Review: Mad Max: Fury Road
I saw Mad Max: Fury Road and I was entertained for the entirety of the film. I’d say after the first viewing I’d give it a solid 7/10 – yes, I’m going to start the review with the score out of ten and work backwards from there to get to 7.
Firstly, I’ll answer the common question I’ve heard regarding Fury Road: do you need to see the old Mad Max films first?
The answer is, no, you don’t. Miller himself explained it (something like): If you think of the Mad Max character as a myth or a legend, many stories would have been told about him. Fury Road is just another story in the folklore of Mad Max. Without having seen the previous three films, you can expect to get through the film without missing any references or needing to whisper “who’s that one?” to your buddy. In fact, Miller himself said it nicely, via a quote from Hitchcock, in his “VICE Talks Film” interview:
Alfred Hitchcock said it best when he said to try to make movies where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan. … So you try to make movie movies, you know? … For this, it needs to be BIG!
That’s not to say the characters don’t have depth, or that the story is basic. It actually hooks you in very quickly, and there’s good depth to all the main characters with some interesting contrasts in morality between them. At the same time it’s very easy to follow, and good acting and mannerisms trumps dialogue, which I very much like. Not only do you not need to see the original trilogy to follow this film, you can pretty much watch this one in a foreign language and still enjoy it.
A great example of this showing rather than telling (to borrow a writing bromide), is in the first few minutes of the film when we are introduced to the character Nux (Nicholas Holt). He is sitting still, looking distant, almost bored, in what seems to be the barracks of his city. You can see right away he is restless, biding his time, just waiting for his moment. Then the horns of war start blaring and everyone starts scurrying around to prepare for battle, and we see Nux leap up, flabbergasted and happy, like he’s just won the lottery. Without any real dialogue we get a good first glimpse into his character – that he is eager to serve, as if he has been waiting all along for his chance to go to war. You feel like he’s dangerous – not because he’s strong or a good soldier, but because he’s hell-bent on serving, on proving himself in battle. Later we are taken deeper into why he is that way, but that’s a bit too spoiler-y.
There’s a visual language in the costumes, makeup, and props too – they tell (show) little stories themselves, and it is clear a lot of thought went into the logic behind them, as well as the aesthetic. That attention to detail isn’t lost – it allows the audience to look closer, through the dust-shroud and into the chaos, and make sense of it all, giving the feeling that these characters live real lives in a real place. A great example of a prop being used to hint at a major plot-point is the chroming. The way they incorporated a very abstract drug reference, the way the soldiers use it to get that last little buzz on before martyrdom, the way it was all tied into both cars and their phoney religion, and a nod towards cults that rely on drugs to fool followers… that was a great detail, and something that was never explicitly explained but just incorporated into the film to give it depth.
The story telling has some clever tricks too. For example, just when we start to become desensitised to the brutality, the victims are changed from bloodthirsty warriors eager to die for glory, to grandmas. Badass, gun-toting, motorbike riding grandmas, sure, but still grandmas. I don’t care who you are – when you see a grandma have her throat cut, or be thrown from a moving vehicle, or be shot with a gun – it’s going to make you cringe a little. (I was a little apprehensive proclaiming that I enjoyed seeing grandmas be brutally killed, but apparently something something feminism, so it’s okay now!)
On the note of feminism, I can’t not mention that Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, was a total bad ass, and really did steal the show. It’s good to see so many female characters kicking equal amounts of ass as their male counterparts, without it feeling like they’ve just added a token Strong Female Character just to tick off the box that is just about essential these days if you don’t want to cop flak.
Visually, the movie was amazing. The cinematography is gorgeous, but these days that’s to be expected, so there is no real talking point there. What isn’t expected is an almost total lack of CGI. The stunts are real, the cars are real… It’s almost all real. The sheer scale of this undertaking is epic, the effort involved: mind-boggling, and for fans of practical effects, this is a must see. “Everything you see actually happened,” claims Miller, who says that CGI was only really used “to erase harnesses, to change skies, to erase our tracks, and to create a big toxic dust storm, and things like that…” (Quote via Vice Talks Film, again. In fact just about all the Miller quotes in this article are from that clip. Good interview, worth a watch.)
Even the 3D was sweated over, with Miller saying: “With a film like this you’ve gotta get [the 3D mastering] right, otherwise it can hurt peoples’ eyes. There’s a lot of action so you’ve gotta get it really creamy.” I didn’t see it in 3D, because, well… it usually hurts my eyes. But maybe knowing that such a degree of effort was administered, it might warrant a rematch with the goggles on.
But with all this striving for perfection, it does make it a little extra disappointing to notice the little blemishes here and there. And there were quite a few little blemishes, even after just one watch. In the middle of the film I was thrown out of the moment by a shot that looked digitally zoomed-in and very pixelated, maybe even a GoPro shot. (Look for it when they take a monster truck over the rocks that have fallen in their path, it stands out like a sore thumb). Another trance-breaking moment was when Max streams along to the front of a motorcade and then stops on a dime, a shot that unravels the magic a little by illustrating that they aren’t really moving as fast as they seem to be. After that it was very apparent to me that all the high-speed action wasn’t really very high-speed at all, and it actually looked like the cars were moving along at little over jogging pace. The illusion was kind of broken from that point.
Another trance-breaker was the bad accents. Nothing pulls you out of a film quite like a bad accent, and I’ve got to go against the grain here and say that while in a few scenes I was impressed with Tom Hardy’s Aussie impression, in most scenes it sounded really bad – not Australian at all. (More of a… what, a southern-USA twang?) Hardy should stop with the crazy accents in every role – almost every time they have the locals crying out that it’s a comically bad impression.
These unpolished moments wouldn’t usually bother me, but with a film that is currently sitting at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes a week after its release, I’m expecting near-perfection, and I’m certainly not expecting to find myself flung back out of the action and into my seat when I’m so deeply absorbed into a film.
One other not-quite-98-percent-perfect aspect of Fury Road was the music. I do appreciate that the music was never used to dictate moods to the audience (a pet-peeve of mine). That’s well done, and shows not only that the composer doesn’t spoon-feed his listeners, but that the director can convey an emotion/atmosphere without having to rely on music. There were, however, a few moments in which the music didn’t really seem to match what was happening on screen at all, and that was another throw-me-out-of-the-film thing for me. It wasn’t necessarily that it was bad music, it just didn’t seem to belong, like there was a disconnect between the music and the imagery. But that’s a very subjective point, so let’s not dwell there.
Overall, I like the approach to filmmaking Miller has displayed here. And his passion, too, I like how evident it is. I like that Fury Road was written and directed by the same bloke that 36 years ago wrote and directed the first Mad Max, and then a few years later did the same for Mad Max 2, and then in ’85 Mad Max 3. I like that it’s Miller’s beast, and that the new installment isn’t a “we acquired the rights so let’s cash in” sort of reboot/remake. It’s a continuation of his vision. My fingers are crossed that he continues the Mad Max myth further, and that again he strives for perfection.