In preparation for the fourth installment of the franchise, I spent the last week watching the first three Mad Max films for the first time that I can remember. While certain patterns from the earlier movies definitely appear in the new one, the most obvious feeling of Mad Max: Fury Road is that film production has come a long, long way since the 1980’s. After two hours of explosions, excess, and eccentricities, it’s clear that film has finally allowed George Miller to present his often imitated post-apocalyptic wasteland in all its spiked, nihilistic, demented glory. It’s a lovely day indeed.
While the basic premise of the Mad Max franchise remains the same, and is better established in the first few minutes of this film than in the others, any knowledge of the previous films is entirely optional. Narration and flashbacks quickly establish Tom Hardy’s Max as similar but separate from Mel Gibson’s original. The flashes of Max’s history continue throughout, neatly woven into important moments and with at times horrifying images perfectly illustrating why Max is a man who “runs from the living and the dead.” Of course, this is an introduction, so it isn’t long before the chase begins, and once it does, it never really ends.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: the movie looks absolutely phenomenal. Striking, stark, brutal, beautiful, overwhelming, all of that. The costumes, the cars, the colors, the mountains, the sky, the dirt, everything. It’s just amazing to look at. Gone are the sparsely populated shanty towns of Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, as innovative as they may have been. The main named location in Fury Road is massive and dense with mechanisms and people and plant life and wonderful, tiny details which exemplify the care with which Max’s world is crafted. While the leather-clad, real world version of a biker tattoo parlor wall aesthetic has been an iconic element of the series for over 30 years, these eccentricities have never been put to better use. Sure, an attack vehicle dedicated entirely to war drums and a man strapped to the front playing a flame throwing guitar is ridiculously excessive, but given the world surrounding him, and the man who he plays for, it seems like a natural progression of the Revolutionary War’s fife and drum line.
Whereas most films would use such eccentricities as merely style or, at most, atmosphere, Fury Road uses its tiny details as an effective bit of visual world building. Although light on explicit storytelling, visuals like the tree of steering wheels, graffiti in the wives apartment, or the vehicles of the different towns hint at long histories and how influential personalities shaped their development ultimately leading to the point where Immortan Joe has a flame throwing minstrel flanking him at all times. In this sense, Fury Road does just as much world building as most fantasy or science fiction epics, but without the tedium of scrolling text or expository monologues. There’s no time for that when a tanker full of water and wives is speeding across the wasteland into a giant dust tornado. Still, through context and the few bits of sparse dialog, several possible analogies emerge behind the chases and the explosions.
Comments on religious fanaticism, women’s rights, and climate change are all clear, but never presented in a way that comes across as preachy or detracts from the action. Contrary to what other sites may argue, Imperator Furiousa is not some man-hater spouting the feminist agenda. She’s a determined, flawed, and sympathetic figure who shows her strength instead of just talking about it. She’s the mirror to Max’s own self-sacrificing stoicism, and both Hardy and Charlize Theron perfectly embody these figures. There isn’t much conversation or emotion on screen, but the two of them make the most of what they’re offered. Less so for other actors.
However, not everything about Mad Max‘s modernization works. Whereas the earlier films had Max carrying his sawed-off shotgun, ammunition was scarce, making using the gun a rare, desperate move. The general lack of firearms in Road Warrior and Thunderdome lead to more innovative and interesting set-ups with crossbows, chainsaws, flamethrowers, and so forth. While all of these are present in the reboot, and the guns are nicely limited for a while, the increased amount of firearms and ammunition makes their use the same easy crutch available to most action movies. This feels especially disappointing given the abundance of invention in every other part of Fury Road. Similarly, the outstanding stunt work and practical effects on display throughout call attention to the computer effects, the other crutch of modern action movies. It’s less egregious at the start of the film or when capturing only the starkly beautiful wasteland, but when used with characters or mixed into action sequences, particularly the climax, the CGI stands out as shallow. Sure, the effects may bring Mad Max up to modern expectations of scope and speed, but seeing real people doing real stunts (in a safe environment) is always going to be more exciting than watching those same people play pretend in front of a green screen. If there’s one franchise which should be the stalwart of practical effects in the 21st Century, it’s Mad Max.
Honestly, until this week I didn’t understand the big deal about the Mad Max franchise. Sure the trailer and other people’s expectations got me pretty hyped for Fury Road, but I generally viewed the film as a second tier effort compared to Avengers: Age of Ultron or the higher profile franchise reboots of Jurassic Park, Terminator, and Star Wars. But after seeing Fury Road, with all its maddening splendor and gleeful insanity, it’s clear why this franchise can’t wait another 30 years between films. There’s an unapologetic energy present in Mad Max that’s too often absent from more mainstream spectacle movies. It’s the build-it-up-to-rip-it-down sensibility that makes films like Looper, Children of Men, and Edge of Tomorrow so unique and enjoyable. But unlike those, Mad Max can continue. And if it does so with the same amount of excess, energy, and surprising depth of Fury Road, it definitely should. It’s time to return to the wasteland.