Friday, May 22, 2015

Isn't It a Lovely Day to be Caught In a Sandstorm

It's been a long and some might say furious or even Furiosa road. From cop movie to western to Sci-Fi and now, finally, to fantasy in 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road. More than any of the previous films, Fury Road focuses on themes, particularly ideas of heroism, self-worth, and altruism, at times quite successfully. Invariably successful are the action sequences which dominate a whole lion pride's share of the film and through it all is that distinctive aesthetic weirdness that you only get with George Miller's Mad Max.

In a way, the genre this film most pays homage to is the Mad Max genre. Looking back on the previous films, it's easy to see the best parts are the decadent car chases, not merely for the action but for the insane, over the top displays by the villains. Fury Road not only occupies more screen time with these, it piles on more of everything--more makeup, more engines, more skulls, and it's all topped off by the post-apocalyptic version of a piper, a rock guitarist (iOTA);

Again, we have more of the wild-grown high fashion. Despite the fact Beyond Thunderdome is widely considered the weakest of the series, Fury Road picks up a lot where its immediate predecessor left off mainly in terms of a focus on world-building. Where the tribe of children worshipping the dead crew of a commercial airline in Thunderdome was used to explore the Sci-Fi concept of a transplanted cultural evolution from our familiar culture, Fury Road goes, hmm, beyond Thunderdome with the War Boys. The focus of this hypothetical civilisation is less on how they came to be from what we know and more how they reflect basic aspects of human nature. Almost entirely male, pale, sterile, with eye shadow resembling the shaman kid from Beyond Thunderdome, the civilisation has only a handful of women mostly used for breeding or to produce breast milk.

There are various references to Norse mythology, most explicitly the fact that the endless supply of male soldiers seek glorious deaths in battle to reach Valhalla. There's also perhaps something of Wotan's relationship with Brunnhilde in Wagner's operas in how much of the plot is driven by a group of the precious few women rebelling against the leader of the War Boys, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). There's even a minor character credited as simply "The Valkyrie" (Megan Gale). But she comes from another civilisation, one to which Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) originally belonged.

One of the two leads of the film, there's quite a lot of Furiosa's story that's somewhat conspicuously left untold. An Imperator is a sort of officer among the War Boys. Furiosa explains to Max that she was captured as a child from the "Green Place", her destination in the film where the five wives of Joe, hidden in the tank of her stolen "War Rig", hope to find safety. Furiosa tells Max she's motivated by a desire for "redemption"--presumably for working as an Imperator but it's unclear.

Fury Road is indeed, as many critics have been saying, more feminist than the previous films, though really more on grounds of policy than in terms of character. The male characters are still more interesting--in fact, arguably more interesting because they're allowed to be inferior to the women in some respects. Max's wife in the first film wasn't much more than a victim, Virginia Hey's part in The Road Warrior was too short to really get going, and the female leader of the tribe of children in Beyond Thunderdome makes stereotypically dumb, emotionally motivated decisions that Max has to clean up after. Tina Turner was appreciably badass but she was also the villain so on some level Max had to trump her, too, leaving aside the somewhat enigmatic ending of the film.

In Fury Road, it's the women who have a clear idea of priorities while the two male protagonists, Max and Nux, are psychologically lost. Nux (Nicholas Hoult), despite being such an over the top character--one of the War Boy soldiers--has kind of a subtle and surprisingly rewarding arc. But, appropriately enough, the best character in the movie is Max, played now by English actor Tom Hardy. And Hardy is largely responsible for what's interesting about Max in this film.

He has very little dialogue. He explains to us in voice over how he's hunted by both "the living and the dead"--the latter being the people he couldn't save. He has a repeated vision of a child that distracts him at key moments. But it's also Hardy's performance that conveys a man tyrannised by his own mind--soft spoken, with a slight stutter and a reluctance to lock eyes with people and, when he does, it's clearly to assess physical threat. When he changes from seeing Furiosa as an obstacle to seeing her as a comrade, it doesn't seem a conscious decision but merely a shifting of ingrained behaviour pattern. Hardy brilliantly conveys a man so damaged by the loss of loved ones that his ability to empathise with new people has been reduced to almost nothing.

Alongside Hardy's performance, the film's visuals are the chief highlight. The road gangs look less punk now and more metal, appropriate for the Norse mythological references. There also seems to be an anime influence--Wikipedia quotes Miller as being influenced by Akira but I was also reminded of GAINAX productions of the 2000s. Aside from the guitarist, I generally thought the derivative score was the film's weakest point--in addition to the fact that's another modern film where almost every shot is orange or blue--but it's hard to notice when the film had so much else going for it.

After Caitlin R. Kiernan reported in her blog having such a bad experience seeing the film from close to the screen, I made sure to get a seat in the back row of the theatre and I recommend you do the same if you see it. There's a lot to take in and it moves really fast.

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