I feel oddly isolated in my lukewarm experience of Mad Max: Fury Road. I took it in second-run this week in a packed house with a quite enthusiastic audience, including my boyfriend, who, after the show, unprompted but conscious of both my predilections and peeves, asked with a resigned sigh, “Did you hate it?”
“No,” I answered, “but I didn’t like it.”
I have a sense that I was the only one streaming out of that theater feeling decidedly indifferent to Mad Max: Fury Road.
I’ll concede the film magnificently rolls out relentless action, badass characters, badder-ass vehicles, and breathtaking stunts throughout its two-hour car chase, yet through all the frenetic thrill, I, in my advancing middle age and tendency toward rumination, was left wondering, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is to a post-apocalyptic blockbuster?”
Part of my disillusionment stems from the glut of grim apocalypses set upon cinema since the millennia began. What sort of desperation at world’s end have I yet to see? Mad Max director George Miller must sense the fatigue and thus zeroes in on the see side of the question, loading the film up with an astonishing visual presentation orgiastically death metal at its core.
If H.R. Giger had ever met Adam Ant, their love children might be Colin Gibson (production design), and Shira Hockman and Jacinta Leong (art direction). The style leans heavily toward black bones and grungy glam, a high-definition homage to cliched tattoos that cements the tone of the film using a superficial layer of shiny, metallic hardness with nothing underneath the stylish shell.
There just isn’t much to the script co-written by Miller. Dialogue is sparse, primarily functioning to drive the action rather than the actual narrative forward (or perhaps action and narrative have simply merged), while character development is nearly non-existent.
The wow factor never lets up. The why factor never takes off.
I sort of get it. We’ve recently been hit by a wave of dystopian blockbusters juggling clumsy political commentary with teenage romance (Hunger Games, Divergent), so a break from the heavy-handed statements on totalitarianism and classism (and lovelorn teenage girls) feels almost welcome in a franchise re-boot, but must the film dispense with nearly all exposition in its quest to pare itself down to a mainline shot of adrenaline?
(Miller hints at empathy for suicide bombers promised a wondrous afterlife with his crazed cannon fodder war boys, which he might have taken further by establishing some deeper dynamic among the ranks of the militia. And right now, as I listen to reports of migrants setting up camp in Calais, I’m wondering about the missed allegories of fleeing families seeking refuge in unwelcoming lands, which has become a global phenomenon in the past decade.)
Of course I can invent my own back story for all the unexplained, such as why the war boys have tumors bubbling up all over their skin, but there is so little to the film beyond skull-motifs and spectacular rollovers that I find such musing unfulfilling. There’s no there there beyond the spectacle of demented boys flying around on poles. What reward do I get for mentally punching the 2-D story until it’s rounded out?
My own imagination may be reluctant, but plenty of fanfic and art have sprung up since the film’s debut, in addition to graphic novels:
Perhaps Miller is purposefully engaging the public to complete rounding out his Mad Max universe themselves to sustain and build enthusiasm while we wait for the recently announced sequel. He should hold a contest to incorporate some fan-generated elements. Nothing like a mass collaboration for a little cohesion and extended opportunities for buy-in and tie-ins.
Miller might also solicit the public on fixing up his purported feminism (thankfully, I am not alone, a few times over, on this point), starting with initial presentation of the oppressed. Our first proper introduction to the breeders comes with the five hosing each other down in their white, gossamer-like frocks. I think it may have even been in slow motion. Is this a post-apocalypse hell or an outtake from a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue promo?
Or better yet, a deliberate callback to the beloved masturbatory fantasy that Judge Reinhold has about Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Because it seemed more directly at getting fanboys’ dicks stiff than introducing newly liberated procreation slaves.
Rather than courageous women in a desperate bid for freedom, the five come off as vapid fashion models, which may not have been entirely avoidable based on the casting, which slants toward the runway rather than the stage, as well as toward showbiz progeny, featuring the unremarkable Zoë Kravitz (child of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet) and the unbearable Riley Keough (granddaughter of Elvis Presley).
The latter flails particularly painfully in the film’s only nod to romance during some startlingly unconvincing moments of tenderness with war boy Nux. If dialogue and exposition are rationed to such extremes, the few meaningful bits are best handed off for delivery by a real thespian instead of a vacant mannequin who can’t even rise to the level of her grandmother’s lackluster performances on Dallas.
