great surprise, Fury Road not only surpassed Beyond Thunderdome, but arguably surpassed even the original Mad Max film, and perhaps ties with The Road Warrior for the best installment in the series. Fury Road is the fourth installment of George Miller's raw, ultra-violent, high-octane demolition derby set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that famously solidified Mel Gibson's acting career in the late 70s and 80s. The series follows ex-cop Max Rockatansky as he tries, and ultimately fails, to defend his wife and baby child from a vicious bike gang in the first Mad Max, helps a group of wasteland wanderers trapped by the masked Lord Humungous and his band of BDSM-ready raiders in The Road Warrior, and duels a developmentally disabled behemoth and corrupt Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome. Fury Road comes as the next entry in the series, some thirty years after the production of Beyond Thunderdome. The film sees Max cross paths with Imperator Furiosa as she tries to smuggle a handful of innocent women from the clutches of Immortan Joe, the twisted dictator of the Citadel.
           There are several things about the Mad Max series that make it stand out among not just other sci-fi series, but as a unique piece of cinematic art. First, and perhaps most importantly, it is the first film series to really introduce a post-apocalyptic setting to a modern audience. Certainly, one could reference some of the old black and white sci-fi films of the 1950s as examples of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still comes to mind), but the generational divide between those and Mad Max is glaring. The series post-apocalyptic setting is well established by The Road Warrior; war and nuclear fallout have ravaged the landscape, and the surviving humans have splintered into savage factions, competing for food and fuel. On that note, the second thing that defines the Mad Max series are its cars. Apparently, the one category of technology that survives the nuclear fallout in the world of Mad Max is automotive technology, and the wasteland wanderers endow their vehicles with an almost divine status. However, it is important to point out that the vehicles are one of the aesthetic highlights of the series. There is a high degree of creativity and imagination about their design that needs to be acknowledged: an old Volkswagon beetle covered in red, rusted spikes, an oil tanker outfitted with bulldozer plating and chrome skulls, and Max's jet black V8 Pursuit Special (a modified Ford Falcon) illustrate the wide array of vehicles that take part in the metal mayhem. A third important characteristic of the series was that it was ultra-violent, and never pulled any punches. There is a rather iconic scene in The Road Warrior where The Humungous' gang tries to intimidate Max and the wanderers holed up in a well-defended oil refinery by strapping one of their prisoners, one of the wanderers, to poles and setting him on fire in the middle of the night, displaying him for the entire refinery to see. Fourth, in line with the vehicle design, the character and plot design was always very imaginative. For example, the opening scene of the first Mad Max sees Max playing a game of chicken with an escaped convict known as "The Night Rider", while The Road Warrior has Max resisting the Humungous, a badly scarred, but hulking raider with the help of a boomerang-wielding wild child, and Beyond Thunderdome has Max fighting it out with a disabled muscle-man in a steel cage with an assortment of weapons dangling from the top. Lastly, though no less important than any of the other points, the series was quintessentially Australian. In the first two installments of the series, the iconic wasteland was set in the Australian outback, while all of the actors were either Australian or British. This set the series out as unique from other sci-fi series; with the rise of Hollywood in the latter half of the 20th century, an Australian sci-fi series provided a new way of looking at the genre, even if that meant something as simple as having us experience the post-apocalyptic narrative from the perspective of people who didn't have an American accent (Mel Gibson's accent is very noticeable in The Road Warrior). When one takes all of these various characteristics into consideration, it is easy to see why the Mad Max series stood out as a unique sci-fi series at the time.
           Fast forward thirty years. Given the precedent that the series had set up until this point, one can ask whether or not Fury Road preserves this, and continues the uniqueness and innovation of the series in a 21st century package, or if this reboot of an older franchise will be like most other reboots of the past decade and do more harm than it did benefit to the series. To my great relief, not only did Fury Road meet the high standard set by its predecessors, but it stands out as one of the best science fiction films of the 2010s so far, much like The Road Warrior was in the 1980s.
           Accordingly, we can ask what Fury Road does that earns it such distinction, particularly those things that other reboots seem to persistently miss the mark on. I think there are three core things: 1) as outlined in the above paragraphs, Fury Road preserves everything that was unique and good about its predecessors, and 2) in those areas where it did deviate from the rest of the series, it provided new perspectives and innovations that gave the series a 21st century spin (i.e. a compelling story and the introduction of a major female protagonist to the series), and, perhaps the most simple, yet extremely important detail, 3) Mel Gibson did not reprise his role as Max, and it's clear that this was an important component of Fury Road's success.
