Thursday, May 28, 2015

Retro-stupid Refuel - Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in spite of all the hoopla to the contrary, exactly what it says it is on the tin, and lots of it. Intense car chases, brutal action, and over-the-top spectacle are all over the place in this one, all laced together with a barely-there revenge plot thinly layered over a pastiche of the entire plot to Road Warrior melded with the kids’ plotline from Thunderdome. Everything that’s original here is in the visuals.

And what epic visuals they are. Everything here is bigger and nastier and more chromed-up and over-the-top than ever before. The dune-buggies of yesteryear are gone, replaced with monster-trucks, tank-treaded muscle cars, and sedans bristling with insanely huge rusty spikes. Forget all that nonsense about gas being rare after the apocalypse; in Fury Road, every vehicle is covered in so much armor plate, spikey-bits, and iconography that none of them can be doing better than five miles to the gallon.

I do love the way the cultures of post-apocalyptic Australia have evolved in this franchise. In Mad Max, they were barely different from present-day suburbia, struggling to maintain a pocket of normality. In the Road Warrior, that normality was gone, but most of the people were still everyday Joes and Janes, struggling to find safety in a world gone mad. The inhabitants of Barter Town had made peace with their post-apocalyptic existence, trading the last bits and bobs of their lives from before in exchange for water, food, and barbaric spectacle.

The people of Fury Road, however, come off like the descendants of the airplane kids. They inhabit bizarre cultures built around survival and apocalypse-shaped religion. Life is cheap, except when it’s pure, untouched by the ravages of the apocalypse, at which point it becomes more precious than gold and gasoline and bullets. The pre-apocalypse world isn’t a memory but a myth, and its death is a point of theological contention.

This only adds to the impossibility of placing this movie in chronological order with the others. The opening implies it belongs between Mad Max and Road Warrior. Things happen to Max that make it impossible for this movie to have happened before Thunderdome. More than that, however, this Max is clearly the post-Thunderdome Max. Where the Road Warrior didn’t give much of a crap about the settlers until (maybe) the very end (and I’m not sure he really cared more about them than he did about his vengeance), but then goes out of his way to save the kids at the end of Thunderdome, Fury Road’s Max signs on pretty quickly to doing what he can for the helpless innocents of this film.

And yes, in spite of all the politically-fueled nonsense you’ve probably seen surrounding this film, there are helpless innocents in need of being saved by Max here. Frankly, it’s hard for me to see how this film is all that much more feminist than the very-similar Road Warrior. Yes, there's no rape scene like in the beginning of The Road Warrior. Instead, we get a scene of women with the bodies of fertility goddesses being milked like cows. It's not quite as kinky-erotic as a similar scene in Pink's “Raise Your Glass” video only because the women are bovine-docile instead of writhing about in restraints. These gals and their milk kinda-sorta pay off at the end of the movie metaphorically, but it's so heavy-handed it feels gratuitous.

Charlize Theron is great in this movie, and her Furiosa character does have a more interesting arc than Max does, but that's not saying much. To praise anyone for their acting in this flick seems a bit much. It's all perfect for what it is, but make no mistake: this is a car-chase movie punctuated by bits of dialogue. It's an awesome car-chase movie, but it's no Casablanca, or Princess Bride, or hell, Star Wars.

So Theron's acting primarily involves closeups of her face with one of two emotions on it: either some-asshole's-gonna-pay or oh-shit-the-only-choice-we-have-is-to-crash-straight-through-this. Grim, vengeance-fueled determination or edge-of-your-seat, hope-we-make-it-through-this-too-late-to-swerve-aside-now. Both are picture-perfect and entirely in service to the film's actions beats, giving them the drama-nitro they need to rev up beyond the potential of mere cars crashing about in the desert.

And sure Furiosa's an awesome kick-ass character, and the way she and Max come to understand one another very much echoes a similar relationship in the last Riddick movie. The atonement thing is cool, and it's a thread they share. But this movie also comes with a literal truckload of defenseless damsels in distress. The Vulvalini are bad-asses... so long as they avoid fist-fights. When it comes to mano-a-mano action, the guys with their massive chests and thick fists dominate the action with all the thuggish brutality of jungle beasts. The Vulvalini are outlaw banditas and ace shots with a gun, but they're also victims to be literally crushed under the wheels of a big-bad's monster truck. If there's a political message in this film, honestly, it's the same message you get from an NRA poster of a smiling 12-year-old girl holding a bright pink AR-15 and captioned "God Made All Men, But Smith & Wesson Made Us Equal."

So leave your pretentious at home, bring your 12-year-old self that thrills to car-crashes and revenge-fueled power fantasies, and come get your retro-stupid refuel. This insane film is chock-full of adventure seeds and crazy ideas to inspire the DM in you, from bullet farms to chrome-worshipping neo-viking suicide bombers, to stone-column citadels carved with crazy skull symbols and topped with garden paradises and pleasure domes.  The murder-hobos in your life will thank you.


