In the spring of 1990, my eight-year-old self stumbled across “Mad Max” in the backroom of his grandparents’ house. Memory is a fleeting thing, but the image of Goose getting burned alive in that field has stuck with me. Maybe it was because my world at the time rarely ventured outside of Fraggle Rock. Maybe it was because it was an early taste of breaking my parents rules as all little boys are wont to do. Or maybe it was because there was something primitive and real in this hyper-violent stylized world I stumbled across. Now, 36 years after that film’s original release, we are staring down the twin barrels of the intake system of Max’s V8 again. The kid who had the bejesus scared out of him in that backroom kept coming back to see more of Max because there has always been something unique and enchanting to this love affair with dystopia. It’s good to be back.
In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland. (Synopsis by Warner Bros.)
The BBC has a site where you can see how the planet has changed since your birth. Based on their data, I would have to live to 145 years to see gasoline run out. Also the Black Rhino was saved from extinction in my lifetime. Rock on, Black Rhino. Anyway, let’s all be thankful that I won’t have to cram my wrinkled husk into Mad Max-style leather bondage gear in my centennial years. No such luck for the denizens of Miller’s world. Like his previous films, the costumes have a flair for the bizarre that rivals Lady Gaga’s wardrobe. Couple this high-concept fashion with the gorgeous visual spectacle of long road chases across desert plains, and this is an impeccably shot piece of art. That’s not even accounting for the action or the script.
The last few years have almost killed the action genre with subpar scripts, limp performances, and uneven direction. Reliance on “shaky cam” and CGI to overcome weaknesses in choreography and acting has left the genre without its basic humanity. Much like the use of 3D, CGI should be used as an accent point. Instead, it is used as the basis for all effects in a film, leaving them feeling sterile. Seeing a Transformer assemble cleanly on the screen has a certain charm the first time around. But it doesn’t leave a lasting impression because the audience, as humans, craves a human response to what they see. We respond to other humans in real or perceived danger. When that danger is too fake, it the illusion fails and prevents any connection.
“Fury Road” pegs the needle firmly in the opposite direction. Few special effects are used, and when they are, it is in a believable manner. Many cameras are sacrificed for static shots of actual cars and people crashing, sweating, and barely pulling off stunts. Amazingly, most of the film had to be reshot, meaning that many of these stunts were performed not once, but at least twice. The use of very real humans up the intensity of the scenes for the audience in a way that few action movies do. Very rarely will you walk out of a film and want to immediately see it again because of how it has crawled under your skin. That feeling is that human connection. I also recommend seeing this at a theater close to home, as you are going to drive like a maniac after watching two hours of desert chases.
For a movie with a plot of “drive in one direction and then drive back,” there is a surprising amount of nuance to the script and characters. At the heart, this is a story with a strong female protagonist trying to set a little piece of the world back in order against all odds. This is fully Theron’s movie and she owns every minute of it. Hardy plays Max as truly insane, a slight departure from the Gibson version. Nicholas Hoult (the kid from “About a Boy”) turns in a stellar performance as one of the enemy combatants that changes sides during the fateful chase.
The script probably reads less than a thousand total words, but much like the best guitar solos, each note counts. The acting and the direction push the plot along, and tell the story as much as the short explanations from the characters. You can appreciate a director who knows we are all here to see cars exploding, and gives us that while still maintaining a storyline. A frequent complaint of action movies is that they rely on dumbed-down scripts to explain things that are better being shown. Miller is having none of that, and chooses visuals over conversations wherever he can. Not only does it help build the suspense along with the action, but it gives an audience time to build a relationship with Theron’s character and what she is trying to accomplish.
These films have always had a certain “disbelief of reality” element to their storylines. This is fantasy and metaphor masquerading as action. Some would argue that finding a deeper meaning here is grasping at straws, but a film of the strength of “Fury Road” lends itself to the possibiltiy Miller was trying to create something more than car wrecks in the desert for our amusement. Either way, this is a highly entertaining romp that is going to be hard to top this year.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it. In contention for the best movie of the year. What a lovely day!
FOUR STARS out of four.
Directed by George Miller
Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images.
Runtime: 2 hours