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Water from a Rock, reflecting on Mad Max: Fury Road

September 28, 2015

This wasn't supposed to be a review, but it sort of came out that way:

Finding a place to park at our house last night was disastrous.
If you look around the net for reviews of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), you’re bound to find several critics proclaiming the film as Oscar worthy. I’m not here to say whether it is or isn’t, only that hearing such praise inevitably raises the expectation for what a film can or should deliver. Without these expectations, Mad Max is surely a large film, filled with desert storms and unreachable horizons. Its action could swallow anyone whole.

The joy of seeing this film in theaters last May, beyond its beauty and power on the big screen, was to see it with very little expectation. It came to theaters as a dark alternative to everything Marvel and, in that sense, ambushed the early summer. That said, to see Mad Max at home is another matter; the movie does not fit so well inside a living room.

Sometime in the first hour of the film, my wife and I paused it so we could clean up the kitchen. At this juncture, she asked me two questions: “What’s going on?” and “Is this really an Oscar film?” I told her what I thought was going on in terms of plot. She said, “I know all that, but what’s going on?” I told her what symbols and archetypes and metaphors I thought the film might be playing with and rearranging. I also told her, “Just because it has those things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great movie.” I knew she wouldn’t be long for this movie, and she wasn’t. She fell asleep an hour into it, and not long after our conversation.

As I lost my wife to sleep, the villain in Mad Max lost a wife to death. One of Immortan Joe’s several brides fell off the battle wagon and underneath his own machinery. Max (Tom Hardy) even tells Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) that he saw the bride go under the wheels, but in later scenes, the body is barely mutilated. Mad Max is aesthetically darker and less Hollywood than The Avengers, but it’s not quite a venture into mimesis.

What the film does through and with its female characters deserves more attention than what's in this post.
A level of 1980's campiness permeates throughout the film, but nothing quite on the level of the originals. The camera jerks and flashes and cuts on a vicious swivel. Everyone dresses in black leather and rags. No one delivering the dialogue cares all that much about whether the audience understands them or not—“something something Gates of Valhalla!” The film is aggressive and strong. The vision is clear, if not the words. But nothing is real. 

Max rides through sandstorms full of lightning and debris, but he need not close his eyes. The main character cannot be troubled with blindness, much less a scratched cornea. However, these are not necessarily weaknesses of the film. While possibly not strengths either, they are indeed part of its identity as it attempts to depart from a conventional reality in order to make something weird and different, at least when compared with its blockbuster brethren.

In the film’s second hour—the hour my wife slept through—is when the film makes its frenetic leap into something possibly worth remembering.

Peer through the stormy action, the silent heroes, and radical road warriors, and the film’s first half aligns itself less with the early punk version of Mel Gibson and more so with the bloated apocalyptic vision shared by Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995). The world is fallen, girls need saving, skin has been tattooed and vandalized, and the journey relies on the faint tracings of map and myth to find its paths towards salvation and redemption. 


While the metal riffs, exaggerated action, and searing heat recall a fallen Route 66 Americana, in some strange way this all manages to feel as harmless and fun as Pixar’s Cars (2006). Arrive at the halfway point of Mad Max: Fury Road, and you will find yourself at a strange crossroads where the surprise blockbuster costs $150 million dollars, possesses big name stars with big screen action experience, and is powered by a nostalgia for the last gasps of the 20th Century. The movie was made for those 2006 kids who are now grown up, but not quite, and those adults who grew up, but never aged. (This juncture is also where the film introduces an older generation of women who add energy and nuance to the film's developing notions of community and gender.)

In the second hour of the film, night falls. The burning reds and broiling oranges give way to cool blues and silent grays. The map Furiosa’s been following turns false, and the film, literally, turns in on itself and back towards the beginning, as if it were a boomerang. The outward journey chases, in the latter stages of the film, what all post-apocalyptic adventures hunt: a return to what was, to what we hope will forever be possible. Our heroes make a U-turn in a barren landscape and drive for the Citadel's security: its crops and its water.

I may prefer Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006) and its doom that cannot be shaken, but I appreciate George Miller and his latest installment of the Mad Max saga for attempting to draw water from recycled material in the middle of a Hollywood desert.

As for awards, who knows? Personally, I don't really care. But I also wouldn’t be opposed. 

Bryan Harvey tweets about sports and movies and life @LawnChairBoys.

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