“I never thought I’d do anything so shiny.”
It might seem hyperbolic to claim Mad Max: Fury Road as the best movie of the year already, but I promise you it’s not. The chances of anything else meant to come out this year eclipsing it are slim to none. Call me a cynic (it’s okay, while your expectations are let down I’ll be pleasantly surprised) but I don’t think Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be a better film. The movie I’m most excited about might be Crimson Peak but, as much as I love Guillermo Del Toro and hope it’s every bit as good as it could be, I don’t think it’ll top Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not that I think the rest of this year’s cinematic ventures will be dross or anything like that, don’t be mistaken. It’s just that I can say without a trace of exaggeration that Fury Road is the kind of film that doesn’t tend to come around multiple times in one year. Or five years. And at best a few times in a decade. I remember at some point I wrote out my definition of a great movie and how it differed from masterpiece status, and received a comment assuming I would be hesitant to classify something new as a masterpiece. If that doesn’t prematurely explain my opinion of Fury Road let me spell it out – I think George Miller’s return to the Mad Max series is a modern masterpiece.
When I wrote about Avengers: Age of Ultron (I cannot wait for the colon to go out of style as a titling mechanism), I asked you to imagine a scatter-plot with the X-axis set to artistic intent and the Y-axis set to entertainment value. The idea was that all movies, regardless of quality, could fall somewhere on this graph, and the better movies would tend to congregate at the higher, farther points. Well Mad Max: Fury Road could be confidently placed high and to the right. Maybe not quite at the vertical zenith, but definitely along that path. Now personally I’m a sucker for a movie that masquerades as dumb entertainment while preaching a complex thematic message, and I’ll explain why. There’s something about that dichotomy that speaks to the inherent potential of the art form. It’s amazing when someone can use one of the most entertaining mediums ever to entertain while simultaneously using it to make truly powerful art. The thing is it’s also unbelievably hard. How can scene after scene of spiky-cars grinding into each other and exploding build to any convincing point? The answer is that they rarely can, and almost inevitably a film that can blend visceral engagement with a real message goes down as a classic. Take Alien as an example, or The Godfather, or even Citizen Kane if you want to make a really controversial comparison. The blending of artistic intent and pure entertainment is so rare, so powerful, so impressive that it historically denotes truly universally classic films.
There was never any doubt in my mind that Mad Max: Fury Road would, at the very least, entertain. However the movie didn’t so much entertain as it did pile-drive the viewer through an explosive Heavy Metal style kaleidoscope for 120 minutes, leaving you winded in the dirt with faint memories of rusted metal, nipple piercings, and car crashes. Saying Mad Max: Fury Road entertains is a little like saying I’m a little bad at analogies; both comparisons are massive litotes. Mad Max: Fury Road is almost instantly the most entertaining movie of the year. It opens with some narration loosely establishing the post-apocalyptic setting and Max’s mental state (i.e. madder than ever). This leads into the opening shot of the trailers, Max standing in the desert, eating a lizard, then leaping into his car and careening off into the distance as he’s pursued. This almost instantly defies expectations as Max is quickly captured and carted off to a massive post-apocalyptic society to be used as a living blood donor. The society is led by a deformed blob named Immortan Joe who controls a massive source of water, and therefore rules. He has an army of Warboys doomed to slowly die as their radioactive half-life runs out. Max, as a universal donor (a fact that ends up tattooed on his back near a note that I’m pretty sure read “just okay genitals”) ends up hanging upside down gently draining his ichor into one of Immortan Joe’s Warboys (played by Nicholas Hoult). Meanwhile Joe sends Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) out on a trip to Gasoline Town. She drives a massive War-Rig that gets flanked by a few protecting cars. However when she changes her route, Immortan Joe realizes he’s been betrayed and sends out his Warboys to bring her back. Nux still hasn’t drained enough of Max’s blood to survive, so he straps the “feral” Max to the front of his car and sets off, starting a chase that takes up the rest of the movie. Once the movie speeds through this initial legwork the rest is deceptively simple and straightforward. Max survives a car crash and realizes his simplest means of escape involves allying with Furiosa, despite initially trying to hijack her car. Max just cares about survival, and ends up helping simply because it’s the best way to survive.
The straightforward chase that takes up most of the rest of the movie stays at a breakneck pace. It’s not just the frequent and incredible action set pieces that keep the movie feeling like a whirlwind, it’s the insane density of ideas and designs crammed into the frame. I was particularly fascinated by the religion Immortan Joe appeared to have indoctrinated the Warboys with. The white-painted manic fighters, knowing they have a short shelf life, have been encouraged to pursue their missions with a suicidal vigour. Stealing from Norse religion they believe death in battle will send them to Valhalla, but that then this Valhalla will lead to resurrection. They also seem to have to prepped for their final moments by coating their mouths in metallic silver spray-paint. Not only is this a unique idea, it leads to some original nightmarish images and incredible turns of phrase that leak into the dialogue.
