What an extraordinary career In filmmaking George Miller has had. After breaking onto the international film scene with the rough but poetic exploitation film Mad Max in 1979 (one of the few science fiction films admired by J G Ballard), Miller followed up with one of the greatest sequels ever made Mad Max 2 in 1981 (the film was retitled The Road Warrior in the US as the first film had been a flop, largely due to an atrocious American dub that wiped out the Australian accents and made the then 23 year old Mel Gibson sound he was a 50 year old with emphysema). These two films – along with the slightly too slick third instalment Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985 – should have set Miller up as one of the premier action directors of his generation. Instead he turned his hand to big-budget satire with The Witches of Eastwick, adult drama with Lorenzo’s Oil, and children’s animation Happy Feet (for which he won an Oscar). He also produced a string of Australian features and TV, and wrote the screenplay for Babe. Eclectic ought to be his middle name.
Honestly, I wasn’t going to do a write up for Miller’s long gestating return to Max Rockatansky’s blighted, violent word. I’m afraid to say that everything I’ve tried to write has turned into such a turbo charged string of nitro-injected hyperbole that if you haven’t seen the movie you’d think I was taking the piss. But goddamn, it’s just too good to let it pass by without comment.
Mad Max: Fury Road is neither a conventional sequel, nor a is it a remake. Miller has likened it to a James Bond film after the handover of the lead to a new actor. It struck me that is was quite like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, the storyteller revisiting a world in which a mythic figure stride into conflict with scant concern for direct continuity. In this version of the tale we meet a Max who has entirely surrendered to madness, Tom Hardy has about five intelligible lines in the whole thing and mostly mutters to himself about the indignities of his situation. There is a hint of a backstory in traumatic flashbacks involving a child (a daughter?) but mostly Max is a purely reactive character, a man reduced to a simple animal instinct to survive at all costs.
Miller takes all the popular screenwriting manual rulebooks and makes a bonfire of them. We don’t know where Max been, we don’t know where he’s going (he is like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards a character who can never again cross the threshold into society, but will always be turning on the porch and walking away). We do however know where he is, and that is a very grim place to be.
The movie opens with Max captured by the brutal patriarchy of Immortan Joe. Joe rules the wasteland with his two brothers each in their own outposts and each in control of one of the three essentials of survival. Joe has the water, The People Eater has the oil, and I wonder if you can guess what The Bullet Farmer has? When a massive rig sent to trade for oil is unexpectedly stolen by its driver Imperator Furiosa (a majestic Charlize Theron), Max is dragged along as Joe’s brainwashed Wild Boy-esqe minions give chase.
It turns out Furiosa is making an escape run with a secret cargo of Joe’s breeding stock, stereotypical examples of fashion magazine femininity Joe has kept locked away and in sexual slavery (some may think Miller is having his cake and eating it here, but the actresses looks are at least worked into the story and they are not used a static prizes, simple princess in a tower made of nitro-injected turbo-charged fury).
Circumstances cause Max to throw in with the women and the film barely pauses to draw breath before hurtling into another epic action sequence. And that is more than you need to know.
The seventy year old Miller has gone into the Namibian desert with a large bag of Warner Brothers money and appears to have been left alone with a ‘do you want it now, or do you want it good’ attitude to craft his movie. You will be hearing this a lot over the next week, but Mad Max: Fury Road embarrasses a generation of action films with an ease that is almost cruel. Miller has rejected the compromises and conventions that now seem endemic in tent-pole spectacle movies. Fury Road is as violent and savage as Mad Max 2 was. The amazing feats of stunt co-ordinator (and second unit director) Guy Norris are simply awe-inspiring, quite that no one was killed on this show seems nothing short of miraculous. Miller used cutting edge camera technology to place the audience into the heart of the most furious action instead of creating it in a computer (and this is a man who has made entirely CGI films in the past). This gives the action an extraordinary weight and a palpable sense of menace, danger and suspense. At the same time superb CGI creates post-apocalyptic sandstorms on a insane scale. There will be people using this film as a blunt instrument to beat CGI with, this would be stupid as it shows how visual effects and practical effects together can create true wonder and awe.
Cinematographer John Seale came out of retirement to shoot the movie and in every scene pushes the colour palate to the (if you will excuse me) max, the film is a riot of saturated colours and explosions have never looked so fiery on the big screen. Seale has form shooting fast cars against deserts having shot The Hitcher back in 1986. The production design, costumes, amazing vehicles, everything is extraordinary. I can’t think of a film since Blade Runner that has so many levels of intricate and imaginative detail in every frame.
I will admit to a little concern when I heard that scoring duties had passed from the late Brian May (not the Queen guitarist) to electronic musician Junkie XL aka Tom Holkenborg. May’s Holst referencing Mad Max 2 score has always been a favourite of mine, but Holkenborg’s heavily string based score is thunderous and perfectly in keeping with the series. One of the film’s craziest flourishes is that Immortan Joe war-party travels with a mobile industrial metal outfit and the over cranked score often moves hilariously from non-diegetic to diegetic sound as the camera swoops over a mutant guitar hero shredding on a twin-necked axe and shooting ejaculating flames during the solo!
Cast wise, Hardy is on great gruff form, he is a more thuggish screen presence than Gibson, mentally in pieces due to severe PTSD but he does take a back seat (often literally) to Theron’s Furiosa, a metal clawed warrior woman more than the equal of the males, who wears axle grease as makeup and is the best female action character since Ripley asked how the grenade launcher worked in Aliens. Nicholas Hoult is terrific (and practically unrecognisable) as Hux, one of Joe’s followers drunk on the promise of Valhalla, his subsequent story arc shows that even amongst the most dialled to eleven vehicular carnage, Miller can find space for human emotion.
NB: One thing I haven’t really mentioned is the feminist angle of the movie. The film has really annoyed some mens’ rights idiots. This probably amuses Miller greatly, and if you are in any doubt that it might be accidental know this. Miller hired Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler as a consultant and had her on-set. Ensler has worked as an activist for women victims of violence in conflict zones for many years.
Anyway rather than listen to me, a middle aged white male drone on about feminism, I will point you to my first guest blog by my own warrior woman Jacqui Barr [WARNING MEGA SPOILERS!!!]