Thoughts On: Mad Max: Fury Road
The warrior Imperator of a post-apocalyptic hub of human civilisation fights against her tyrant leader by stealing away his wives.
I’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road 3 times now and have mentioned it many times when talking about other movies. I’ve said it’s shit, that I hate it and… I still despise this film. And this is our subject today. There are a plethora of things I detest about Mad Max: Fury Road, but, we’ll start with the positives. Firstly, this is, in no way, shape or form, a truly terrible film. Each individual element that goes into this movie is executed pretty well – just in a manner that I completely dislike and don’t think comes together cohesively. A few key aspects of this film that have led me to grow more accepting of it are parts of the action as well as the relationship between Max and Furiosa (a ridiculously stupid name). First things first, the draw and undeniably amazing aspect of this movie is certainly all the mad shit that happens. From the flipping cars to the explosions, people on swinging pole things, seemingly impossible car designs, endless action, violence, such and so on, this film is filled to the brim with great stunt work and design that needs to be commended. And laced into this are elements of impeccable script writing. The manner in which conflict builds, everything fails over and over and characters have to keep on pushing past boundaries is purely ingenious. This is definitely something to note when it comes to the design of this narrative. The other great thing about the script is how there’s a silent bond built between Furiosa and Max. This is certainly my favourite aspect of the movie as it comes out of left-wing and surprises you, leaving the film with some amount of emotional impact as Furiosa watches Max fade into the crowd.
Coming away from the positives of this film, we’ll move into the aspects of the movie that I appreciate, but ultimately fall flat. The first is the character of Max. Whilst I think there are a few key moments between himself and Furiosa that actually bring you into the narrative, this film doesn’t need him and shouldn’t really be called Mad Max – maybe just Furiosa Road. From the very beginning to the very end, there is next to nothing about Max that makes him compelling, distinct or even much of a character. He is silent, doesn’t do much and we even abandon him in a pivotal moment. This is after the truck gets stuck in the sand and there are guys coming in with guns (as they always seem to be). There’s a cut to ‘later’ where Max comes back with supplies and blood on his face. This moment is supposed to be a crucial one, one that demonstrates how he is coming closer to the group of women, but it’s just skipped over. Why not cinematically represent Max’s growing relationship with the women? Why not give us another action scene with he who is supposed to be the protagonist: Mad Max? Moreover, there is nothing in this movie, like there is in the original two, that has Max seem mad – not aggressive, not insane (apart from eating a lizard – I think that was just because he was hungry though). Instead of being mad, Max is rather… level-headed and reasonable. And I suppose that should have dictated a more accurate title: Reasonable Max: Furiosa Road. Despite this, I do like the decision to have almost all characters be silent. Not only does this facilitate a few nice moments between Furiosa and Max, but it challenges ideas of conventional characterisation where there has to be strong arcs, emotional lessons, changes, such and so on.
The next aspect of the movie I appreciate, but saw fall flat is the plot. Like characterisation, there is no appeal to tradition and convention in the plotting. This is just a film about a bunch of cars going out into the dessert and then coming back. I like the truthful stance Mad Max: Fury Road then takes as an action film. So many action screenwriters will give the lead character a wife and kid or show their friends or someone close dying to start the film on its way, then add a romantic plot line, maybe a comedic one and then layer on a whole bunch of other nonsense to do with morality whilst escalating the scope of action set-pieces. Superhero films are huge culprits of this. They so often refuse to accept that they’re dumb movies we go to see primarily to watch gods punch robots or super-humans. With the simple A, B back to A plot of Fury Road, we see an action film that has the balls to give us what we want and what it agrees to be by helming the genre classification, action, and taking on a title like, Mad Max, on simple, genuine terms. And you have to have respect for this because this isn’t just a dumb, constant action movie as there are actually one or two moments of good characterisation and a hint of an interesting social commentary. However, on the negative side, the manner in which Miller handles set-pieces is sub-par at best. There are almost no moments of tension that work with character or drama, leaving a lot of this film to just blast by, loud and meaningless. The dramatic break where Furiosa meets those who raised her is the most expressive example of this. Not only does it break the action and welcome a needless lull, but it demonstrates the terrible handling of set-pieces this film has. To clarify, there is no arc and no punctuation to any scenes or set-pieces. They just happen. There is no dramatic oscillation where action is high-octane then low, but swelling dramatically. Everything plays out on a single note. We see this best when Furiosa falls to her knees having found out that she has ran out into the dessert for nothing. This is the last dull note of the dramatic lull in the film that conveys exactly how un-investing and mono-tonal it is for the most part. The only great set-piece is the final chase back to The Citadel. Though there are many issues with this that we’ll delve into later, this is an immersive sequence that starts to take you on a roller coaster ride with many conflicts, tensions and emotional ups and downs.
