Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of 2015 and one of the best action movies of all time. A majority out there, while not necessarily agreeing with that statement fully, will nod their heads in understanding for where that sentiment comes from. But, when a film gets the kind of praise Fury Road has since its release it will have its fair share of backlash. It’s understandable. Part of human nature is to feel unique and contrary opinions are one way to achieve that. A person can be in a bad mood upon first seeing a film most love. Then there’s the fact that the hype surrounding some films (as well as bands, books, foods, and nearly anything one can have a positive feeling toward) is so intense that nothing can ultimately live up it. This could very well be the case where Fury Road is concerned.
To explain at least partially what I love so much about Mad Max: Fury Road, I’ve realized while trying to organize my thoughts on the movie I could probably write a novella length piece about it and no one wants that, I’ve taken some of the most common complaints I’ve heard aimed at the movie in an attempt to replace some of the negativity with appreciation. I don’t expect to convert anyone through this article as film appreciation is such a subjective endeavor, but I can at least hope for understanding.
Fury Road is just a two hour long car chase
This complaint is the one I hear perhaps the most, and it’s also a great place to start since it sets up a discussion of why Fury Road is such a unique film. I often respond to this complaint when I’m in one of my more snide mood with, “Yes. That’s the point.” I think this complaint comes from people who are more comfortable with and find more enjoyment in story telling which relies on dialogue.
The word “movies”, though, is a shortened slang word derived from what they were originally called – moving pictures. Movies as a storytelling device was a happy accident (though, possibly an inevitable one) as the original intent for the invention of film was closer to a photograph than a novel or a play. The earliest movies created to tell a story were silent, and therefore had to rely entirely on visuals to get their account across. Eventually someone came up with the idea of using title cards for dialogue, and shortly after that sound-on-film was invented, but at its core movies are moving pictures.
Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t a silent picture by any stretch of the imagination, it’s actually quite noisy, but it uses dialogue sparsely relying primarily on images and action to tell its story. In making Fury Road George Miller understood that while there are many ways to create a narrative, only film can use images captured over large and myriad areas from any angle as a means of depicting his. His being said two hour long car chase.
There are many reasons to tell a story which is essentially just one long action sequence, the first of which being exactly that. How cool is it to craft one long action sequence? The story is driven not by what people say, but by what people do. Talk is cheap, and a picture is worth a thousand words, and all that. Sure, occasionally a command is barked but little time is wasted on people speaking about their feelings or their motivations, those are shown in the most direct way possible – through the actions the characters take.
Beyond the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road fully takes advantage of the medium of film by being almost entirely composed of action, there is also the fact that making an entire film from what is normally a single beat in a standard film adds up to a truly unique experience. It makes for a film that, in a literal sense, very rarely slows down. The start, the finish, and during the act breaks we get an opportunity to leave the vehicles and get a little expository and character building dialogue in, but outside of those four short sections the characters, the story, and thus our attention never slows down.
This a brave decision because it had the chance to alienate a good part of its intended audience (and, I think it actually did do just that which is part of the reason I felt compelled to write this piece) and it forced the writers to get across character development and themes in the middle of a whirlwind with little speech. The fact that they not only accomplished that, but did so in a manner more loud and clear than a great many character pieces let alone action films, is a great testament to their talent.
There is one more very important reason the film makers made the movie one long car chase. But, that reason ties in more closely with my discussion of themes which will come along a little later.
Everyone in in the post-apocalyptic world has great hair and make-up
The Mad Max movies portray a world in which the last humans are trying to survive on an Earth with little food and water left, in which gasoline is more valuable than any precious metal or gem, and where gangs impose their power on the weak where they can and join together with would be dictators when they become the weak themselves. They also all apparently have attended cosmetology school and have access to whatever makeup and hair styling tools they want.
Or do they?
If you remember, when Max is discovered at the start of the film, his hair and beard are overgrown, tangled, and matted. He’s dirty and I imagine if a film could convey smell we’d all be grateful that the opening scene is over quickly. Once he’s captured, the first thing the War Boys do to him is shave him, wash him, and brand him and once the action starts in earnest he’s freshly cleaned up.
Furiosa has lived most of her life in The Citadel as one of Immortan Joe’s lieutenants, and so has had access to plenty of clean water to wash with. Plus, she shaves her head so hair isn’t an issue and she doesn’t wear make up. She just happens to be played by Charlize Theron, so of course she’s incredibly beautiful even without the normal trappings, but that’s bone structure and other genetics, not the result of being dolled up.
The War Boys, Immortan Joe, Nux, and the other denizens of The Citadel all exist in various states of ragged dress, skin disease, and uncleanliness depending on their position within the society and their age. The young War Boys look the most fit, but even they shave their heads completely and cover themselves in a white chalk. The elder leaders of The Citadel have boils, cysts, and oozing sores. The commoners in The Citadel have it worst of all, bent over, covered in grime, skinny, overgrown, the throngs of The Citadel not able to fight for Immortan Joe exist in state which can barely be considered human by the standards of here and now.
Which brings us to Toast, Splendid, Capable, and The Dag collectively known as “The Wives” who are the real target of this complaint. The Wives do have impeccable hair, make-up, and skin. This is because until the start of the film they were considered the property of Immortan Joe, the god-king of The Citadel and controller of the entire region’s water supply. He makes sure they have the best, but he also makes sure they look the best since they are his personal baby factories. Sex slaves. Their appearance is essential to several Mad Max: Fury Road‘s themes, plus it just makes sense that the people of The Citadel would make absolutely sure the Wives always looked the best the possibly can to keep their master Immortan Joe pleased with them.
