Monday, May 18, 2015
I loved Roger Zelazny. His work was boundlessly inspirational to me and, perhaps even more importantly, was packaged in a use of language so intricate and poetic that I used to put down books of his in the middle of a paragraph and boggle over how someone could come up with turns of phrase that creative as often as he did. One of his lesser works is a novel-that-should-have-remained-a-novella entitled Damnation Alley. It's about a post-apocalyptic setting where the lead character volunteers to make the run from formerly LA to formerly Boston and deliver a package. The passage across the nuclear wasteland that is formerly the USA is known as, of course, "damnation alley." The story was an inspiration to a number of other creators, including John Wagner, scribe of the Judge Dredd comics who used it as a spark for his first extended arc, The Cursed Earth; and Chris Avellone, lead designer of the Fallout series of games; and the band, Hawkwind, who wrote a couple of tracks based on a world like the Alley. Another was Australian director, George Miller, who wrote and directed Mad Max and The Road Warrior after seeing the rather shoddy film based on Zelazny's work. This month, after 30 years away, Miller released the latest chapter in the trials of Max Rockatansky, known as Fury Road.
I'm way behind the curve in writing this review, since the film holds an astounding rating on Rotten Tomatoes (98%(!)) I say "astounding" because Mad Max: Fury Road is "just" an action film, most of which rarely see this kind of unanimity among major critics, since most are not particularly burdened in the plot department. Fury Road is no different in this respect (protagonists are trying to get to a place; antagonists are trying to stop them) but the fact that the story is fairly linear makes a certain degree of sense in the big picture, the shortest distance between two points and all that. However, when the basis of your entire world is that it is utterly dependent on two liquids (gasoline and water; a situation not overly dissimilar from our own), it's understandable that trying to add in things like circles and triangles to your basic geometry will only slow you down and make the film lose focus. What's truly successful about Fury Road is that it does take time to add in those higher concepts but leaves them as undercurrents in a raucous display of intensity such that they can be enjoyed by those willing to pay attention (as I did) or ignored in favor of the rambunctious action (which, I think it's safe to say, the bulk of the audience to date has done.) If you went to see an action film, man, were you lucky, because you found a great one. If you went to see some slowly-revealed cultural touchstones that still have something to say about our own reality ("Who wrecked the world?"), then you were just as lucky.
The film is easily one of the more frenetic adventures I've seen in quite some time. Between the swarming Buzzards, the fanatical War Boys, the Polecats, the war rig, the war drums, and the flamethrower guitar, you couldn't get much more visually impressive while still keeping the majority of effects in real time, rather than CGI. This is a Car Wars adventure taken about as far as you can go. What I also appreciated was cinematographer John Seale's sure handling of camera angles during the chase/fight scenes. A trend over the past decade or so has been to close in on action sequences to try to simulate the chaos of a fight for the audience. What that has led to is a lot of blurred action and an inability to follow what's actually happening until they cut to "really cool move" by whomever the star is. In the comic world, we'd accuse the inker of having spilled water on the pages except for the one panel he managed to preserve. You lose the ability to follow the story with that technique and your choreography that you likely spent thousands on goes for naught. In contrast, Fury Road, with dozens of bodies flying about the screen and scrabbling across vehicles at high speed, still managed to follow a sequence of events from one point to the next so you knew exactly how dangerous the Polecats were (to their targets and themselves) and exactly how destructive the Buzzards could be (again, to targets and selves.) It was a really refreshing experience to be able to know just where everyone was on the highway of death even before they were smoking hulks left to the side.
The upside to all that excitement is that it was exactly that: exciting. Seeing Miller's imagination at full blast while he strove to make a two-hour car chase continually interesting is a phenomenon that won't soon be equaled, I think. OTOH, for those that have seen the Max films before, it's pretty easy to look at Fury Road and say "This is just the chase scene from the second half of The Road Warrior. But bigger and with more explosions." And that would be true, except for the subtext.
In the Road Warrior, the most important liquid is "the juice", meaning gasoline. The only way the crazed road gangs can rule the wastes is with the ability to ride them (and, it has to be said, in vehicles that might get about a half mile to the gallon, if they coast a lot. (Every fantasy world has its little incongruities. Go away, science self. We're having fun here.)) In Fury Road, they've come to the realization that it's not just the juice that's necessary, but also water. Control those two fluids and you control the world. But, interestingly, what becomes the even more precious liquid to many of the characters is actually blood. Immortan Joe's War Boys, altered to be combat machines that somehow burn out their own plasma, use human blood banks to keep going. Our man, Max, has the misfortune to be one of those. But even more important to warlord Joe is the idea of blood as heredity. The cargo being chased by him and his warriors is his harem; one of whom is pregnant with his son. As Joe is obviously in the last stages of life (needing a respirator harness to move around), it's clear that he feels the same need that many dictators do: to establish a legacy and live on through the offspring left behind. That's his self-centered contribution to reestablishing the society lost to all of the individuals in Miller's world.