Trey said...

What makes you think it happened between Mad Max and Road Warrior? That was not the impression I got--though I completely agree it is a bit difficult to place and with any placement, you'd have to wink at some things.

Dennis Laffey said...

Read an interesting fan theory that this Max is actually the grown up Feral Boy. It sauares with Furiosa's age since she was apparently born post apoc.

Dennis Laffey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dennis Laffey said...


(sorry about the double post and typos, I blame it on my phone's tiny keyboard)

trollsmyth said...

Trey: He's still got the car. I suppose that could put it between Road Warrior and Thunderdome, assuming he salvaged the car after Road Warrior, except he doesn't have the tattoos and brand.

Dennis Laffey: that's a neat one I hadn't run across before.

Myself, I love the idea that these are all stories told about a semi-mythical figure, and everyone gives him a different spin based on their own interpretations of the character.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen this yet, but is that spikey car a reference to "The Cars That Ate Paris"?

trollsmyth said...

Anonymous: Ha! Could be! I'm not familiar with that film.

Pierce said...

When is the last time you saw a bad-ass lady over the age of 60 in a hollywood film? Old women are either wise or they are witches; if they are lucky enough to be in the movie at all. Women in movies (especially in the action genre) have a shelf life that ends as soon as they get wrinkles. These capable older women were a joy to see on the big screen. Also, sure, there was a truck full of "damsels", but the whole point of the movie is that they (their bodies and their children) are not the property of anyone. The brides do a decent amount of ass-kicking on the way back and return to the citadel as conquering rulers. Even the milked women get a moment to shine by opening the cistern at the end. AND Max repeatedly nurtures the other characters with his blood, symbolically nursing. This movie should definitely be praised for more than it's awesome spectacle.

trollsmyth said...

Pierce: When is the last time you saw a bad-ass lady over the age of 60 in a hollywood film?

Off the top of my head, it was probably Dame Dench in her last appearance as M in the Bond franchise. But it is a trope. I'll get more excited when she's a main character.

The brides do a decent amount of ass-kicking on the way back and return to the citadel as conquering rulers.

Find me a female supporting lead who doesn't do this in an action film made in the last 30 years. The female lead puts in a few good punches and gets to say in interviews that her character is a "strong woman" blah-blah-blah... That's gone beyond trope to being as noticeable as the air we breath. Granted, it's handled A LOT better in Fury Road than in a lot of films. (The absolute worst in recent memory was probably Cate Blanchett in 2010's Robin Hood; she talks a good game but gets her ass kicked and needs to be rescued just about every time a confrontation turns physical).

I'll grant you, what's done with the female characters in this film is better than most, but there's nothing really novel here. It's just what most films reach for and miss with their female characters. Fury Road handles it a lot better than most, but then, Fury Road handles just about every aspect of the action genre better than most. Furiosa, the Vulvalini, the brides are all great in this film, and I can totally see why folks are so excited by them. But nothing here is really novel, and the only thing unusual about them is that they're done so well. Fury Road is very much the WoW of movies; there's nothing really new here, they just hit all the basics so solidly you end up with something that solidly hits the ball way, way out of the park.

AND Max repeatedly nurtures the other characters with his blood, symbolically nursing.

He does this exactly twice in the film. The first time, it's not by choice, making a very important point a lot of people miss about this film: the villains are not really misogynists. They treat everybody like objects to be owned and used and used up. People don't point out that painting the warboys white makes them look like dolls because people aren't used to noticing men being treated that way, but that's exactly what's going on there.

That's what this film is about. The villains treat everyone and everything like an object, a tool, a means to an end. The heroes treat people like people. All else is kick-ass action and commentary. ;)

Pierce said...

Ok, fair points. I think I appreciate your stance on the film. I had mistakenly thought you didn't think the treatment of women in the film was worthwhile. Not realizing that your feeling is the opposite, that the filmmakers didn't go far enough. :)

Good point about the war boys. I had missed the doll connection. Did you catch any significance for the silver mouth spray thing they do?

You last point is great. A film doesn't have to have misogynists to have strong feminist tones. Women aren't defined by their relationship to oppressive men.

trollsmyth said...

Pierce: Thank you. I absolutely do get why people are excited. But it's not, for instance, Aliens.

I'm still rolling that "chrome mouth" thing around in my head. At first, I thought maybe it was a drug? But as the film went on, as we saw more of it, it seemed to be more just paint. Clearly, chrome = good. And there's certainly an objectification angle to it; you chrome a loved car, for instance. Chrome is gilt, shiny veneer. But I can't help but feel like I'm missing something more there.

Yeah, going with a misogynist villain is the lazy way there. One of the awesome things about Aliens, for instance, is how the final mano-a-mano battle is matriarch vs. matriarch. I was happy to see Fury Road avoid wallowing in that trap.