Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

If you’ll excuse the pun, “Mad Max: Fury Road” took a long road towards cinema screens. The previous film in the “Mad Max” series came out in 1985. “Fury Road” had been rumored for years, as early as 1997. Even before Mel Gibson was deemed a public pariah, it was decided he was too old for the part. Production nearly started in 2001 and 2003 but was delayed by world politics. Heath Ledger, George Miller’s first choice for a new Max, died unexpectedly in 2008. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy were drafted to star but uncooperative weather caused more delays. Even after filming started, I was uncertain about “Fury Road.” Would George Miller have a bad ass action movie in him after spending a decade in “Happy Feet” land? Little did I know that “Mad Max: Fury Road” would become the most widely beloved film of 2015, spawning countless memes, a devoted fandom, and topping many best-of lists. The praise for the film was such that the Academy couldn’t ignore it. Post-apocalyptic action films do not usually get nominated for Best Picture. Yet not even the AMPAS could deny “Fury Road’s” overwhelming awesomeness.

“Fury Road” plays fast and loose with the series’ established continuity. At some point in the past, the world was reduced to a desert wasteland by war and cataclysm. Water, gasoline, and food are scarce. Madness reigns. Max Rockatansky has been wandering the desert for a long time. He has lost loved ones – faces unfamiliar to long time fans – and is consumed by visions. Max is captured by the forces of Immortan Joe. A deformed warlord, Joe hordes water and women inside his desert citadel, denying both to the masses below. One person has had enough. Furiosa, on a standard gasoline run across the desert, smuggles Joe’s numerous wives out of his fortress. It isn’t long before Joe realizes what has been taken from him, forming a war party to pursue Furiosa across the desert. Max, carried along as a living blood bag for one of Joe’s soldiers, soon teams up with Furiosa.

There are many extraordinary aspects to “Fury Road.” What impresses me the most is the vivid world it creates. All the previous “Mad Max” films had excellent world building, creating incredible locations out of scraps and sand. Yet “Fury Road” is an even bigger, more expansive film. The set and costume designs are incredible, showing a new civilization built from the leftovers of the old. Every thing is ragged and rusty. Every surface is caked with dirt, showing a lived-in universe. The characters speak their own language, peppering English with phrases like “Warboy” or “slagger.” Even familiar words are twisted in new ways. The vehicles are undoubtedly one of the stars of “Fury Road.” Cars are built upon cars, fused into bizarre, hodgepodge creations. Enormous wheels are strapped to average frames. One car is covered with spikes. Another has tank treads. It’s an incredibly detailed, fully formed world that “Fury Road” inhabits. No wonder so many people immediately fell in love with the film. I wouldn’t want to live here but visiting sure is fascinating.

For a film as fast-paced and speed focused as “Fury Road,” there’s not much time for character development. Despite this, many of the film’s characters have already become iconic. As Max, Tom Hardy doesn’t talk much. Mostly, he barks through a steel mask. Yet his eyes convey a lot and his slow progression from completely deranged to being a hero again is satisfying to watch. Nicholas Hoult as Nux has an interesting character arc too, evolving from a full-blown member of Joe’s cult to a compassionate human being. Despite Max getting top billing, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is undoubtedly the star of the show. With a robotic arm and a streak of motor oil across her face, Furiosa is unwaveringly focused on her goal. Theron’s incredible determination makes a thinly written role a master class in doing a lot with a little. Hugh Keays-Byrne, previously seen as Toecutter in the original “Mad Max,” has an enormous frame, making Immortan Joe all doom-filled intonations, screamed announcements, and intimidating gestures. By using a combination of archetypes, impressive performers, and a script full of subtly, “Fury Road” creates an incredibly memorable cast of characters without slowing down.

The “never slowing down” part is important. “Fury Road” is essentially a two hour long car chase. The film is full of explosive action. Characters climb, crawl, and swoop around moving vehicles. One especially fantastic moment have a group of attackers swinging on articulated poles, flying through the air towards their destinations. Cars burst into flames, squeezed between other vehicles, crushed, wrecked, and speared with bomb-laden lances. Motorcycles fly into the air, pelted with bullets. People struggle aboard moving vehicles, smashing faces and slicing flesh with chainsaws. George Miller’s camera remains very close to the action, putting the viewer right in the middle the car chase. Frequently, the cars and trucks sail right over the camera. The best part is CGI is used sparingly. For the most part, real cars are smashing into other real cars. There are slower moments in “Fury Road, devoted to crow-like men walking across a marsh land on stilts or Furiosa falling among the sweeping, desert sand. All of these moments are shot with the same kinetic poetry.

When “Fury Road” was released, there was a lot of chatter online concerning its themes. Immortan Joe hordes his brides as if they’re objects. He refers to his unborn child as “his property,” implying that the woman carrying the child is also his property. That the baby dies, that the baby boy dies, especially enrages him. Joe is a symbol of bloated, hideous male entitlement. Yet the women daring to defy him shatters his fragile male ego. Max’s willingness to accept Furiosa and the escaped wives as people first makes him an exception in the wastelands. Nux’s change of heart shows that sexism isn’t born in either, that it can be changed. Despite obviously concerning itself with gender issue, and approaching them in an intelligent and thoughtful manner, some still considered “Fury Road” not feminist enough. Okay, sure. Either way, “Fury Road” is a smart action movie, with more on its mind than just twisting chrome and mangled bodies.

Shit, I haven’t mentioned the Doof Warrior and his flame-shooting guitar! There’s a lot of chew over in “Fury Road.” If I ever get around to doing a George Miller Director’s Report Card, I’ll ramble on about it more. It’s an incredible action film, fantastically assembled and pumped full of non-stop excitement. The production, costume, and mechanical design is impressive, in service of a story that seem simple but hides countless complexities. While filmic phenomenons come and go, “Fury Road” truly deserves the praise and fandom obsessions it spawned. The movie hauls ass and makes you think without ever compromising the aforementioned hauling of ass. [9/10]

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