Recently, many of the media websites I follow released their movies of the year so far. July, the midpoint (sort of) of 2015, and time to take stock of the situation, review what’s been released and crank up the excitement for what hasn’t.
There were many contenders, many different genres, many movies that haven’t been released in the UK yet. Because while we are entitled to the international blockbusters, many of the smaller independent, art-house movies don’t get much of a look-in when it comes to the franchised multiplexes of the UK.
Case in point when I went to see “Amy”, as I previously mentioned I caught a showing at 10am on a Tuesday. I was the only person in the theatre. If it’s not a cartoon or a boom-banger-boom it’s not getting bums on seats, ergo it’s not getting a wide release.
Despite this wide diversity there was one unanimous opinion for the current #1 movie of 2015.
“Mad Max: Fury Road”.
I agree. I went to see it three times.
Following my first time I don’t think I stopped trembling or sputtering random questions, most of them beginning with the phrase “But, do you remember when…” for a good 24 hours.
I even went to see it with my parents. My father is a petrolhead and my mother a huge fan of the first two films, particularly the second one (and was happy to proclaim it her favourite film for many years, until Mel Gibson fell off the wagon one late Florida evening). The post-apocalyptic atmosphere, Brian May’s heart pounding score, a script that is economical and disinterest in excessive exposition; it all made sense as we wanted to see what George Miller had been brewing inside his head for almost 30 years.
Which was the span between Fury Road and its predecessor, the downright peculiar ‘Beyond Thunderdome’.
And the man had become a more family friendly director, responsible for films such as ‘Babe 2’ and ‘Happy Feet’, a musical about dancing cartoon penguins.
Really, witness this?
So, why the multiple viewings?
The buzz that comes with fighting, explosions and chase scenes is overwhelming. The pace is so breakneck, that you feel like you the audience is having to physically hold on tight as you simply observe what’s happening in front of you, just to stay alive. Like you’ve been teleported into one of the cars as they roar across the sand.
There is no time to wonder about sub-plot, understand nuance, or join the dots between characters or dialogue. All you can do is run, drive, fight, pray and survive (a mantra Max himself admits to in the pre-credit abduction scene) at such a frenetic pace that you sit, hypnotised like a rabbit on a road, afraid to turn away lest you miss something vital.
Swept along by Tom Holkenborg’s impressive Wagner-inspired score, we travel from set piece to set piece, chase scene to chase scene, with very little else to sustain us. no back story, (where’s Max’s family? what happened to Furiosa’s arm?) no drawn out exposition or lone character providing narration, it’s all BANG BANG BOOM! Burnings, crashes, death and silver spray paint.
But you watch it again and that’s when you begin to see what makes it more than the post-apocalyptic equivalent of “Expendables”, “Battleship” or “Transformers”.
Andy Greenwald wrote a review for the TV show Banshee (another favourite of mine) explaining these feelings of violence being graphic rather than gratuitous best.
“It’s dark without being heavy. It’s fun but never feels light. Not all violence needs to be investigated or commented upon. Sometimes it’s enough just to care about the people who are being hit.”
And we care about Max, Furiosa and the Wives.
Why? Well, aside from the obvious (slavery, property, indentured service) when we see Immortum Joe hording water, something so vital for existence, it’s safe to say we can understand why he’s the bad guy, without being told about in exposition.
Which is something rare these days, for movies. Because for the sheer number of comic-adaptations, released in recent years, it has made back-story essential for the casual viewer. Origin stories, flashbacks, anything to bring the swing-audience in the middle up to speed quickly. But not here, here it’s simply someone throwing you cliff-notes as you climb into the cab of a truck, barking out the strict instructions to “Learn as you go”.
As narratives go the film makes ‘Transformers’ look like ‘Citizen Kane’.
I.E: Woman driving down road turns left when she isn’t supposed to. Chase ensues. Night falls. Woman goes home. No one there. Woman turns around and drives back to her starting point, invoking another chase. Credits roll.
So why is this film so riveting?
Well, a few reasons.
1. With the exception of specific key landscapes, including a gigantic embryonic midnight tornado, and Furiosa’s digitally removed left arm, everything you saw onscreen existed. Every truck, car, bike, explosion, everything. Practical SFX was the order of the day. $150 million worth.
2. A lexicon that is rooted in its own mythology. With zero profanity as we know it, the closest, clearly audible profane word is “slauger”; it gives a depth to the world we’ve just landed in. Our brains have to struggle to make sense of it all, giving us a connection with poor abused Max. But when Max asks if Nux is a “black-thumb” we know what that means, and we later understand when Nux is elbows deep fixing the rig’s engine, without having exposition.
3. Characters that are three-dimensional despite being minor. From Joe’s brothers, People-Eater and Bullet Farmer, fellow tyrants, fat and corpulent on the excesses of oil and bloodshed to the Vulvalini, mature women, capable aunts and grandmas on motorbikes, surviving as best they can, forgoing stereotypes but hoping for something more.
I listened to a podcast of a review by Kevin Smith (director of Clerks, Dogma, etc) where he was not only awestruck by the movie, but when he tried to re-watch Avengers 2 he was aware of how different each film was.
