Whenever there’s a discussion about the greatest directors of all time, George Miller tends to get lost in the shuffle, which I find very unfortunate. Not only is he one of the best when it comes to weaving subtle character work and visual storytelling with visceral, intimate and insanely detailed filmmaking, but he is also a filmmaker who strives to learn more about the art and expand his knowledge and technical prowess. It’s why he is able to go from haunting, low-budget action drama to an animated family film starring singing and dancing penguins with ease. It’s not just great seeing him back in the director’s chair, but he returns to the franchise that put his name on the map with Mad Max: Fury Road.
If I could get some personal history here – I first saw the three Mad Max films when I was about seven. I saw then on three consecutive days after school at my parent’s convenience store, which also rented out films on VHS. I adored the films in all their weird and action-packed glory and they’ve only gotten better with age. I still think the first two are masterpieces, and although Beyond Thunderdome does have a few moments here and there, it’s lackluster second half and tonal mish-mash does hold it back. Now, this was also the early days of the internet, or at least when the internet first started to become commonly used. One of the first things I did was look up any information on a fourth Mad Max film. Fury Road was the first film that I followed the production of, and it was also the longest. Not only did I wait 15 years for Fury Road to come out, Miller himself has been trying to get the project going for over two decades. The project went through a hiatus even after getting greenlit, Mel Gibson eventually lost interest (and had to deal with some other stuff that I won’t get into), and Miller even planned on doing Fury Road as a 3D animated movie, but it wasn’t until mid-2009 that the Miller decided to do the film as live-action and began location scouting. Tom Hardy was announced to play the titular character in 2010 and filming began in late 2011. Though, actually it would be more accurate to say principal photography began in mid-2012, when the crew was forced to move from Broken Hill, New South Wales in Australia to the Republic of Namibia in Africa, since heavy rains turned the desert into a lush landscape full of wildflowers which didn’t work with the look that the filmmakers were going for. Honestly, I think I’ve amassed enough information about the crazy production of this film to fill up a book, but that’s a project for another day as Mad Max: Fury Road has finally hit the big screen.
Fury Road starts off with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) getting chased and eventually captured by a group of war boys who serve their master, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). In an attempt to escape, he ultimately finds himself in the middle of an all-out war between Immortan Joe and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a driver-gone-rogue who is trying to take Immortan Joe’s precious 5-Wives to safety at her childhood homeland.
Quick lesson in film: There was an arthouse movement in the 1920’s-1930’s begun by European avant-garde filmmakers called Cinéma Pur (French for “Pure Cinema”). It was a movement that found footing with many filmmakers like Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, René Clair and Man Ray, all of whom have created generally abstract short films in this particular style that have resonated with films to this day, like George Lucas, who was heavily inspired by these films, in terms of cinematic technique, when he started doing Star Wars. The goal of this movement was pretty simple. It declared film its own art form that should not borrow from others like stage, literature, etc., so they minimize, or even in some cases remove, character, setting, plot in order to emphasize all the elements that make film unique such as space, timing, motion, editing, angles, effects and the relationship between sound and visuals. Granted Fury Road is not anything like these films, so don’t get annoyed when you go on YouTube and find yourselves staring at a three-minute clip of spinning objects, naked women and people running in slow motion. However, the idea is the same: create an experience that relies on the visual power of film in order to get the point or a beat across in the most effective way possible. Fury Road has the pleasure of George Miller, a masterclass filmmaker, being behind the wheel and he is able to make Fury Road into one of the most cinematic experience in its purest form in recent memory. It’s also one of the greatest films that I have ever seen.