“You will arrive at the gates of Valhalla, shiny and chrome!”
This is really just scratching the surface of the film’s imagery though. A lot has already been made about the Doof Warrior, the blind Warboy who hangs from a giant truck covered in amps and drums playing metal riffs on a flame-shooting guitar to rile up the troops, but even that serves a myriad of purposes. Not only does the image look immediately striking, but the sonic hint of the Warboys over the horizon is an utterly brilliant forewarning of approaching danger. There’s the People Eater, an obese leader with a metal nose and neat holes cut out of his clothes to accommodate his massive nipple piercings. There are the Stilt-Walkers, which definitely made me think of the Dark Crystal thank-you very much. And for all these there are fifty more I won’t describe.
This incredible action is in part anchored by vivid characters and great performances. The two leads are Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, basically given equal billing. Charlize Theron has always had a reputation as a great actor, and this performance does little to disprove it. She brings a wonderfully nuanced strength to the desperate and heroic figure of Furiosa. The one-armed saviour is the film’s most heroic figure, but Theron conveys how powerfully human she is with aplomb. Now I’ve always been impressed with Tom Hardy’s abilities, but he’s in an awkward position in Mad Max: Fury Road. Tom Hardy has to sidle into a role that’s already been portrayed three times in three iconic films. It’s not a reboot either, or some legacy thing. However Max is written differently this time around, and, like I hinted at before, he’s crazier than ever. He barely has any dialogue in this movie; he’s savage, twitchy, and haunted by schizophrenic visions of the people he couldn’t save. Now Tom Hardy has played crazy before. His performance as the eloquent and completely fucking bonkers Charles Bronson in Bronson is captivating, and impressively controlled. Bronson might be utterly nuts but Tom Hardy still turns him into an actual character. Tom Hardy’s performance in Mad Max actually makes for a nice comparison, because both characters are a little insane, but each feels completely distinct. Max feels a little more unhinged in some ways. Bronson on the other hand felt like a hinge shaped like a fish that didn’t actually swing open. If that makes sense. And it probably doesn’t. Basically Bronson had a certain precision about him, while Max feels more animalistic. They’re both completely transfixing though. Tom Hardy has that absolute movie star presence to back up his raw talent. It’s a rare thing, and I’m so glad he picks the weird projects he does.
Nicholas Hoult gives a great performance as the crazed but ultimately conflicted Warboy, but the most impressive secondary characters lead us into why this movie is so unbelievably excellent.
Imperator Furiosa’s entire rebellion is about freeing Immortan Joe’s stock of “breeders.” The breeders are attractive and healthy women, a rarity in the post-apocalyptic wastes. Immortan Joe uses them to keep a supply of relatively healthy children, in a world where most men are ailing and diseased. When Furiosa first goes rogue, Joe immediately checks on his women’s chambers. Their room is empty, with the words “we are not objects” and “who destroyed the world?” painted on the walls. This is the first hint of the film’s brilliant thematic side, which takes the whole film and gracefully incorporates a feminist slant. Even before one starts unpacking the thematics woven into the story the quality of the characterization sets this film’s depiction of women apart from most blockbusters. The five breeders in the film all get completely unique character traits and arcs. They feel like people, as opposed to the MacGuffins and sympathy wells they would be in a lesser movie. All these, matched up with the complex Furiosa character, make this movie stand head and shoulders above a lot of other blockbuster depictions of women. Then there are the themes. The question scrawled on the wall in the early scenes of the film comes back to hang hauntingly over the proceedings. “Who destroyed the world?” The answer is pretty plainly men. Now while it might seem contradictory of George Miller to preach against macho violence while showing such thrilling action set pieces, the relationship between the action and the message is more nuanced than that. Mad Max spells it out in the movie’s opening, we’re not watching people destroy the world, we’re watching them survive.
The movie packs in a plethora of symbols relating back to these central themes. Immortan Joe and his close allies’ consumption of breastmilk. A tribe of badass aging matriarchs. The complex and shifting opinions of the breeders. It all adds context and nuance to the film’s thematics. Even the film’s final shot is wonderfully linked to the themes (although I maybe wish it was more obviously linked than it is, but that’s such a painfully minor nitpick).
George Miller is seventy, yet he’s made an absolutely vibrant and brilliant film. Mad Max: Fury Road is simultaneously one of the best action movies in recent memory (although it seems like the genre is doing well of late) and one of the most thematic and thoughtful blockbusters in recent memory. It’s filled with insane and unique imagery, great performances, and amazing stunts. It is totally energetic and thrilling and amazing and I am running out of adjectives expressing just how wondrous this film is. The heavens have bestowed upon us a film for the ages, and it has a guy playing a flamethrower guitar in it. What more could you want?
“Oh what a day, what a lovely day!”