Mad Max: Fury Road
Reviewed by John David Ebert
Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s fourth installment in his classic “Mad Max” series turns out to be a little like The Phantom Menace: it is big, loud, full of flashy, glitzy special effects, stunts and various super-machines, but all this apparatus merely has the effect of diminishing and scaling down the human protagonists who are dwarfed by the machinery and the spectacles in which they are enmeshed. Max is played by Tom Hardy, an otherwise very capable and impressive actor, but in this film his role is reduced to little more than a few cave man grunts. Indeed, the character of Max himself has become a sidekick in his own show. His presence is so ineffectual that you almost don’t even notice him.
And that’s too bad because the earlier Mad Max trilogy was not so much about hot rods and cool stunts but about the sympathy and compassion that Mel Gibson’s performance as Max managed to evoke in the viewer: this shattered wreck of a man who has lost everything in his life and whose pain the viewer can always feel even when Max is doing his best to hide it. Max, in the original trilogy, is a towering hero of the Waste Land who stands out in the foregrounds of those movies. In the present film, he has simply receded to the level of a video game ghost and the viewer could care less about him. He does nothing and says nothing to evoke our sympathies.
This is not a film about human beings: it is a film about tricked-out cars and super-gadgets to wow the twenty-somethings who, stuck in arrested development, still play video games like ten year olds. Every shot is a classic example of what I have termed in my book Post-Classic Cinema, “post-classic cinema”: each scene is over the top, packed with nauseating explosions and special effects to dazzle the eye. But it is like a kid at a carnival at the end of the day who is feeling a little sick on too much sugar and dizzy from too many rides. The eye searches in vain for someone to identify with and care about, like the tribe of lost children in Thunderdome, or the harried refugees of The Road Warrior.
The story is set at a canyon city called the Citadel–which reminds one of the ancient Arab Nabataean city of Petra–where a man named King Immortan Joe rules over his miniature polis of War Boys. His right hand man, as it were, is a woman named Imperator Furiosa, and the film begins–after the capture of Max by the War Boys–with her setting out across the waste land driving a rig to get more gasoline from a distant Gas City on the horizon. However, she makes a sudden left turn and begins heading East, to the puzzlement of her war boy escorts, for in reality she is harboring Joe’s five young wives, one of whom is pregnant. She has decided to save them and head for the Green Lands of her childhood from whence she was abducted as a child. As the War Boys pursue her, Max breaks free of his chains and takes control of her rig–but only for a moment. He isn’t driving in this one–and that’s significant–but a passenger who holds Furiosa at gunpoint. He has indeed, become, merely a supplement in this narrative to his own iconic status as a Western mythic figure. He has been ontologically degraded from a mythic icon to that of a mere character actor, and his role is upstaged by Charlize Theron at every step. She turns out to be more interesting than he is: she has more presence than Tom Hardy, whose version of Max simply lacks the Benjaminian “aura” possessed by the electrifying performances of Mel Gibson. Hardy’s Max is truly a “hollow man” straight out of T.S. Eliot’s poem.
Immortan Joe is, of course, in the role of the dragon who controls a vast water supply in the Citadel, which gives him all his power, and in this respect he corresponds to the dragon Vritra in the Rig-Veda who also holds all the waters in his belly. And when Indra hurls the thunderbolt into Vritra and releases the rains that renew the waste land, all is green again. More or less the same thing takes place at the end of Fury Road, but by the time the viewer gets there, he’s mostly lost all interest in the plot and couldn’t care less where it ends up.
The film takes place entirely in the dromosphere: there is almost no shot that isn’t on a moving vehicle, and in that sense it does capture the essence of our current civilization of speed and dromoscopy. There are a few cool stunts and some outlandish cars and slick-looking gadgets, but once again, it only makes clear where George Miller’s priorities were this time out: he spent all the money on the machines and the action sequences–and there are simply too many of those this time round–and forgot about the human beings for whom all these machines are in reality extensions and appendages.
Baudrillard was right: film has become caught up too much in the intricacies of its own technicalities, with which it is overly impressed, and as a result has created a series of images in which “there is nothing to see,” precisely because there is nothing worth looking at. We’ve seen all these scenes before. There is nothing new here.
Over the years, I have been scoffed at on this site for taking the stance that cinema has entered into a decadent, post-classic phase. And yet, as the years spool by, film after film is released that proves my point.
Over and over again.
Mad Max: Fury Road is not, technically speaking, a bad film. But it belongs nowhere in the company of the original trilogy, and represents yet another styrofoam-cushioned consumer digital video-game age product, a digitized and curiously “flattened” supplement to those films.
It has to be considered as an appendix in the back of the book represented by the classic trilogy.
My essay on the original trilogy, btw, can be found in my book “Gods & Heroes of the Media Age,” which is available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Heroes-Media-Age-Captain/dp/0985480297/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1431906549&sr=8-1&keywords=gods+%26+heroes+of+the+media+age