It’s commentary that is another element of the film that I appreciate, but thought fell flat. If you wanted to, like some did with Rogue One, you could just label Mad Max ‘feminist propaganda’ and decide to boycott it. Whilst this is ridiculous, there is some weight to the assertion that this is a heavily feminist film. This, in itself, is nothing to critique or complain about because cinema is a form of imagination, fantasy and wish fulfillment. And in such, it makes sense that Charlize Theron and a few friends could fend off a horde of juiced up, gun-totting, rev-heads. If Rocky could defeat Ivan Drago and if Arnold could beat the Predator then Ripley could outsmart the Xenomorph and Furiosa could defeat Joe. However, whilst the ‘feminist’ action elements of this film are acceptable, the women taking over The Citadel in the manner they do is ludicrous – which destroys all subtextual commentary.
WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS????? I’ve said this before and a billion other people have pointed it out, but, who on Earth designed this water system? For Joe to be made out to be evil and oppressive because he withholds the water that spurts out of here like this is a bad move on the screenwriter’s behalf. To ration this flow of water only makes sense. Moreover, keeping hostage the fertile and attractive women in a post-apocalyptic world makes complete sense too. With these elements being the defining characteristics for Immortan Joe as a tyrant, we see the beginnings of this film’s message falling apart. In such, the narrative arc of Fury Road seems to be all about dethroning a smart, yet apparently brutish and dickish guy (don’t forget, we’re never really given evidence for this), because… freedom? It would take a quite bit more to clarify, explain and justify this message of the film. But, this is something that Miller hasn’t really set out to do, nor does he have the time or means to do with this script. So, in my opinion, this subtextual feminist commentary should have been saved for another film as it comes off as simply frivolous. Moreover, I think it’s certainly enough having a largely female cast in this film to make a statement that women can be in action. Taking this notion to this frivolous extent really sullies the subtextual side of the movie though.
Ok, moving to the shit I simply despise about this movie we come to Miller. In short, not a fan of the direction – not at all. Direction is almost an element of the film that I appreciate, but see fall flat, because Miller insisted on experimentation, as little CG as possible, real stunts, real vehicles, such and so on. But, there’s just so much shit that comes from directorial choices. Firstly, frame rate. Artistically justified, but, what the fuck are you doing? Around half of this film, ‘like 50 or 60 percent’ said John Seal (cinematographer), does not run at the standard 24 frames per second. A lot of Fury Road is sped up or slowed down and I fucking hate this. It is so contrived and cartoonish, and I’m certain that when we look back on this film in 15 or 20 years, we’ll laugh at how cheesy it is. And staying with the cinematography, all of the dark scenes were shot day-for-night. What this means is that all of the scenes at night where shot in broad day light and over-exposed. In post-production everything would be colour corrected and manipulated by a computer to achieve often astoundingly awful visual effects.
The manner in which blue is shat all over the frame in a scene like this with orange spat somewhere near a character is abhorrent. You simply cannot argue that this is a good looking film because the lighting throughout is terrible and the colour correction as well as day-for-night is laughable. Moreover, whilst this is a movie heralded for its practical effects, there is so much shitty CG – in the backgrounds especially. There is one great CG sequence and that is the sand storm scene which we will return to later, but, though it’s not a major concern for me, there is a lot of obvious CGI in this film. I bring it up because it really sullies all praise you can give this movie as one that is heavily practical.