So it’s not that everyone has hair stylists and make-up artists on their personal payroll. It’s that Fury Road understands and has something to say about social classes. It’s not something I’m going into any more detail in this particular article, but the reason people look so good post-apocalypse is George Miller saying in effect the more things change the more they stay the same. The rich and powerful keep people as toys, and they want their toys kept in peak condition.
It is weird that with so many high-powered, large-tired motor vehicles moving at top speed through the desert that every single character isn’t covered in sand and dirt a few minutes into the chase. If you want to make that complaint, I’ll give you a side eye for nitpicking but will grudgingly agree.
The movie is named Mad Max: Fury Road, but Max doesn’t do much
Max has not been the focal character in any of the Mad Max films since the very first installment, and even that one could be up for debate. The Mad Max films are more about the world they take place in and why George Miller feels that is a world we are hurtling toward if we don’t change our ways than they are about any of the people inhabiting that world. Max has always been closer to a very active narrator than a protagonist, he brings us to the stories, tells them, but they are not his stories.
The popular opinion is that Furiosa is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road. It is she who who rescues the Wives, she who steals the War Rig, she who teaches the Wives to be strong, she who leads the group, makes the deals, and she who ultimately kills Immortan Joe and becomes the leader of The Citadel after great personal sacrifice. Those are all the traits of a hero, and normally the hero is also the protagonist. But, while she is a paragon and of utmost importance to the film’s themes she is not the main character, either, as she doesn’t have a character arc. She begins and ends the movie in the same place, literally and figuratively, and she makes that place better for everyone around her.
My more unpopular opinion is that the War Boy Nux is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road. Nux begins the movie an aggressive man-child eager to be noticed by Immortan Joe who has promised his War Boys a place in Valhalla if they fight well for him. Nux is told to stay home by his superiors instead of joining the war party going after Furiosa because he is not well (for some unrevealed reason). Nux, however, insists that his newly captured blood bag, Max, has strong blood and as long as Max can keep giving him his blood infusion (against Max’s will) he’ll be fine to join the party seeking to recapture their god-king’s sex slaves back from the evil woman who stole them.
Nux finishes the movie sacrificing his own life to be sure the horde of hyper-aggressive men he was once proud to be a part of won’t be able to capture the women whom he now loves and respects so they can retake The Citadel now empty of the warmongering horde and turn it into the paradise they were seeking elsewhere. Now that’s a character arc, and it is all handled organically through visually focused story telling.
Why Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie worth celebrating
As I in my opening, I could go on and on about Fury Road. I haven’t mentioned its spectacular, Oscar winning art direction. I could put an entire section on how in an age of CGI laden visuals Fury Road returned to stunt work and practical effects. Fury Road out actions most action movies without cheating (okay, CGI isn’t cheating, but you get the idea), but what really sets it apart is what it has to say and how it says it.
We have a film in which powerful men control the world’s most important resources and dish out just enough of them to the people to keep them from revolting while also controlling the masses through false proverbs and promises of an afterlife. These lords are powerful enough that they naturally feel entitled to anything they want, including other people, and they pass this sense of entitlement on to those closest to them in their hierarchy. A powerful woman who was stolen as a child from her clan of all women who lived in a paradise is now mature and experienced enough to see the evil her master is doing, and decides to free the women he keeps as sex slaves and take them away with her to the green place of her childhood where they can join and be protected by the matriarchy rather than mistreated by the patriarchy.
She means to sneak away, but she’s found out and every man able to drive a war vehicle and fight soon comes after her. One of these men brought along against his will joins her crew, and soon after one of the War Boys also joins her after disappointing the lord who promised him rewards after death and finding he respects the people in this band more than those he grew up with as they are kind, forgiving, and thoughtful in addition to also being strong willed survivors.
When the woman and her crew find that the green place no longer exists and barely a fraction of the matriarchy are still left, they decide to go back to The Citadel from whence they started and take it over for themselves now that the warmongers in charge are all outside The Citadel chasing them. The sex slaves learn they can fight against their captors and the woman and former War Boy make sacrifices, the War Boy the ultimate sacrifice, to stop the war party and their leader in its tracks.
So, put that all together and what we have is a film about literally and metaphorically removing the toxic masculinity from a society, and replacing it with more feminine ideals to heal the damage done to it by aggression and entitlement over the decades. It shows us this through the state things have declined to under the men who lie, coerce, and bully to get their way and contrasting that with a woman who is just as powerful but was brainwashed from childhood to believe what the rest of society believes and now realizes the error of those beliefs. It gives us a boy who is just another cog in a machine to be used by his master, and thus is filled with this contagious toxic masculinity, but who becomes loved and respected once he is able recognize the poison inside of him and release himself from it, and revered when he acts out of love instead of out of greed and entitlement for the first time in his life.
Mad Max: Fury Road tells us that the green place actually is within our grasp, and it’s closer than we think. It’s right here. But, to get to it, we have to remove the toxic masculinity which has been controlling our religions, our governments, our economics, and our entire way of life for centuries and embrace the feminine. It’s not about hating men. Men are essential to the human race’s success. It’s about letting the women have at least an equal voice, maybe more until we can achieve some type of balance between the masculine and feminine voices.
Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the most feminist of messages wrapped up in a style and genre which most appeals to the hyper-masculine. It uses action and visuals, not words. It uses spears, and fast cars, and amazing stunts instead of soliloquies and serious facial expressions. Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist film masquerading as the toxic, supposed alpha male’s most desired fantasy. It delivers its message not to the choir, but to those who most need to hear it, and in a way in which they want to listen. That’s what makes Fury Road so brilliant and worth celebrating.