One of this summer's most hyped films provides satisfying visuals and carnage amongst a familiar and formulaic structure.
Mad Max: Fury Road
It’s a world gone mad in Mad Max: Fury Road, and director George Miller wastes no time establishing the no holds barred, kill or be killed state of living in his post-apocalyptic vision. A brief montage of sound clips outlining civilization’s downfall plays before Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) shows up, looking over a desert wasteland before fleeing in his car. He’s chased down and captured by a few “War Boys,” devout followers and henchmen of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe is the cultlike leader of The Citadel, a desert city where he controls the oil, water and food supply. He’s barely living, with most of his body made up of machinery designed to keep him alive, and he rules over his impoverished masses with no mercy.
Just as Max is taken prisoner, Joe sends out his War Rig (a massive truck/war machine) to get gasoline from their supplier. The truck is driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), whose shaved head and black war paint immediately establish her as someone not to be messed with. She drives off, but at a certain point makes an unexpected detour. Joe and his minions soon realize that Furiosa has taken Joe’s five young wives (called “breeders,” for reasons that should be obvious), and his only chances at getting a male heir, with her, prompting Joe to chase her down with everything he’s got.
And with that, Mad Max: Fury Road starts its nearly two hour long car chase, with Furiosa and her five companions driving across the desert in the hopes of escaping Joe’s fast-approaching army of cars and War Boys. Max winds up tagging along with Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a dying War Boy hoping he can go out in a blaze of glory.
It’s hard not to see the onslaught of marketing for Mad Max: Fury Road and believe that the film will represent some sort of transgressive alternative to the usual homogeneous pile of tentpoles unleashed every summer. Fury Road only delivers on that promise to some degree; the production design offers plenty of neat things to gawk at, implying there’s plenty more to this world than what’s on screen, and the minimal exposition is a breath of fresh air. What’s disappointing is how much of Miller’s film feels familiar and formulaic. It’s the same old story, just dressed up in a spiky, oversaturated outfit.
It’s not that Miller is just copying and pasting another film’s plot—I’m having a hard time thinking of any other movies where ghoulish men hunt down their leader’s pregnant sex slaves. The familiarity comes from the structure and story beats, which emulate what’s been done plenty of times before: character development and themes boiled down to one word statements (survival for Max, redemption for Furiosa), a romantic subplot with no bearing on anything, a second act tragedy putting our protagonists’ success in doubt, and a “crazy” last minute plan acting as a transition into the final act and climax. And when your film literally moves down a straight line through a flat, two-colour landscape, a lack of variety will drag things down considerably.
Action films with a simple, one-track mindset can be far from a bad thing (both The Raid: Redemption and Dredd are great, recent examples of the KISS principle in action), but Fury Road never successfully establishes any stakes. It’s easy to know where and how things will end up, and for that reason it’s easy to detach from the onscreen spectacle. There’s a point in the climactic car chase where Furiosa comes face-to-face with Joe, and angrily says “Remember me?!” It’s played as a cool, kick-ass moment, but I found it a strange thing to say, considering this is the first time both characters actually share the screen together. There’s no weight or purpose to this moment, but it falls in line with the expectations and structure of an action film, so it has to be there. That safeness, that feeling of Miller eccentrically colouring within the lines, is Fury Road’s downfall. It’s a world gone mad, but this film is anything but.