Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: Mad Max Fury Road







REVIEW (contains spoilers)

“My world is fire and blood.”

So says Max, eponymous hero of Fury Road, and its an apt description for the next two hours. The fourth installment of George Miller’s genre-defining post-apocalyptic series is essentially one long action-packed chase scene with more than enough fire, blood, and explosions to keep action movie fans glued to their seats. It is a visually stunning film that teases some interesting ideas without really aiming for genuine depth. The action alone is worth the price of admission, but anyone hoping for universe building or character development will be disappointed. Fury Road is indeed full of sound and fury, but unfortunately it signifies nothing.

What Worked

To use Cher’s term from the movie Clueless, Mad Max movies are always “total Monets.” They look better from a distance. The concept, aesthetic, and visuals are always better than the details of the story and the actual things the characters do. The same is true of Fury Road. The trailer is better than the film. When it comes out on DVD, I'll probably just fast-forward all of the talky parts, but I will still have a ball.

The action is simply amazing, especially given the preference for practical effects and real props. Every fight scene, gunshot, and car collision felt legitimately dangerous, a sharp contrast from today’s bloodless CGI comic book battles. Don’t expect Max to be making wisecracks while somersaulting across a room filled with lava and evil robots; when someone pulls a gun or a knife in Fury Road, expect someone to get hurt.

Even with the more genuine sense of danger, Fury Road never stops being fun. Director George Miller is in full swagger with his colorful world and occasionally zany concepts. Among the latter, I adored the flame-throwing guitar and the drums that rode along side the Immortan Joe's war boys. For some it may have been over the top, but it was an iconic moment destined to be remembered, parodied, and copied. “Memorable” is a high compliment for any element in a film, and Fury Road is full of visuals that meet the criteria. Be it the captive women being milked for Joe's army, the towering gardens of the Citadel, or a massive lightning and tornado-filled dust storm – the movie is a smorgasbord for the eyes.

I absolutely loved Joe's army. They had a curious nobility about them. The white paint, the talk of Valhalla, the kamekaze tactics – all of it just made me respect the hell out of them. In this desolate world where life is short and cheap, Joe’s society had manage to reclaim some form of honor. It helps that the vehicle, weapon, and costume design is cool as hell.

The overall aesthetic is sumptuous. I marveled at the lush scenery – the cerulean skies and orange sands. I loved the way everything from the costumes to the cars all looked dirty, old, and used. The world of Fury Road feels simultaneously ancient and broken, yet somehow rich and fantastical. Should this indeed be the launch of a new franchise, more than anything else I hope they preserve the aesthetic.

What Didn’t

There are two big issues I have with Fury Road and one small one. Combined they take what could have been a great film, and make it merely a decent one. The small issue is the cumulative effect of all of the little plot holes and unexplainable things that these sorts of big-budget action flicks always have. I will not list all of them here, but suffice to say if you are an attentive, thinking viewer, there are many moments that will make you go “huh?” I know I know, turn my brain off and just have fun. Sure I can do that. But it is a strike against the film. I don’t give movies credit for making an enemy of my own intelligence.

The first big issue is the fact that the movie does not really feel like the story of Max. The previous movies were all about Max’s choices in morally complex situations. Fury Road is really about Furiosa’s redemption and Max’s efforts to help her achieve it. He isn’t a sidekick, but he doesn’t really star. In the previous movies Max was the protagonist. In Fury Road at best he is a protagonist. What’s more, neither protagonist is especially well-developed. They’re just ‘the good guys’, saving the day and kicking butt in an R-rated movie that feels very PG-13.

Here’s why it feels PG-13: (Spoiler Alert!) The good guys all live, the bad guy dies. The bad guy’s motives and plans are never explained so we can’t sympathize with him. The city is saved and apparently there is infinite water available to give everyone for free. Max and Furiosa go off happily ever after neither seemingly changed in anyway from their experience. To be fair, the previous Mad Max movies suffer from many of the same issues, however in all of them Max makes more hard choices and frequently suffers great loss. Ironically in all three earlier movies it is his attempts to avoid conflict and violence that lead to him losing the things he cares for most. In Fury Road, Max is just another victim swept up in the tide, and it isn’t until the final act that he actually exerts influence on the story.

Why does he exert influence at that time? The implied answer is that he wants to stop some annoying hallucinations he keeps having of his dead kid. Yet the movie never really explores Max’s past, so this does not mean much. In fact the movie does not bother to really explore much of anything, and this is my second big issue. I had so many questions about the world, the people, the places, the stuff, because it was all so interesting to look at and examine. Yet the movie never stops to explain anything, never offers an interesting thought or cultural commentary, never digs into an important element of the post-apocalyptic world. As fun as it can be to fill in the blanks, it is also a missed opportunity, as the movie has a very empty feel. You could cut almost all of the dialogue and have basically the same experience.

It’s a shame that the film feels so shallow given that there were rumors before release that the movie was filled with feminist social commentary. This is not the case, though the film doesn’t paint men in a particularly flattering light. This isn’t really new for the franchise, but it stands out more in a story where ‘safety’ is literally defined as a place where there are no men. If you are a female character in Fury Road, you are either a (likely gorgeous) damsel in distress, or a badass warrior who gets to kill tons of evil men. Does that make it feminist? I couldn’t say. An argument could be made, but it is out of scope for this review. However given all of the interesting ideas the movie teased, I wish the writers had attempted to push something.

Verdict

Ultimately, Fury Road is worth seeing. Like Furious 7, there are enough insane visuals to keep you amused. It’s just unfortunate that the film isn’t much smarter than Vin Diesel’s biennial stunt show, nor are its protagonists much deeper. It and they really should have been.