The harem fled with the assistance of one of Joe's top lieutenants, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and not because they particularly objected to being sex slaves, as they had living conditions vastly better than almost anyone else at the Citadel where Joe ruled. Instead, they objected to what people like Joe had turned the world into and how they sustained it as a place of fire, chaos, and death. By the time they disappeared, they had painted slogans around their quarters ("Who wrecked the world?" "Our babies will not be warlords!") explicitly condemning the world that Joe and those like him (such as Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior) had made and perpetuated. As many critics have pointed out, this is an intrinsically feminist message and a pointed one; specifically blaming men for having reduced society to this barbarous state and doing nothing to restore it. That's a far more complex and noteworthy message than the "tragic hero loses family" motif of Mad Max and the basic nihilism of The Road Warrior. Of course, the clownshow that is "men's rights" groups have played right into this, objecting not only to the movie's central themes but also to the fact that Theron is every bit the action hero that Max (Tom Hardy) is and even more dynamic than he is for much of the film.
Speaking of the two stars, it's interesting to note that both of them have played far more complex roles in the past but both inhabited their rather taciturn characters fairly well. Max, as played by Mel Gibson in the three previous films, is a withdrawn, brooding, and fatalistically cynical person after he loses his family. Hardy did an excellent job playing the Gibson role and even fattened it with more expressiveness than Gibson had ever done (all three films were still relatively early in Gibson's career.) By the same token, Theron took on the role of nascent idealist and still managed to keep her realist combat approach front and center. You never doubted that she was capable of killing you, me, and everyone else in the room. At the same time, you could see the earnestness that had driven her to break away from Joe and attempt to restore some sanity, not just to the world, but her own worldview. My only regret in all of that is that I felt like the character of Furiosa didn't allow Theron to display the kind of fire that she brought to roles in films like Monster and North Country, since most of her interaction with opponents was about disposing of them as efficiently as possible, rather than meeting their rage with some of her own. Only one moment in the film gives her the opportunity to channel that rage into something other than another deathgrip with her bionic arm.
There are many style points you can laud or dispute about the film. Miller was obviously enamored of the whole skull motif approach, as they appear everywhere it's possible to put one, whether carved or real. As a long-time fan of Games Workshop's 40K and Old World settings, I have no problem with this cranial obsession but it, like the flaming guitar player, can bend things from grim to more of a circus-like atmosphere. Whether that detracts or adds to the film depends on whether you're (ahem) willing to go along for the ride. But I appreciated a lot of the other little touches that Miller and his co-writers (Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) brought to the screenplay and, especially, the dialogue. When Max asks Nux if he's a "blackthumb", they don't stop to explain what that is, but instead just leave it to the audience to figure out that it's their phrase for "mechanic" when Max tells him that he's to take care of engine #1. Likewise, their phrase for exalted action is "going chrome", like the spray paint they inhale before doing something daring/brave/insane/suicidal. I've long been fond of writers that simply dropped you into their world and let you figure it out while their characters continued living in their world as they typically would, without stopping to explain basic facts of life to people who already know them.
There were also a lot of little touches scattered throughout the film that were Easter eggs for those who'd seen the previous movies, like the fact that Hugh Keays-Byrne played lead villain, Immortan Joe, 36 years after playing lead villain, The Toecutter, in Mad Max. Or seeing Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) playing with a broken music box in the war rig, a device which virtually matched the one that so excited the Feral Boy in The Road Warrior. After seeing at least one reviewer refer to the film as a "reboot" of the Mad Max series, I was kind of thrilled to see not only the far more beaten down V8 Interceptor at the start of the film, but also the knee brace still present on Max's left leg from injuries he sustained in the first film. If the story and Max's continual flashbacks to his family didn't make it clear that this was a continuation, then those details surely did.
In the end, I can say that Fury Road is certainly worth seeing in the theater whether you're a fan of either well-done action movies or post-apocalyptic scenarios (I'm kinda the former but definitely the latter) or simply want to drive screaming across the desert into a dust hurricane for an evening. I guess time will tell whether the underlying themes of the story become more prominent in the response to it by much of the audience and, for that matter, whether Miller will be continuing that train of thought in the next two in the franchise that he's supposedly working on. You can't kill Max. You can only hope to contain him.