We will return to Miller and direction when we come to the crux of why I’m writing this essay. But, before that, the script. Whilst there are elements that were daring and rather respectable – like the bare bones plot and characters – whoever wrote this is nuts. Not only does the narrative fall flat because of the awful pacing and plotting of set-pieces, but characters are so bad. Max and Furiosa are somewhat forgivable and they work as silent figures. But, Immortan Joe is a terribly written antagonist for reasons linked to Furiosa’s main goal and the general subtext–which we’ve covered. He simply has nothing that is particularly bad, nor interesting, about him – he just chases after Furiosa and her troop. And the troop of wives… Jesus… These idiots never stop spewing horrible dialogue, it’s as if they’re played by pretentious, up-their-own-ass 8-year-olds in a school play. In fact, all of the acting in this film is pretty bad. Even that from Theron and Hardy – great actors. I don’t think their disappointing performances are singularly their fault though. Both Hardy and Theron are around a bunch of terrible actors who spew awful lines in between theirs and when it’s their time to take frame, the fucking frame rate goes up. And so it’s the sped up speech mixing with the insufferable dubbing that truly makes me writhe when watching this film. Add to this constant exposition, cliched quips and throw-away lines and you get a sense of how to make an awful script 20 times worse.
Another aspect of the script that frustrated me was the way in which the ‘bad guys’ where used. I’ve always been a big fan of the bad guys – especially when there’s a bunch of them. This (probably) isn’t all that’s fucked up in me surfacing, it’s just that bad guys hold the potential for so much fun. Just look at almost any Scorsese picture, look to Darth Vader, look to Marv and Harry from Home Alone, look to Anton from No Country For Old Men, look to Patrick from American Psycho. I could honestly go on and on for essay after essay about bad guys in movies, but there’s something about a somewhat sympathetically written bad guy that slots so well into the fantasy of cinema. I believe that, for the most part, bad guys are so attractive, are so fun, are such a draw, because they are conflict. And in such, a bad guy or antagonist is the primary element in your script that can mess things up. Bad guys then present to a screenwriter and audience possibilities. One of the best examples you could give would be Jordan Belfort in Wolf Of Wall Street. Though him we are shown what you can do if you’re willing to drop the baggage of morality in the world of cinema. If you don’t give a fuck and are willing to screw people over, you can get all the money in the world, you can get the impossibly beautiful women, you can get the drugs, have the fun, live the life of a maniac – all with everything in precarious balance and willing to tumble at any second. Bad guys are possibility, they are fantasy, they are conflict, they are fun and that’s why we like them. On other hand, good guys are often the stabilising force of a narrative. They bring peace, equality and equilibrium – they essentially make things boring again. After all, just look to The Matrix. Everything ends with a rainbow and sun rise. Do you really want to keep watching a film about this utopian, boring world? Or, would you prefer to be in the rain, in the dark, gritty, dangerous matrix with agents prowling with guns, just waiting to destroy any rogue humans? Neo makes the world boring. Smith brings the fun.
We see this same relationship play out between the good guys and bad guys in Fury Road. Furiosa and Max bring peace and ‘equality’ to The Citadel (or maybe they just waste all the water and kill everyone – who knows?). However, it’s Joe and his goons that bring the fun, They are the maniacs playing guitars, driving the ridiculous rigs, throwing themselves onto trucks, holding onto the pole things, giving up their lives with a huge boom and pretty explosion. They needed to be of greater focus in the movie when you consider it a pure action cluster fuck. In all honesty, I think that if Nux was given a little more respect and didn’t have to deal with the shitty scrip provided, he could have been the anti-hero of this movie. And what I mean to say by this is that I believe that Fury Road would have been a much better film if it was told completely from his perspective. Not only would this mean that we get better world building–
Side note. The world building in this film is terrible. All the Valhalla talk, stupid societal set-up driven by a weak feminist critique of a capitalist structure and dictatorship, is ludicrous. The best part of world building in this film is in the engineering of the vehicles and cars that serve as characterisation of both time, people and places. Beyond this, we get very weak hints at a world existing around this 2 hour chase, but… not much.