Perhaps great performances are too much to expect in Mad Max, since even the two experienced leads come off rather flat. Certainly they are gorgeous to look at, despite Theron bearing a mechanical arm and Hardy’s succulent lips being obscured for far too long by a face grill, but Miller has invested so little in Furiosa or Max beyond their aforementioned badassery that no meaningful impression ever gets planted.
The protagonists are irreversibly irrelevant to me about half-way through.
Case in point: Theron has a potentially tremendous breakdown moment upon reaching her childhood home, once green but now barren, yet since practically no Furiosa character gets established beforehand, it’s like watching an extra sink into an abyss of hopelessness. The scene earns all of the casual indifference I grant it.
Compare Theron’s collapse to a similar scenario in the series Battlestar Galactica, when richly drawn characters finally reach their dreamt-of destination only to find it an uninhabitable wasteland. Dualla secretly sank into despondency and blew her fucking brains out. Now that’s a build-up with a devastating payoff.
Furiosa could have done the same at this point in the film and I would have been left immediately wondering if there might be a jaw-dropping armored dune buggy collision coming up next. Or maybe another war boy suicide stunt preceded by manic mouth spray painting. It’s awesome when they do that.
The acting wasn’t all a wash, though. Nicholas Hoult as the tragic, tumor-ridden Nux actually captivated my attention more than the two main stars. He pulls off a combustible combination of pretty and crazy that I haven’t enjoyed quite so much since Brad Pitt in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.
My favorite performance, however, is Hugh Keays-Byrne’s as the desert despot Immortan Joe. He’s both frightening and funny and nearly succeeds in creating a character from threadbare script scraps even with most of his face is hidden by a mask. (He’s far better than Mad Max cast mate Hardy as the perpetually masked Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). I’d liken Joe to Darth Vader in his near faceless/villainous cinematic stature, though Vader spoke with the classic cadence of James Earl Jones and stands in a league untouchable in my childhood memory.
A few comic book flourishes did work for me, hinting at what might have come from cribbing a few notes from graphic novels by way of more flashy flashbacks. Why limit such hints of exposition to a few glimpses of Max’s doomed daughter? I wanted a better look at Furiosa, Nux, Immortan Joe, and especially the leftover ladies from the forgotten matriarchal outpost. And most of all the stilt-walking crow-people!
Adding in such flourishes would have tampered with the tough tone of the film, however. But is that such a bad thing?
The film I saw just before this causes me pause: Roger Vadim’s 1968 masterwork, Barbarella.
The night before viewing MM: FR, I marveled at Jane Fonda in her most notorious role at a park screening in a summer series of comic book films. The sex-packed space epic holds some strange parallels to MM:FR – with its central character in hostile territory, a miserable and oppressed populace, and a terrible tyrant at is core.
Yet Barbarella scored even higher with me on set design, costumes, performances, and especially dialogue, all of which are delightfully preposterous and slyly ingenious.
Barbarella, like MM, aims for sci-fi entertainment, but in an entirely different arena, examining and celebrating sex at nearly every turn amidst an environment literally feeding on the presence of evil. The sad desperation of the exiled demimonde wasting away below the luxurious decadence of the impenetrable city is not so far removed from the thirsty hordes clamoring for water at the base of MM‘s Citadel, with its upper echelons above, wallowing in a comparable nihilistic hedonism.
Both films also take a similar turn in their last acts, as their heroes scrap their original missions in exchange for all-out revolution, converting them into small-scale war films in their respective finales. Mad Max attempts to convey the danger and desperation of conflict and battle in a haze of spastic editing that harks more to the Fast and the Furious franchise than to anything real. I found it sillier than Barbarella, but not nearly as entertaining.
Meanwhile, Barbarella, for all its risible phoniness, lands more of a punch about overthrowing tyranny with its wit and pop-art style than all of Mad Max in its two-hour road chase. In fact, the Vadim/Fonda film may serve as my sci-fi movie of the summer of ’15, even though it comes from 1968.
Frantically edited car chases through sandstorms pass the time, but I’ll take my dystopia as wordy, leisurely paced, sex-positive fucking in outer space every single time.