I wasn’t quite sure how to drop that bomb, but I had to at some point. While it’s certainly hard not to compare to the previous installments of the franchise (the first two in particular), I think it helps that the film is the ability to stand alone as just another unique chapter in the franchise that doesn’t constantly reference the older films like many modern reboots. When I really thought hard about it, there is one film that I think is comparable to Fury Road in terms of how it manages to be so good and that film is 2013’s Gravity. Both these films have a very simple and straightforward premise, but with a singular vision behind the camera, the films are able to transcend their genre/B-movie roots through thematic/emotional resonance and radical technical prowess. The visionary behind Fury Road is obviously George Miller. At age 70, he manages to create a level of energy, style and masterful filmmaking that rivals most movies made with directors less than half his age (the last time I was this impressed with a director was with Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street). He made the film with the idea of visual storytelling in mind. While he does work with two other co-writers, Nico Lathouris and Brendan McCarthy, he worked with five storyboard artists drawing out over 3,500 panels before writing a word in the script. It’s a story that is told through visuals first and foremost with dialogue treated the same way he treated the VFX, kept at a minimum. So, yes while the plot can be considered “thin,” anyone thinking of using that negatively against this film should learn the word “streamlined.” The plot is simple and without any fat. It efficiently uses what it needs to get things going and allow the filmmaking to speak for itself.
Among the many praises that the film deserves, the action and production design is easily among the top. Using that visual frame of reference, Miller is able to use the action, not just to have cool moments and move the story forward, but also add to the great character work done within the action scenes. The characters are defined, informed and developed by the actions that they take without having the need to announce what they learn or spell out how they feel to the audience. It’s all in what Miller is able to capture on camera with the help of cinematographer, John Seale, (who, by the way, is 72 years old and the last film he did was The Tourist back in 2010) delivering Oscar-caliber work. The action itself works so well because there’s flow, clarity, cause-and-effect and a brutal sense of impact. It’s over-the-top and insane in the best possible way, but still restrained. It’s controlled chaos at its absolute finest. And good lord, seeing so many real car wrecks and real stuntmen flying through the air and hitting the ground makes each scene that much more intense. It’s still hard to believe that nobody died during the making of the film.
Aside from the action, the look of the film is incredibly striking. Purposefully moving away from the generic desaturated look of other post-apocalyptic movies, Miller wanted the film to burst with color. It allows for all the impeccable detail to really shine. Miller is a master of throwing in little details that informs the character or the world, and this movie is so chock full of them, that I’m sure I missed a lot. The world-building in the film is excellent because it’s the best kind of world-building, which is throwing in details with no explanation, but allowing context and visual cues for you to piece together its use and how it informs character or the world. Even the most ridiculous elements of the film have a reason to be, such as the “Doof Warrior” (played by Australian musician, iOTA), who is the weirdo shredding the guitar on a big truck that has a group of drummers on the back, oh and his guitar doubles as a flame-thrower. As funny and bizarre as this is, it is simply a hyper-stylized version of the drummer boy, who rides with the war boys to rile them up as they go to battle. These fun details go from stuff like The Doof Warrior to little ornaments on a car’s dashboard or little trinkets on the costumes (you can thank Jenny Beavan and her team on the wonderful costume work). All these add so much in creating a world that feels tangible and lived-in.
The action and Miller’s direction alone would have made Fury Road a more than worthy re-visit to the franchise, but what really puts it over the edge to all-time great, instant-classic, masterpiece status is that there is genuine depth and emotional resonance in ways that the original three films are not. There are a lot of interesting things to unpack in Fury Road and it shows that the film has just as much brains and heart as it does muscle. One example is its progressive gender politics. The feminist elements have gotten a lot of attention recently, but what makes those elements work in the film is they are organic to the story and the world and never feel like they are a part of some “agenda.” It’s just that it’s so rare to see three generations of women in an R-rated action film kicking ass, but adding to that is the dimension that Miller and his co-writers have placed. Using the consultation of Eve Ensler, of The Vagina Monologues, the filmmakers were able to capture a sense of identity and humanity within the 5 Wives, who might have otherwise been forgettable MacGuffins. Granted, they still are living, breathing MacGuffin devices, but they are still given many moments to shine, to give each of the actresses (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee Kershaw and Courtney Eaton) a chance to offer distinction between the different women who all act differently, have different desires, different personalities. It’s the extra bit of effort you don’t see too often.
