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
I just finished watching this film and found that it made me think a little more than I expected. Although I don’t remember his earlier films all that well – it’s been so long, and I never really studied them – this latest one seems to be a little more overtly mythological, and it was nice to see someone attempt to suggest a way out of the Wasteland, to try to offer a solution. None of Arthur’s knights ever did, and how many do today? This was nice.
My mind stuck on the final words of the film, paraphrasing:
Where do we go from here…we who wander in this Wasteland searching for ourselves…
He seems to be saying that what we need to do is find ourselves, that the answer lies right here within us. Now what he might have meant by this, exactly, isn’t necessarily clear.
Recall that the hope for a New World, the water, “mother’s milk,” was right there in the Citadel all along. It is also interesting to note that although one might have expected Max to become the new king, he disappears into the crowd after nodding in agreement with Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa and the other women then ascend to the throne alone. This is interesting. The Latin word for “emperor” was Imperator, and the feminine form of this word was Imperatrix. Perhaps he is trying to say something here. Maybe he is simply saying that the answer lies within us as children of the Earth, and that we must rediscover our connection to the Earth. Certainly, machines and technology, the products of men, don’t appear to have saved the world for him in these four films, on the contrary. It happens to be true that life and fertility are fundamentally linked to Mother Earth. I’m sure the Celts of old would not disagree. This may also explain the back seat that Max has clearly been made to take in “Fury Road.”
Perhaps he is also saying that the answer lies in our humanity, not the machines and technology we’ve created. We need to find ourselves, the human being.
Immortan Joe, the remnant and symbol of the Old World, and a man, lacks the principle of life. He produces a child, “perfect in every way,” yet still born, a result of his own actions. Imperator Furiosa, on the other hand, is the one, not Max, who kills the king by removing his artificial breathing apparatus. She is also shown removing her robotic arm after arriving at what she though was the Green Place.
Beyond this, it is evident that he believes the solution lies in balance, that women are a necessary part of the solution. One wonders how they were ever left out to begin with.
John David Ebert says
That may–or may not be true, Ken–but it all gets buried beneath the kitsch and vulgarity of the film’s videogame aesthetic. I’ll quote Lawrence Phillip Pearce here, since I think he really nailed the problem with the film as a work of art: “And a few more thoughts about the film itself,” he writes in his Facebook comment on my post. “The original Mad Max films, especially the second and third one, have a brooding, melancholy tone to them in addition to them being spectacular action films. They capture the sad nobility and pathos of classic Kurosawa better than even Sergio Leone’s anarchic cowboy masterpieces. This new film, however, has a circusy farce-like quality, like The Burning Man Festival meets Cirque du Soleil. It feels campy and self-consciously over-the-top which is directly at odds with the ethos and aesthetic of the first films: it feels so artificial. For example, Furiosa’s robot arm. That is soooo NOT “Mad Max!” Just like the flying refrigerator in The Crystal Skull isn’t “Indiana Jones.” And all the steampunk/gaspunk kitsch with the skull motifs, bald heads, gas masks, gears, hydraulic piping, gauges, dials, and pneumatic hoses reminded me of a really shitty nu metal music video from circa 1999, not the tangible Moebius-like collaged bric-à-brac that we loved in the originals. There’s no spirit in Fury Road. Waterworld is a far more engaging and spirited follow up to classic Mad Max than Fury Road.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Perhaps this is a departure from the previous films, but I can’t say. I don’t remember them well. My comments are based on this film alone. It is clear, however, that this film is not really about Max. Does this still makes sense with the other films? Can continuity be found? I don’t know.
The film begins with Max losing control of his car, and then after this, Furiosa is the one behind the wheel. The car, technology, almost acts as a throne here. The steering wheel like some sort of crown or scepter, etc. Not only does Furiosa kill the king, but she takes over his car, and they drive it back to the Citadel. She then becomes Imperator in what will become the New World.
Is it a great film, probably not, but does he use myth in interesting ways? I think he does. Whatever one may think of his style, he is at least full of creative energy, and some power. I remember thinking to myself during the movie that this must be where great poets start…what could he do with “better material,” greater wisdom, or more “direction”? Homer, for example, was one of the greatest ever, but he had great material to work with and was incredibly knowledgeable.
Clearly, he has learned something of mythology along the way, and I like his choice of the Grail Legend. There is certainly all the material here that he might need, but how well does he understand it and how might he rework it for himself in this age? I think he answered some of this in the film.
As far as the “departure” is concerned, this seems to be due to the literal back seat that Max has been made to take, but I think this is consistent with his reworking of the myth, whatever we may think of it. Furiosa is the hero in this one, and he seems to make this clear by identifying her with Bran. This is vividly suggested by the immobilizing wound in their sides, in addition to their shared desire for a return of fertility to the land and their royal titles.
John David Ebert says
I think you’re wasting too much thought on this one, Ken. This movie really panders to the white trash, redneck culture of wrestling and monster trucks. ALL films contain mythic archetypes. I’ve written two or three books on them, trust me, they’re everywhere and there are much better examples of the Waste Land theme than in this piece of crap. Apocalypse Now, for instance, or Excalibur, or A.I., etc. etc. The list goes on an on and the original films did a much better job of handling the waste land theme anyway. You’re wasting your breath on this one. It’s a terrible movie: in fact, the more I think about it, the more it repulses me. Miller, who normally makes children’s films, is just out of touch here. And btw, Miller picked up the myth motifs from reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. That was the inspiration for the original trilogy, and he’s well quoted in interviews on that. So there are no surprises here.
If that’s true about Campbell’s influence, then it doesn’t surprise me. As I said, I wondered while watching what he could do with better material, knowledge, etc.
If only people with the energy and will of people like Lucas, Miller, etc. read and learned actual mythology, rather than someone like Campbell. At least with Campbell I suppose they have someone telling them what things mean.
The main reason this film caught my attention was that it is a rare example of someone making explicit statements in a mythic context about how to heal the Fisher King. Of course, the other elements I mentioned were nice too. I don’t love the film, but it was interesting on a purely symbolic level.
John, I think you missed the simple message for the mythological trees. While I didn’t see the older installations to the series, and it was like a video game (Twisted Metal), and the plot and context was shoved out of the way into other films, such that this film cannot be taken on its own, I still enjoyed this film because of the simple message or *reason* behind the explosions. And that is a feminist one. Why does Max take a back seat? … Hm.
That’s why I went out to see it. Because online feminist news outlets and zines were paying homage to it and because it pissed off MRA’s. It’s real simple, John. Here’s two things that are a bit haughty about your review.
First, that you need to sacrifice a whole medium of art, video games, in order to look down on this film. It is rather arbitrary to prefer films over video games, not sure if you do but that’s the impression. That is not to say that games aren’t for the most part junk, negligible from an artistic / philosophic perspective. Which is also to say that some aren’t; The Legend of Zelda for example.
Second, all of the spectacular-kitsch and redneck, petrol-based post-industrial transcendence culture, via guitars and cars, is exactly the line, to fish for gamers, MRA’s and other assorted idiots, to then sucker punch them with the feminist message. Maybe if you didn’t watch movies with *every* other movie and myth you’ve ever known in mind, you’d have seen this. I’ll let the reader find these feminist reviews if they wish to see why this film isn’t simply “a piece of crap” to master thinker white cis males. And to see why, in light of Rojave, seeing elderly women with guns on motorcycles brings tears of joy to some.
I’d add however that I’ve enjoyed your older reviews. This one was sort of Read my older reviews to see what I mean. I don’t question your comprehensive knowledge of the cinematic territory but I am baffled that the feminist content was not even mentioned. Good art is not always high or for high art types.