Shaun Celebrates Mad Max Fury Road and its Feminism in Disguise

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves; 2017)

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted yet another beloved franchise in the attempt to show us the story of what happened to Earth while the astronauts who feature in the now classic 1968 movie were away on their ill-fated mission.  Most were surprised at just how gripping and intelligent this new take was with a story with themes warning us of the dark road hubris could one day lead the human race down, completely sympathetic and gripping characters despite their hubris, and just the right amount of action to make the film more a blockbuster and less a think piece so it can appeal to a broader audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the new intelligent species of apes, and once again ended up being an intelligent action film giving us both spectacle and commentary on xenophobia and its insidious and far reaching consequences.  Now we have the trilogy’s conclusion, and with Rise, Dawn, and now War for the Planet of the Apes we get to see the truly rare trilogy in which every part  is masterfully crafted both as an individual work and as one third of a larger epic story.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the conclusion of Dawn with Caesar and his clan still hiding in the forests outside San Francisco, but now they are being actively hunted by the remnants of the United States Army who were called in to exterminate the apes by the human colony in San Francisco in Dawn‘s finale.  Caesar has had a new child in the intervening years and his older son has been acting as a scout trying to find a place the apes can relocate to so they can get away from the army without violence.   The news of a new living space reaches Caesar too late, however, as just as the apes are preparing to leave San Francisco they are discovered by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the army stationed in the area who is bent on wiping out the apes.  A skirmish between apes and man ends with the humans being chased off, but the apes’ losses prompt Caesar to decide the Colonel must be killed at all cost and so he leaves his tribe on a suicide mission to confront the Colonel and end his life.

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War for the Planet of the Apes has all the intelligence and empathy of the two films which preceded it.   This time, the major themes on display are ones of survival, revenge, and fear, though not the xenophobia which was the focus of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  This time the fears are very well known, not unfounded, and inescapable.  It’s less about fear of the unknown, and more about how we act when our fears are justified and right in our face.  Caesar and the Colonel are both charismatic leaders and idolized by those who follow them, and Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson bring both of these magnetic personalities to life brilliantly.  As is the case in the best fiction, but particularly in the best action adventure fiction, we are given two characters working against each other who are nearly mirror images and the only reason one is considered a hero and the other villain is due to the lengths the Colonel is willing to go to ensure the survival of the human race and the men in his unit.

As has been the case in the first two films in the trilogy, the special effects on display in War for the Planet of the Apes are remarkable.  There are more animated via motion capture actors than live action in the film, but this does not create any lack of empathy in he audience.  The apes are still quite silent, preferring to rely more on sign language than actual speech, so their communication is done with facial expressions and body language and nothing is lost in translation despite the fact that what we are seeing isn’t real.   The environments also change this time, as we leave San Francisco and its forests behind for more northern climes, and again the shots involving the snow covered mountains are gorgeous.  Also deserving special mention is the lighting in the film.  Much of the action takes place at night, but Reeves and his crew never allow that to interfere with our vision either as mistake nor crutch.  We see everything we need to see while still understanding when the action is taking place, and in a Hollywood in which action scenes are literally getting darker and darker this was a pleasant choice.

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This trilogy does have its problems, and one that seems to be consistent across all three films, and that is that since the characterizations and plotting are so intelligent that when a specific bit of action has to be rushed through due to pacing issues that bit really stands out.  For instance, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes what takes years and years to change Caesar’s brain so he has human level intelligence happens overnight with a little gas for the rest of the apes.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar is brutally fighting for his life with great strength and agility mere days after being shot with a high powered automatic weapon.  Without spoiling anything, War for the Planet of the Apes also has to fall into similar traps to keep the story moving, and that little bit of dumb shoved inside what is otherwise genius really sticks out.

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Final verdict:  War for the Planet of the Apes ends its trilogy wonderfully, putting this apes trilogy up there with The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Nolan Batman films as one of the truly great action trilogies in all of filmdom.  Each part can be enjoyed on its own as a complete work and will still be satisfying, but the experience is amplified by enjoying all three as a continuous work.  Caesar will go down as a legendary Hollywood character, and his story as one of the greats.  I hope Hollywood ends it here and does not give in to the temptation to create more films as a cash grab as this really was the finale the story of Caesar deserves.  None of the films are perfect, War for the Planet of the Apes being no exception, but they are gripping and intelligent action films which deserve your attention.  If you’ve seen the first two, War is a must, but you probably already knew that.  If you haven’t seen the first two, you can still enjoy War for the Planet of the Apes, and I recommend you do, but I recommend even more seeing Rise and Dawn before moving onto this one for a far richer experience.