It’s not just the patriarchy that the film takes a critical eye at it is also the war culture and extremism that plagues many cultures around the world, even ones that might consider themselves civilized. The war boys in the film serve Immortan Joe as if he’s a God-like figure because he promises to lead them to the warrior paradise, Valhalla. This causes the war boys to celebrate the very idea of war, and to die in battle is considered the greatest honor. They have no other identity; the white body paint is a huge visual clue. There is even a scene where an injured war boy realizes his fate and essentially decides to suicide bomb an oncoming enemy while he screams in celebration. This surprisingly empathetic look at extremism is best explored through the character of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a war boy who we start off seeing sick and getting a blood transfusion from a captured and upside-down Max. His character arc is beautiful and richly expressed through the storytelling. I don’t even want to spoil it because it’s so well done. It’s easily the most upfront I’ve ever seen a Hollywood blockbuster tackle this kind of subject matter, and not only does it tackle it without compromise, but it offers multiple perspectives. We see it from Immortan Joe’s view, from the War Boy’s view, from Nux’s view, from Max’s outsider view and from Furiosa/5-Wives’ insider view. It adds depth to not just the characters, but the world they inhabit, while also telling us a little about ourselves.
Despite a fairly big cast, the film ultimately is a two-person show, Tom Hardy’s Max and Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Furiosa is by far the standout character and performance. Her journey is the plot that Max, in typical fashion, stumbles into and makes due. Charlize Theron brings a fiery passion, rage and hopefulness, which adds a strong emotional core to the film. She steals every second she’s on screen. Underneath all the bleak, nasty, nihilism, anarchy and brutality of the film and its world is a cry for optimism at the heart of the film and that is her purpose. Max himself is also quite interesting in this because he is a much more haunted and broken version of Max than we have had before. He will occasionally see visions of the many people that he have failed in the past and he will even hear their voices. He is at a point where he nearly sees himself as just another crazy guy in a world full of them. It isn’t until he meets up with Furiosa does he seem to find purpose and sees her journey to redemption as one for him as well.
Some of the themes could certainly imply a level of dour self-seriousness, but the film is an absolute blast from beginning to end. I did mention the guy with the guitar/flame-thrower, right? Every scene has colorful characters doing interesting things, even when it’s not action-oriented. Miller is able to craft a world where we can see how certain people can live and it’s just so fascinating. Also, not since Sergio Leone does a director have a distinctive eye for casting minor characters and extras. Huge props to Junkie XL for an incredible score. Fury Road is the kind of movie that demands to be seen on the big screen and I had a big, dumb smile on my face for the entire two-hour runtime. Miller has a way with using broad strokes to create an immediate impression with all his films, this is no exception as his level of enthusiasm more than gets you swept up in the experience. It’s fun and exciting and thrilling and funny and briskly-paced and the practical effects and stunts put you in that child-like feeling of wondering just how the hell they did that.
Mad Max: Fury Road is not just one of the best action films I’ve seen, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen period. Having waited 15 years to see this, I honestly would’ve settled for less, but the fact that it exceeded every expectation I had along with the hype built by its consistently excellent trailers, shows that I still managed to underestimate the wizardry of George Miller. I don’t know if Fury Road will influence pop culture the same way Road Warrior did, but regardless of all that, Fury Road is a masterpiece of action and visual storytelling. It not only provides the thrills and fist-pumping excitement expected from a blockbuster, but it also has genuine thematic depth and complex characters that are likeable, interesting and worth thinking long about after seeing the film. It’s one of the weirdest and unabashedly bizarre films to get a wide-release in quite some time, while also being a feminist triumph in a genre that has an unfortunate lack in that regard. It’s the kind of classic that you can re-watch and notice little things you may have missed and it’s full of top-notch craftsmanship that can be dissected and discussed in film schools for years. It’s definitely far from the low-budget, slow-burn Ozploitation roots of the original Mad Max, but given the inevitable evolution of any franchise, Fury Road shows that some things can grow and change for the better.