Back to Nux being the main character. If he was the one we followed beforehand and into this chase, we would have a better opportunity to see how the society works, to learn more about the goons and maybe draw a bit more fun out of them. I don’t think, with the state of characterisation given to the goons, that the film would work from his perspective as is. However, if there was more depth given to the plight of the goons, better incite given to what they suffer through, what they like, how they think… such and so on, I believe that this could be, though a completely different film, one I would much rather watch. In such, I think it’d make a whole lot more sense for this film was lead by an anti-hero of a more extreme nature – not a silent Reasonable Max and his noble, rather boring, leader, Furiosa.
Having said of all of this, you’re probably wondering why I’m pissing and moaning about this movie so much. In other words, what’s my point?
My point and purpose comes down to the title of this post, Man With A Movie Camera. Besides being a reference to Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece, what I mean to imply here is the approach Miller takes to his cinematic space. This is all about the fourth wall, a.k.a the camera, a.k.a the screen we watch. In a film such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Annie Hall, Fight Club, Amélie and Young Frankenstein, we get fourth wall breaks where characters turn to the camera and talk to us. Without delving into this, ask yourself what all of these movies mentioned have in common. There’s two things, 1) they’re funny, 2) they’re witty/clever. I find this to be true of every film that explicitly breaks its fourth wall. Deadpool, The Big Short, Goodfellas, Wolf Of Wall Street, Pierrot Le Fou, Modern Times, anything by The Marx Brothers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Spaceballs, The Monty Python movies, Wayne’s World. Why are all the films that break the wall funny and, or, witty? The answer seems to be simple; you have to be either a bit obnoxious, though high charismatic, or easily empathised with and tragicomic, to break the fourth wall. We see this to be true through from Chaplin and Keaton to Woody Allan, Gene Wilder, Mike Myers and Ryan Reynolds. There is a deeper, more technical, reason why all of the films mentioned are alike and break the fourth wall, however. This comes down to their cinematic spaces. Cinematic space is a term that simply describes the stories we see in a film as representations of a genre or kind of movie. In being a comedy or an experimental, yet fun, film, movies like Pierrot Le Four, Annie Hall, Goodfellas and Deadpool attract a certain audience. More than this, they attract a certain way of viewing a film. For example, if you went to a film like Cinderella and suddenly were thrust into a rape scene like that in Irreversible, you’d likely walk out of the movie. This wasn’t what you wanted and it’s certainly not what you paid for. In the same respect, if you went into a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and were thrown a few musical numbers, you might be a little frustrated. This is simply because cinematic spaces have conventions that they must define and adhere to as to be coherent and tonally sensical. All of this doesn’t mean that you can’t get a musical with murder or an animated film with a rape scene…
This simply means that a film must embody a certain tone to successfully achieve certain things. This is why atmosphere is so important in films. Annie Hall, Deadpool and Ferris Bueller have rather flippant, sarcastic and anti-romantic atmospheres. This facilitates a cinematic space where it makes sense for a character to turn to a camera and talk. Films that have a more sombre or serious tone to them will only lean on the fourth wall with V.O and narration because breaking the fourth wall by turning to the camera makes no tonal sense – it just doesn’t fit. This is why we get a lot of V.O narration in film noir. Something like Double Indemnity is far too dark and melancholic for the leads to explain to us their plans for murder. This is because the murder would become fun, we’d be on their side and the tone of the movie would be compromised. A much more stark example of breaking the forth wall being dependent on a cinematic space could be seen in documentary. Not only do we often expect V.O from a documentary with Attenborough on the poster, but we’d welcome seeing his floating head as he explains shit about birds, dinosaurs or big cats.