It Comes at Night (Shults; 2017)

While genre is a necessary tool helping us to classify film, it’s a far from perfect one.  Comedy and drama as genres are so broad as to be nearly no help at all in letting us decide if a film is one we want to check out.  Even more narrowed genres like science fiction can mean a multitude of things – is it a movie about space exploration? artificial intelligence? fantasy which uses faux technology in place of magic?  I’m glad I got to see It Comes at Night with a small crew of friends, for as we were leaving the theater one of them remarked, “I was expecting a horror movie.”  I completely understand why she said that, because It Comes at Night uses gore very sparingly, and what little it does use is either unrealistic or flashed on screen so quickly our brains can’t process what our eyes just saw.  The director goes out of his way to avoid anything resembling a jump scare, going so far as to change camera angles when a character is walking up behind another just to make sure the audience isn’t startled.  There is no supernatural creature stalking a group of protagonists taking them out one by one, nor a psychic worming their way into anyone’s head.  But, It Comes at Night is still most definitely a horror movie.  In a way, it’s one of the most horrific movies I’ve ever seen.

It Comes at Night is an incredibly low budget movie.  If it weren’t for the obvious quality of the cameras used to capture the story and the fact that Joel Edgerton plays our lead character (former history professor Paul) this could be a movie that a very talented amateur could film in their own home.  It Comes at Night uses no CGI effects, the sets are very barebones – just an oldish house and the woods surrounding it, and while this isn’t the first film for the majority of the cast, not a one is an instantly recognizable name and face.  This means that the entire story hinges on acting, script, music,  and cinematography, and all four of these elements are absolutely top notch.

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The horror in It Comes at Night comes from feelings of claustrophobia, isolation, and being kept in the dark both literally and figuratively.  Drew Daniels through his cinematography paints the perfect picture to keep us in a state of dread by showing us that not only are we stuck in a world made up largely of bare, long, dark corridors with no handy exits, but even when we are not in that closed in world there is still no help anywhere to be found in the outside world.  Camerawork when done well can be art, it can excite, and in this case, it can instill in us paranoia and hopelessness as everywhere we look there is no escape from the trap gradually closing in on us, but never giving us any real clue as to what that trap is, just that it’s there.

The performances in It Comes at Night are amazing in their understatement.  This again, isn’t a typical horror film as there is very little panic, screaming, nor speeches about the thing out there that’s going to get us.  The people here are very real – the father who is devoted to protecting his family, but not always knowing the best way to do that and having to keep a brave front (Joel Edgerton).  The mother who wants the same, but feels the best way to do that is to back up her husband and lend him guidance but never undercut him (Carmen Ejogo).  The seventeen year-old boy who has no companions excepting his mother, father, and dog until they let another family move into their house and he finds himself being drawn in the way seventeen year-olds are to the young wife in that family (Kelving Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough respectively).   Every performance here is nuanced and realistic and never once goes over the top.  We get that these are real people, we get why each acts the way they do, and all this is again absolutely necessary in amplifying our dread.  We not only feel for the characters, we allow them to become stand ins for ourselves.

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Then there is the script.  This is a story that doesn’t rely on the usual scares nor a lot of dialogue, it’s a story that relies on making sure the audience doesn’t know anything more than the characters in the story do, which is really what makes them our perfect stand ins.   Many of the events in the story take place because of something that happened outside of our protagonists field of vision and thus outside their knowledge, and these events are never explained to us.  Trey Edward Shults, both writer and director of It Comes at Night, said explicitly that while he knows the impetus of everything that happens in the film’s running time, he very purposely left us without any clues that would let us know anything more than our characters do.  This is the element that truly solidifies It Comes at Night into the realm of horror more so than any other.  Even in films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity which It Comes at Night has a lot in common with we are given some sort of release in the end as we find out what it is that’s been tormenting us throughout the film.  It Comes at Night gives us no such release.

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Final verdict:  It Comes at Night is a film for film critics and auteurs more than for general audiences.  There is little to no fun to be had in this movie, as it is a non-stop barrage on your emotional state with never ending dread, claustrophobia, paranoia, and powerlessness.  This elevates horror to a level we rarely see and makes it some of the most realistic, and therefore least fun, horror ever seen in film.  The true enjoyment to be gleaned from this movie is the dissection of it – the study of how such minimalist pieces done so well can make for such an intense film.  If that is your thing, then I can nearly guarantee you will love It Comes at Night.  But, if you are going in to see a standard scream fest, you will not only be disappointed, you may honestly be devastated.  It Comes at Night is not for the faint of heart, and it’s one I recommend to only a very select few, but for those select few who can really get into how a less is more take on film making can get to us on such a deeply emotional level then this suddenly becomes a must see film.