Primarily concerning the use of CGI for the superhero movie, and what a refreshing difference Fury Road had given him, suggesting that audiences these days, when it comes to the action blockbuster, expect computers to do most of the legwork when it comes to SFX, and what a sorry state of affairs that seemed to be.
The other key point in the movie is the role of women. When it was leaked that Max is a minor character to that of Furiosa, many people were upset. With several American Men’s groups attempting to sue the studio for misrepresentation over the Mad Max character, a protest which, in itself, was hilarious, as well as a sad insight into the state of the gender gap within the western world.
Nowhere is this reversed relationship more obvious than when Furiosa uses Max as a stock-rest to shoot the spotlight of a pursuing vehicle. Running low on ammo, Max has fired twice without success. Now offering the rifle to her; he stands still, is told “don’t breathe” and duly deafened as she hits her mark.
Many cited this as key evidence of the movie being feminist. Furiosa, and later the Vulvalini are alone in the world from men and not only surviving, but capable of taking charge of their own affairs. They are surviving, hunting and gathering in the traditional male role, but freely state they hope to be able to start again, to plant and harvest and start their community, and be free of the scavenging necessities of the world.
Evidently, this did not appease a percentage of the male audience. As to why exactly this is, is an opinion for another time. Miller employed Eve Ensler, writer of “The Vagina Monologues” to help with the character development, and later gave lectures to the cast and crew about global violence against women, which was a boon for creative and emotive reasons alike.
And for those crying feminist and familiar with the story, it is Max who stops Furiosa and the others from tearing across the salt flats on a road to nowhere. He also gives them the idea and plan for attacking the Citadel. And finally he saves her when she lies broken in danger of both exsanguination and pneumothorax, all of this suggesting a relationship that’s more equal from both sides of the binary than any message-board, flame-happy critic might care to admit.
A relationship built on cooperation instead of competition, and subjugation for the sake of society.
So why do I like it?
It deals with fresh takes on topics rooted in current affairs. The biggest of these being fundamentalist religion, where paradise, where ‘going to Valhalla’ is the greatest desire, and dying gloriously is something everyone is desperate to obtain.
The concepts of redemption, and the desire for home also being additional concepts, both used as motivation for the characters. Max has lost his, Furiosa was taken from hers and the Wives have never known what one was like, but they recognise shelter being a mandatory necessity, even in a wasteland. For redemption it is even more profound. Furiosa is saving the Wives because she sees something she can save, something she was unable to do for her mother. Max saves her, and them, redeeming himself from the demons that haunt him. His work now complete it makes sense he withdraws back to nomadic solitude following the victory.
It opens up an entire world beyond the source material; drawing inspiration from the Dark Future board-game universe, and the accompanying novels of Jack Yeovil. Who writes about a crumbling post-apocalyptic USA, where even the laws of physics are unravelling; and on to the works of concept artists like Brom and Luis Royo, showing a scope for monolithic dreamscapes and mythical monsters.
Everyone has names, few of which are mentioned in the movie. The boys atop the long poles are called ‘The Polecats’, ‘The Buzzards’ prowl the wasteland between the citadels in spiked, souped-up dune buggys and ‘The Rockriders’ gun up and down the canyons, flinging TNT at breakneck speed.
It pays glorious attention to the details. From Nux’s crow bobblehead, bobbing along to his suicidal fundamentalist ramblings, to one War Boy using a road sign as a shield. To the complete genius/madness of the Doof Warrior, shooting flame and riffing simultaneously.
And within that focus lays an indication of being unafraid to honour the past. From the music-box Zoe Kravitz plays with, a nod to Mad Max 2, to the similar screams and extreme close-ups during moments of impact, paying tribute to the deaths of the villains of the first two films. None of these characters were in the first movies, but they all tip their hats to their history. And it’s for them alone, and for those in the audience that know. The casual viewer is left to be neither enlightened nor demeaned by these additions.
If you missed this movie in the cinema, you missed a treat. Historically it reminds me of the first time I saw Star Wars, X-Wings roaring down the target-shaft of the Death Star, or Lord of the Rings when Frodo and the rest have to cross the bridge at Khazad-dum, arrows and fire raining down, the bridge crumbling beneath their feet.
Even then those two examples you sit cossetted in computer wizardry. Here the action is fully functional, spitting nox and fire and roaring exhaust until eardrums bleed.
Surprisingly, I have heard a lot of negativity about the film from colleagues: cries of “It’s just one long chase” and “It’s just one explosion after another” being the frequent grumblings.
And many more people I know turned their noses up when they heard Mel Gibson wouldn’t be starring. “If it’s not Mel, I’m not seeing it” one pouted, with cries of encouragement from their online friends.
Fair enough. After all, you can only lead a horse to water. But Fury Road is easily the best film of the year, one of the best action films I’ve ever seen, and contains some of the best female characters of the genre in the last decade.
Hopefully they’ll do the sequels, Miller’s reportedly written two. But even if they don’t I wouldn’t care. It’s such an awesome and well-crafted universe, right now I’m just glad I’ve been allowed a glimpse inside it.