My mind was not simply blown as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road. It was George Miller blown: multiple explosions, in an apocalyptic sandstorm, with lightning, then more explosions.
To say Miller has made a hyperkinetic masterpiece is to understate the achievements of this film. It is not simply a gonzo revelation of the genre, not just a primal scream of raw originality and insane inventiveness, nor only a masterclass in the choreographed virtuosity required to make the sublime action scene.
It’s a movie that reminds you what cinema is meant to be: visual, visceral, a pure and riotous sensory experience unlike any other medium is capable of offering.
Mad Max: Fury Road does what Star Wars managed to do when it was first released nearly 40 years ago: draw you back in for a second viewing, a third, more. I’ve watched it twice; I’ll be back to watch it again. I’ve counted at least a dozen film critics for major sites and publications who have said something along the lines of: ten minutes into this movie I knew I was going to go back and see it again. I’ve yet to meet a fellow geek who has watched it once who is not planning to watch it again.
And this is 2015, when audiences are harder to please. Where bombastic CGI spectacles have dulled the senses against feelings of awe or joy in movie-making; where we’re all so much more cynical and harder to please.
I’ve gone on ad nauseam about the repetitive and derivative rut that Hollywood is currently in (see here for one of my better rants). It is the era of the reboot and the sequel and the prequel and shut-up-and-give-us-your-money-quel. We have entered the death zone of creativity, where the studios quietly loathe movie-goers.
By contrast, George Miller does the rarest of things here: he respects the audience. The story-telling in Fury Road a blessed change from the spoon-fed crap we’re served by Hollywood. Action is exposition, action is character. George Miller shows and never tells. In other words, he uses the cinematic medium as it is meant to be used. The film is uncluttered by unnecessary backstory, it never tries to moralise.
Miller shows all the young American directors and studio executive clowns how it is done. If I was a producer on the Fast and the Furious franchise I’d either quit my job or put a horse’s head in Miller’s bed and demand he never make another action movie.
The Neuromancer himself, William Gibson, spoke of his awe during Mad Max: “The peculiar glory of huge physical objects in hard kinetic service to the fantastic.”
Imperator Furiosa – played superbly by Charlize Theron – is a general in the army of the disfigured warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the main bad guy in the original Mad Max). Furiosa steals the five ‘wives’ of Joe, women used to ‘breed’ new male heirs.
Mad Max enters the fray as a ‘blood bag’ – a source of ‘high-octane’ blood for Nux (Nick Hoult), one of Joe’s war boys, who – like the other war boys, needs constant transfusions to temporarily delay death by radiation poisoning. Max is strapped to the front of a car as Immortan Joe and a mob of kamikaze followers chase down Furiosa. Eventually he frees himself and joins Furiosa and the Wives.
And that’s it: very straightforward.
The action sequences, however, are not. The action sequences are works of art.
George Miller said he wanted to do what Hitchcock often spoke of: make a film that could be played to any audience anywhere in the world, whether or not they spoke English, and they’d understand it.
Well, I watched it in Hanoi, Vietnam. The cinema was packed with Vietnamese people (no foreigners). After about the first 40 minutes or so, when the first part of the movie-long chase ends and there’s a moment of respite, everyone around me breathed as one. Breathed out as though they had all been holding their breath since the start.
Also from Miller: “For me, the most universal language and the purest syntax of cinema is in the action movies”.
Well George, the view from Vietnam is: you did it. Hanoi movie theatres are usually rage-inducing arenas where everyone either plays on their phone, or loudly talks to their neighbours, or loudly on their phones, or even to themselves (yes, loudly). I don’t know why this is a thing at the movies here, but it is a god damn thing.
Not during Mad Max. The audience laughed at the visual humour, gasped at the insane action panoply, and were otherwise completely silent.
As an Australian, I had extra reason to really love Fury Road. Despite a brit as Max, a South African as Furiosa, and despite it being filmed in Namibia, this movie has a particularly Australian feel to it.
The occasional humour is very Australian, Immortan Joe and his brood are all Aussies, and the supporting cast all have broad Australian accents. At one point Furiosa blares the horn of the war-rig and yells, “FANG IT!”
If Tom Hardy had attempted an Australian accent – and pulled it off – I would have stone cold married this film. I would have petitioned the High Court of Australia to legally recognize my undying devotion. Unfortunately, Hardy’s accent moves all over the place and is one of the very few (and churlish) criticisms that could be made of this masterpiece.
Tom Hardy’s Max is less controlled, wilder that Mel Gibson’s, especially at the start. In fact, in a small way he reminded me of the Feral Kid from Road Warrior (and there’s a fan theory going around that he is the Feral Kid from the second movie). But Max is humanised (or, more precisely, less animal) as he unmasks himself and reluctantly (always reluctantly) helps the women escape their bondage.
Max is – as always – the outsider. The witness to a world gone mad, Max is a man who tries to live by his own code as the world around him crumbles. Or more precisely, to survive. He doesn’t seek human connection, because in human connection lies weakness. But here, as with the earlier films, when circumstances force his hand, he chooses humanity.
The title of this article paraphrases JG Ballard, who described Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, as “punk’s Sistine Chapel.” I have no idea what superlatives he would require after seeing Fury Road, but aside from the action sequences I’m sure he would have revelled in the sublime production design (Fury Road will win the Oscar for it, without question).
Beatrice Ballad, his daughter, after watching Fury Road said, “My father would have loved it.”
Mad Max: Fury Road, as The Matrix did in 1999, changes everything that comes after. Like the Sistine Chapel, directors in the future will have to crane their necks and look up at Miller’s achievement, at the impossibly high bar he has set all who follow.
I mentioned Star Wars earlier in this article. This was by design. If George Miller makes two more Mad Max films as he plans, and both of those are as good as Fury Road, then he will have created a science fiction franchise better than Star Wars.
So watch out George Lucas, you boof-haired fraud, Australia is ready to take over science-fiction’s crown.