(Warning: spoilers for the film Mad Max: Fury Road ahead.)
As a character notes in the new film Mad Max: Fury Road, everything hurts out in the Wasteland. That which does not kill you makes you stronger… and then something even stronger kills you. In that spirit, I’m going to lay my razor-edged cards on the table and say it straight: this is a very good sci-fi action film that was brutally murdered at the box office by its own glowing reviews.
Critics turned people off Max’s long-awaited return to cinema by excessively praising this movie for purely political reasons. Some crucial portion of its potential audience sniffed out the feminist mindlock permeating these reviews and steered clear, even though it really isn’t the feminist harangue so many reviewers approvingly described it as.
Fury Road has other problems, too. Don’t get me wrong – its virtues are many, beginning with the incredible stunt work and production design. It’s strange to explain why a movie is flopping at the same time I can recommend action junkies and sci-fi fans go to see it, more than once. It’s so dense with painstakingly crafted details that it will reward repeat viewing, and inspire a level of respect for its workmanship that no CGI cartoon-fest can claim.
Having said that, there is a good deal of CGI in this film – it’s not the game-changing all-practical back-to-basics hardcore stunt fest it has been billed as. I heard a few audible groans of disappointment in my not-very-crowded theater when the obvious computer animation kicked in. Fury Road’s technical accomplishments are sadly muddled by this sense of disappointment, particularly given the years – it feels like decades – of hype the script and production generated.
Another problem is the level of visual excess in a movie that feels much longer than it actually is, because it’s basically one long car chase, and it hardly ever lets up. It’s an exhausting sense of overload, and it threatens to make those amazing set pieces feel less special than they deserve. Modern directors awash in monster budgets and unlimited computer animation must re-learn the skill of treating their special effects as special, building anticipation in the audience for each new spectacle, rather than simply assuming anticipation exists.
Mad Max director George Miller would make a fine old-school teacher for younger directors, but Fury Road is crammed full of so much spectacle that it’s numbing despite his best efforts. Supposedly this film was intended as a reboot platform for launching two or three sequels, but it feels like you’re getting three films’ worth of mayhem in this one picture. It sells itself short through overkill.
With somewhat lesser ambitions and a lower budget, recalling the insane cinematic guerrilla warfare that gave us The Road Warrior, this new film could have been a relatively big hit… but it’s hard to see a path to chart-busting popularity for a rated-R movie that looks punishing and unpleasant in its trailers, just the way hardcore Max fans wanted it. Genre filmmaking remains a tricky business, but Hollywood is drunk on the wildly successful mainstreaming of superheroes, and doesn’t realize that intense devotion demonstrated by niche stalwarts on the Internet doesn’t necessarily translate to profitable $200 million summer tentpole films.
That’s especially true when the film lacks proven seat-warming star power. Tom Hardy is a fine actor, a veritable chameleon who can transform himself for all sorts of wonderful character roles… but he ain’t Mel Gibson. Let me utter a perhaps unspeakable Hollywood heresy: this movie would have worked considerably better if Mel Gibson was in it, playing an older Max dragged into one last wild ride. The curiosity factor of seeing crazy Mel return to his signature role might have generated some box-office heat. That could have been one hell of an amusing advertising campaign. You want Mad Max? You got him!
Likewise with Charlize Theron, who does technically flawless work in Fury Road – as the saying goes, she does everything the director asked of her, which in this case could have resulted in serious bodily injury – but there’s no screen-illuminating superstar magic, no sense that viewers would flock to this picture because she’s on the marquee.
She is, in fact, the star of the show, with Hardy’s Max Rockatansky – identified by his full name for the first time in ages in the opening credits – relegated to a supporting role with very little plot or character relevance. He’s a helpless victim for the first half of the movie, then volunteer muscle for the second, and never threatens to become the protagonist of the story. Theron’s Imperator Furiosa drives the plot, makes all the plot-relevant character decisions (except for the highly implausible strategy Max suggests for the final act) and enjoys what little character development the script provides.
It’s an acute case of what I’ve long thought of as “Linden Avery Syndrome,” after the bait-and-switch protagonist who muscled the title character out of his own story in the second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. (By the way, why hasn’t Hollywood taken a crack at that series yet? It’s a film-friendly deconstruction of Lord of the Rings that had a zillion readers back in the day.)
The original Mad Max films have an almost absurdly outsize pop-culture footprint, given their fairly modest box-officer performance, so I’ll wager even younger 2015 moviegoers have a pretty good idea who Max is… and they didn’t think they were buying a ticket to the Furiosa saga, guest-starring some guy who claims to be Max Rockatansky but doesn’t really look or act like him. (He’s the latest action hero to be stuck with crippling post-traumatic stress disorder, complete with vivid hallucinations.)
Contrary to all the politicized hype, and even if Eve Ensler actually was involved in doctoring the script, this movie isn’t a post-apocalyptic Vagina Monologues. It’s primarily “feminist” in the sense that a female character is swapped in for the titular hero. The women she’s trying to rescue – in a plot that’s actually a somewhat threadbare reprise of the previous two Mad Max films, right down to Max’s somewhat reluctant decision to save the day – get to perform a few crazy car stunts in their gauzy robes and bikinis, but that’s pretty much standard movie fare nowadays, because it’s effectively illegal to depict any female character as a damsel in distress.
The “girl power” message in Fury Road is that primitive societies tend to treat women badly, and that’s horribly wrong, especially when warlords take it to the point of enslaving women for their harem. That’s not a very controversial theme… at least not in modern Western culture. I’m not sure if Miller intended any deliberate resemblance between his villains and the likes of Boko Haram or ISIS, but if anybody needs to sit through a $200 million action-packed lecture on the evils of slavery, it’s them, not American multiplex audiences.
Also, not to be nitpicky, but Furiosa’s own position as chief bad guy Immortan Joe’s top general, trusted with command of his finest war machine and most important missions, would seem to somewhat undermine the rampant-sexism theme, especially since she happens to look like Charlize Theron… and openly disdains the pseudo-Norse death-cult religion everyone else in Immortan Joe’s militia spouts constantly.
If you’ve been scared away from seeing Fury Road by the ridiculous praise for the script as a triumph of feminism by mainstream media reviewers, the good news is that it’s really not like that at all. At this point, there’s nothing even slightly unique about a kick-ass action grrrl teaming up with a male hero to beat the snot out of savage men twice her size. There’s nothing provocative about the argument that slavery is wrong, it’s not a “feminist” idea, and real-world feminists spend very little of their energy waging war against the people who are actually taking slaves in 2015. If you’re looking for high-octane action, Fury Road delivers the goods, and nothing about it feels like a political lecture.
Despite its massive budget and screen-shredding visual effects, it also doesn’t feel quite as huge and mythic as the previous Mad Max adventures, mostly because Max himself doesn’t earn that mythic status. This doesn’t seem like the hero at least two newborn civilizations revere as their legendary savior. It’s not even clear whether this movie is a sequel, prequel, or reboot.