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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron

The summer movie season has only just started, but honestly it might as well be over now because I doubt it's going to get much better than Mad Max: Fury Road. Writer/director George Miller's triumphant return to the franchise which started his career 36 years ago (and which he last revisited 30 years ago - yes, it's been that long since Thunderdome) is a work of great vision and incredible execution. It is loaded to the brim with ridiculous, amazing action, grounded by rich thematic concerns (its success in this regard is all the more impressive for how little dialogue the film contains), and augmented by some incredible world building (which, again, is impressive given how little is said throughout). It is a relentless thrill ride that barely stops to take a breath for 120 minutes and when it's over you feel like you've just been repeatedly punched in the face - but in a good way.

There isn't a ton to say about the plot of Fury Road. Set sometime after the events of Thunderdome, as what remains of humanity battles for survival following the collapse of society as a result of oil and then water shortages in addition to nuclear strikes, the film opens with Max (Tom Hardy) being captured by what turns out to be the forces of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tyrant who controls a large colony of survivors with his army of "War Boys" and his access to a vast supply of water (in addition to a supply of milk and agricultural goods). Max is enslaved and made into a "blood bag" for a sick War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), which is bad enough all on its own but gets worse when the War Boys are called into duty and Max ends up strapped to the roof of Nux's car. The War Boys are unleashed when Immortan Joe discovers that his breeding stock - his "wives" The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) - is missing, having hitched a ride on the war rig of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is supposed to be on a supply run to Gas Town, but instead goes off route and begins heading east. The chase begins without delay, with forces from Gas Town and the nearby Bullet Farm joining Immortan Joe and his War Boys, though many are lost when Furiosa leads them into a massive sandstorm. Though Nux attempts to attain glory by making a suicide attack on the war rig in the midst of the storm, the rig and its occupants survive, as do Nux and Max, only now the tables have turned and Max has freed himself from the chains connecting him to Nux.

Though distrustful of Furiosa at first, Max quickly forms an unspoken alliance with her as they work together to escape their pursuers and help the five escapees get to "the green place," which Furiosa recalls from her childhood. Nux also joins the cause after developing an attachment to Capable, and the eight members of the war rig push on with their pursuers always visible on the horizon and audible courtesy of the travelling drummers and electric guitar (excuse me, fire spitting electric guitar) player perched on a truck outfitted with a tower of amps. As they make their way further east, they also collect the remaining members of a colony of women, including Valkyrie (Megan Gale), and the Keeper of Seeds (Melissa Jaffer). Faced with the endless salt flats ahead of them and what remains of the armed force behind them, the group makes the desperate decision to turn around in the hope that they can outrun Immortan Joe and his allies and take the now undefended Citadel, which has the resources that will offer them the best, and perhaps the only, hope of restarting something resembling civilization.

Fury Road is, in one respect, all action, comprising at it does what amounts to a 100 minute chase that goes first one direction and then turns around to go back in the opposite direction. That action is incredibly well rendered, with Miller deftly mixing CGI and practical effects and unfolding the action in a way that is easy to follow in terms of knowing where people and vehicles are in relation to each other, rather than suffocating the viewer's sense of spatial awareness beneath a mass of fast, incomprehensible cuts. You truly do get what you paid for with Fury Road because Miller actually shows you what's happening. As intense as the action is, however, what makes the film truly impressive is that, though it hardly pauses in that action, it still manages to give a solid (and intriguing) sense of place and of how things work in this barbarous corner of the world. Immortan Joe controls the water, which allows him to grow fruits and vegetables, and in addition has a supply of milk courtesy of women relegated to being milk machines, and has a trade alliance with the dictator who controls the oil supply of Gas Town, as well as with the arms dealers of the Bullet Farm. In addition to these factions, there are also others who survive out in the desert, including a biker gang who control the territory around a narrow canyon, and the women in the east known as the Vuvalini. Miller builds the world within the film in an efficient and effective way, laying things out in a way that supports the story being told here while also making you want to know more, which will hopefully be delivered in the planned follow up films.

While action is paramount to Fury Road, it would be doing the film a disservice not to take note of what it's doing on a thematic level. Fury Road is an unabashedly feminist film (so much so that Miller brought writer Eve Ensler on board as a consultant), one which doesn't merely pay lip service to feminist ideas, but actually gets it. I don't say that merely because it features Theron kicking ass alongside Hardy, or because it allows her to do so while sporting a look that is unconventional for women within Hollywood movies (even in action films, save and except for a few, female heroes tend to be hyper feminine in their appearance). I say it because the film understands that feminism isn't about women achieving dominance over men, but about creating equality for the benefit of both men and women. Some will watch this movie and walk away with the idea that it's arguing that women are good and men are bad. That is a colossally reductive view, but entirely in line with the way that some people misunderstand the whole concept of feminism in the first place. Yes, the women in the movie have been denied agency and are fighting to regain it against a Fascist/patriarchal system, but the men living under that system, at least the ones living below the governance level, are victims of it as well. Consider Max who, like the "wives" and the women who spend their days hooked up to milking machines, finds himself enslaved and his body violated and used in a fashion that is entirely against his will. For the first section of the film, Max is locked into what would typically be a "female" role; he's a damsel in distress. Consider as well the War Boys who, like the women in the Citadel, are valued only for their ability to serve Immortan Joe, raised for the sole purpose of giving over their bodies in the capacity of cannon fodder, and brainwashed into believing that it's a good thing via promises of being welcomed into Valhalla. They are slaves of Immortan Joe, too, their bodies his "property," just for a different purpose. The women might be the only ones who openly recognize that they've been treated as property and state that they will be so no longer, but the fact that Immorten Joe sees men as his property as well is made explicit by the fact that he refers to the son that Splendid is carrying as exactly that. As I said at the top, the fact that the film is able to express all of this with a minimum of dialogue is amazing. Fury Road is a fantastic example of the "show" instead of "tell" storytelling principle. Actually, it's just fantastic, period.

1 comment:

john davies said...

This is a very well thought out and informative review. Nicely done!