           As mentioned, Fury Road preserved all of the important elements of the series that came before it. This was to be somewhat expected; George Miller returned to produce and direct this installment, just like he had done with the rest of the series up until now. Accordingly, if the same mastermind behind The Road Warrior is also producing Fury Road, it is not too unreasonable to expect some element of cinematic beauty in Fury Road. Of course, one must still keep his skepticism about him; it is safe to say that Steven Spielberg's later works are lacking the genius of his 80s and 90s work, so the assumption that Fury Road will automatically be good simply because George Miller is working on it is a faulty one. Nonetheless, unlike Spielberg, Miller not only knew what was good about his series beforehand, but also knew how to bring those things to a 21st century audience. For example, I had mentioned that the Mad Max series was famous (or infamous) for being ultra-violent and not pulling any punches, uninterested in catering to the politically correct. This characteristic is the most apparent in Fury Road. There are several notable scenes that illustrate this. Early on in the film, we are made aware of the fact that Immortan Joe has several mildly obese women hooked up to breast milking machines, harvesting their milk for himself and his sons. The camera pans over the women, unashamed. Some may even find this scene all the more disturbing due to the fact that Joe's sons are adults, one of whom just casually samples the milk and gives his father a quick nod of approval. And later on, during an intense chase scene where Joe and his War Boys are chasing Furiosa and Max through the wasteland in order to try and re-capture Joe's kidnapped brides, one of them, Splendid, pregnant with Joe's child, is thrown under a speeding car and turned into roadkill. I confess a degree of amusement with this scene; in today's cinematic landscape, dominated by Hollywood, I highly doubt the idea of throwing pregnant women under cars would even be entertained, likely deemed to be too extreme by your various mainstream studios. The fact the George Miller would include such elements in the series where others won't is enough alone to merit some degree of praise, even before one considers all of the other things that Fury Road does well. Speaking of which, another one of the several things that Fury Road preserves is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the cast is British or Australian or some other kind of English speaker that is not American or a major Hollywood actor, maintaining the series' characteristic British feel to it. Tom hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult, while major actors, do a fantastic job at reminding us that one does not need Hollywood to produce a great piece of cinematic art, or that one does not need to be American to have a great science fiction experience. Again, the list of things that Fury Road does well can go on, but as a simple rule of thumb, refer back to the things that I mentioned characterize the series before hand, and then refer back to the film. I am confident that one can find all of them in Fury Road.
           However, there are several things the film does that are new innovations to the series without deviating too much from the things that make the series great. Perhaps the most important of its innovations is the introduction of Charlize Theron's Furiosa, the first major female protagonist in the series. Granted, there have been other women in the Mad Max films up until Fury Road, but none of them were particularly memorable (in fact, the only two other notable female characters in the series before Furiosa were probably Max's wife, Jessie, in the first Mad Max, who most people forget about, and Tina Turner's Aunty Entity in Beyond Thunderdome, who most people find laughable). The introduction of Furiosa does several things for both the series and the larger cinematic landscape. First, in the scope of today's science fiction and action films, Furiosa is everything other recent female protagonists are not. She is not the over-sexualized, young, former Soviet assassin that is The Avengers' Black Widow. At the same time, she is also not the spunky, sidekick type who ultimately gets subordinated to the support role that we saw from Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire in Jurassic World. Rather, Furiosa takes a much more active role in the plot development of the film. In fact, Furiosa is the one who lights the fuse on the gory car chase that defines the movie, and there are times where she even seems to be a more active participant in what's going on than Max. For example, for about three quarters of the film, Furiosa is more or less dictating the direction of the chase; she has a set destination in mind as to where she wants to take Joe's brides, and she is extremely passionate about getting there, while Max seems to simply be along for the ride.
           Lastly, another characteristic of Fury Road that seems to have greatly contributed to its success is actually the absence of Mel Gibson and the introduction of Tom Hardy as the new Max. This was a great move on Miller's part; one of the things that Hollywood does that is so baffling is that, whenever there is a reboot of a series, the historical actors for the series just have to reprise his or her role, despite the fact that this reboot is some thirty to forty years after the original film was made (the Terminator series keeps making this blunder). The inevitable result is that you have the original actor, who is otherwise unfit for the role, trying to make us believe that whatever series he or she represents still has relevance. Imagine, for example, if it were actually Mel Gibson portraying Max in Fury Road. We would be asked to try and accept an old man who had a phase of religious fanaticism fighting his way through hordes of young wasteland raiders, who has since lost his Australian accent and indie-film flare. The result would certainly be quite laughable. What George Miller realized is that you don't need Mel Gibson to have Mad Max, and that, in fact, the character of Max can be just as well portrayed by another suitable actor. Enter Tom Hardy. On the surface, Hardy meets all of the prerequisites for what it takes to portray Max: British, a proven track record with action films (see The Dark Knight Rises), and the potential to portray a unique, yet subtle, character (again, see The Dark Knight Rises and Inception). Given the tendency of movie series to lose a little bit of credibility when one starts shuffling actors around (i.e. the various permutations of John Connor in the Terminator series), there was understandably some skepticism at the prospect of Tom Hardy successfully pulling off Max. However, it is clear that Hardy studies the previous Mad Max films well; Hardy's performance invoked all of the quirks and mannerisms of Mel Gibson's Max from the 80s, at times seemingly paying homage to Gibson's portrayal of the character. At the same time, Hardy was also able to make the character his own; this Max is definitely more aggressive than Gibson's, and has a certain degree of cynicism about him that was lacking in previous iterations of the character. The impressive part is that Hardy was able to portray all of this mostly in action as opposed to words. Interestingly, Max has been a character that has had very little dialogue in the series, preferring more to actually do things as opposed to say things, which Miller appears to have picked up on and preserved in the script for the film. Accordingly, it was up to Hardy to portray the character of Max with very little dialogue (Max has a total of maybe a couple dozen words throughout the entirety of Fury Road) while preserving everything that was unique about him created by Gibson, which he did almost effortlessly, it seems.
           Overall, Mad Max: Fury Road is a must for anyone who claims to be a fan of science fiction, and is easily one of the best movies of the year. George Miller hasn't lost the genius he displayed in the previous installments of the Mad Max series, and both Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron deliver performances that reflect the character that has by now been well-established, in the case of Max, and bring a new, memorable face to the series, in the case of Furiosa, as well as preserve the distinctive British/Australian feel to the series. And any fan of post-apocalyptic fiction will acknowledge that Fury Road does a fantastic job of bringing the series up-to-date, painting its wasteland with many of the elements used in more recent post-apocalyptic fiction, while understanding that it more or less defined the genre. One could even argue that Mad Max: Fury Road is inspiring. You know the film did something right if you walk out of it feeling like you need to get into your car and immediately go enter a demolition derby.

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