All of this should make very clear to you the importance of a cinematic space. What is captured by a film must be precisely measured out and weighted with all the right ingredients to work. When I look to Mad Max: Fury Road, I see a film that does not have a good control of its cinematic space. For everything that I mentioned that is negative about this film, I find a bunch of ingredients coming together to form a nasty recipe–one I certainly don’t have a taste for. All of this comes down to direction; the way Miller captures and creates his cinematic space. What this film then does wrong is juxtapose many uncomplimentary parts. The simple action plot clashes with the attempt to have a complex feminist critique of society. The serious, sombre tone of the main characters (Max and Furiosa) and how they’re weaved into the narrative as an imperfect couple, conflicts greatly with the terribly written bad guys. The momentous weight of realist conflict/action Miller tries to project is made light-as-a-shit-stained-feather by the fake lighting, unbelievably transparent use of colour correction/ CGI and contrived play with frame rates. In such, my main reasoning for hating this film despite its many good features is that I can’t help but recognise that there is a horribly constructed cinematic space that I’m being thrust into. And in being put in this iffy fantasy-world there is a frustratingly ‘off’ feeling, a dissonance, that grates at me. I am annoyed by the flippant tone of the film and its bare-bones design trying to project a serious story with a lot of weight and characters we’re supposed to care about. I am pissed off by the great stunt work, the realistic action, the practical effects, made into cartoonish nonsense by the sped up frames and repulsive aesthetics. I simply loathe what Miller has done with this film in terms of his management, direction and capturing of a cinematic space.
When we look to one of the best sequences of the film, the desert storm, we see a sequence that pulls back on the frame rate fuckery and allows the CG assisted imagery to truly wow. And in such, Miller manages to control and direct the crux of an action movie with class. And that crux is movement. Despite his sometimes economical, easy-to-read approach to direction where everything is centre frame, Miller inserts too much coverage, too many angles, is too close to action with juddered staccato editing and has everything play to camera throughout the vast majority of Fury Road. The last point is why I brought up fourth wall breaking to explain cinematic spaces. The manner in which action plays and characters behave is always to the camera and for the camera. In such, a fourth wall is broken by the movement in a scene as we do not get a sense that the camera observes or captures, rather, the film plays to Miller, meaning the cinematic space is constructed around a camera in a gimmicky way. This may have worked if the action in this film wasn’t so serious, if the stakes weren’t as high or if we saw the story from the goon’s side, however. This would mean that, when we see the ridiculously designed cars meant for camera, the ludicrous action, like the guy playing guitar, there would be a great sense of levity in the fact that we recognise that this is just a fun action movie. In other words, when the fourth wall is broken by the film being so contrived it would work just like Ferris Bueller or Annie Hall does – there would be a tonal consistency, the direction would match the characters and setting. This is what we see in some of the better Fast & Furious films. We see action movies that know what they are. I don’t get that sense from Fury Road. This is a far too hero-centric story for action and movement to play out as it does (all to camera in a contrived manner). If we look to something like Blade, we find a character that we like because he’s a bad ass. This is why Blade works as a movie – it’s a contrived film, but knows it is and so constructs a cinematic space accordingly. On the other hand, we are supposed to like Max because he’s tortured by his past (which is inserted with childish dexterity through flashback in the edit). This does not align with the contrived, fun and flippant cinematic space Miller creates. The character of Max, as set up by the opening, should have dictated an action film more like the Bourne films, not this cluster fuck of insanity.
So, it is truly movement mixing with character and plot that is the element of Fury Road that I feel Miller handles worst. Because it is movement that is the key to creating an action film’s cinematic space, character, theme, atmosphere and plot must feed the action sequences. If you want things to be light and funny with a good guy who will have to fight with all he’s got to possibly win, you need a cinematic space like Jackie Chan can manifest. If you want serious action scenes that are all about the martial art, it’s best to turn to films like those featuring Donnie Yen or Jet Li. If you want explosions, cool shit happening with unabashed polish, you need something like the Michael Bay approach. There are many other approaches on the spectrum of realism and fantasy as well as genre that an action film can exist on. But, the crux is cinematic space, is tone, is how an audience sees a film – and for an action film, this is all under the guise of movement. The combination of the awfully edited action and the fact that it all plays out to camera in a fourth-wall-breaking manner (because of how contrived it is – kind of like a Wes Anderson film, but without the style and nuance) Fury Road captures a twisted and rather ugly cinematic space.
So, the crucial lesson that Mad Max: Fury Road seems to teach is all about constructing a coherent world and appropriately filming it. Miller inserts himself and his camera into the world of Fury Road in an overt manner that dictates that action flow at, past and for the camera in a clearly constructed and very contrived manner. This does not suite the tone of the movie, its subtextual intent nor the types of characters given. This is why my disdain of this movie is so intense; I can’t escape the cinematic space’s confused bullshit.
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