Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

(George Miller, Australia/US, 2015)

Seeing this in the wake of the souped-up hype machine had me bracing for disappointment, but I was happily thrilled and chilled by Miller's mad creation. The film, for all of its abundant motion and rococo imagery, has the spareness and sturdiness of a fable.  Thematically, it's straightforward: good vs. evil, and the value of trust in the quest for survival.  What's new, and strikingly new at that, are the unabashedly progressive politics that Miller and his collaborators have baked into their story.  A good chunk of the discussion surrounding Fury Road centers on its feminist merits, running the predictable gamut from "subversively feminist masterpiece" to "complacent weak tea."  From my perspective, it's admirably forward-thinking, presenting  a clear-eyed view of both toxic patriarchy and feminine mettle.  Miller's great accomplishment is to make these strains visible without making them ostentatious; the details feel authentic, motivated, and lived-in, rather than straining to be heard over all the mayhem.

In the run-up to Fury Road, I had heard repeatedly that it was, by design, one long chase scene.  This made me nervous, even if it jibed all too well with the economics of filmmaking on this scale. But despite my usual low tolerance for the sensory assault that is your average action movie, I found myself giddy with enjoyment for nearly the whole running time.   Much is made of how great the action is in The Road Warrior, but it's the world-building that sets Miller's vision apart from most other smash-fests.  Every detail, even in the first and weakest film in the series, seems sprung from a startlingly real parallel universe.  Everywhere lie eerily plausible marks of our own world's potential apocalypse: the fetish for gas-powered machines, a mania for speed and excess even in times of want and scarcity, the aforementioned penchant for hierarchy, with white men sitting at the top, and the cult of competition and regressive spectacle.  I suppose I could push this reading into a full-blown treatise on Miller's corrective to the contemporary action film, but that would be digressive and not much fun; the opposite of this movie's virtues.

I was left wanting to know more, much more, about the world we're dropped into.  Every detail intrigues, from the other cities with which the Citadel presumable trades, to the mythical "green place" from which Furiosa hails.  It seems almost perverse, and at least obsessive, to have conjured so many juicy shadings - right down to the invented slang and the wonderfully bizarre names - just to undergird an extravagant, extended chase sequence.  But this is precisely what makes Fury Road an exceptional movie: it doesn't fall for the awful fallacy of most action films, which would have story and character, even in their most basic form, as mere niceties to be observed grudgingly, if at all.  Some contrarians would have Miller's action chops as lesser than such luminaries as Michael Bay, but that assumes a separation of the action from the movie, as if one could exist separate from the other.  What curdles any pleasure in Bay's handling of images is the festering idiocy from which they spring; his love of mechanical pyrotechnics is inextricable from his utter indifference to people.  Same for John Hyams, whose irrepressible glee for bloodshed overshadows his facility with a moving camera.  To such glorified technicians, there is no cinematic world, much less a story.  There are only money shots.

Miller's storytelling is deceptively simple.  It marries the urgency of the moment - the need to survive the next attack - to the psychology of the characters, all of whom are wounded and wary of trusting anybody but themselves.  Maybe I was just dazzled by the action, but the last-act decision to return to the Citadel took me by surprise.  In retrospect, this seems like the most basic kind of narrative sleight-of-hand, but it is wrought with a rare elegance.  Same for the way in which Max is first used as a blood donor against his will - pretty potent, as far as symbols in nine-figure action movies go - and then gives his blood up voluntarily, to save Furiosa, at the end; this kind of narrative symmetry sure looks easy, but it isn't.

Not to say that there aren't flaws, but on such an enjoyable ride, it's easy to overlook them.  A few of the already-scarce lines are twice-underlined, and, despite all the chatter about how little Miller relied upon CGI, it's still very present, and it still looks cheesy, at least to my eyes.  It's curious to imagine, in this era of TV-cinema fluidity, where shows becomes movies and movies becomes shows, and everything is topsy-turvy, what an extended treatment of Miller's post-apocalyptic world might be like.  It's true that the action is part of Mad Max's DNA; but just as integral are the characters and the way they cope with the madness of their environment.  There's rich loam here, even on the baked hellscape of Tomorrow.

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