It’s probably not necessary to clarify that, but I thought it was worth noting in the wake of the torrent of #MadMadFuryRoad hype and hyperbole that has consumed Twitter regarding George Miller’s long-(long)-awaited follow-up to his original Mad Max trilogy. Believe the hype, but don’t believe all the hype. Fury Road is an excellent action movie executed with artistry and intelligence. But it’s not, as some have unironically asserted, “the best film ever made.”
Fury Road’s opening twenty minutes or so are its most spectacular and, conversely, its least satisfying. We are launched into a world gone mad, populated with frenzied ‘war boys’ painted in funereal chalk-white and phalanxes of cars retrofitted into warmachines; an infinite wasteland ruled over by a pustulent warlord-cum-pharaoh named Immortan Joe. Soon we’re consumed by a spectacular chase sequence, as a horde of vehicles burn rubber in pursuit of the “war rig” – an immense, armoured semi-trailer piloted by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a legendary warrior, and stocked with water, petrol, milk and – critically – Immoran Joe’s “wives” (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keogh, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton).
This all looks fantastic. It’s as though a wrecking yard – all rusted metal auto-parts streaked with oil and petrol and blood – had somehow careened through an S&M store and a heavy metal concert on the way to the set (the “set” being the deserts of Namibia, mostly). Director George Miller, cinematographer John Seale and editors Jason Ballatine & Margaret Sixel create a landscape that has all of the heft and excess of modern blockbusters but none of the conventions, drawing instead from the amphetamine energy of exploitation B-movies. Fast-motion and absurdly outré imagery coexist with storyboarding that establishes and sustains a comprehensive understanding of the geography – we might not know exactly what’s going on, but unlike most modern action movies we know exactly where everything’s going on.
I have a confession, though: I admit to being somewhat bored by all this extravagance. Not because it didn’t look amazing, but because I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. I should clarify that: it’s not that the film’s paucity of exposition bothered me. In fact, one of the chief pleasures of Fury Road is how it refuses to dole out exact explanations to its audience, relying on your attention to detail to notice how, say, a war boy spraying chrome paint into their mouth is a ritualistic precursor to kamikaze. Rather the absence of an identifiable protagonist – a figure to root for – makes much of the opening operate as empty spectacle.
The putative protagonist, Max (Tom Hardy) – y’know, the guy the film’s named after – has no agency in these scenes, captured by the war boys and strapped to Nux’s (Nicholas Hoult’s) vehicle as a hood-ornament-slash-mobile-blood-donor. It’s not so much that there isn’t a ‘relatable’ protagonist – per Godzilla/Lucy, that can be a really good thing – but that it doesn’t have a protagonist with recognisable goals at all. Tina Turner may have been right that we don’t need another hero, but if you’re going to keep my attention you need a hero. Or heroine. The film’s true protagonist – Furiosa – isn’t revealed as such until well into this chase sequence, and her goals remain opaque for quite a while longer.
It’s when those goals are revealed that my expectations for Fury Road began to align with reality. It turns Furiosa has smuggled out Joe’s “wives” – read: sex-slaves – to escape with them to the freedom of “the green place”, a verdant oasis in which she was raised. Fury Road slows down for just long enough for us to become cognisant of these stakes, and ensures that when it subsequently slams down the accelerator – plotting the difficult progress of the war rig through the desert – it’s entirely gripping. The film also becomes engaging and imaginative formally as it progresses, demonstrating a rich familiarity with the history of cinema – influenced by references as diverse as The General, Night of the Hunter, Nosferatu and The Cars That Ate Paris (not to mention a sneaky frame from Miller’s original Mad Max!) – alongside a readiness to innovate.
Now is probably the time to talk about Fury Road as a feminist film. Much of the press and criticism surrounding the film – at least, what I’m seeing on my little corner of the internet – revolves around the film’s feminist credentials. Even before you’ve seen it, it’s hard not to respect a film that brings on Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler as a “feminist consultant” and attracts the impotent ire of men’s right activists. And in large part, Fury Road delivers on its promise. Despite a masculine first act that pulses with testosterone and gasoline in equal measure, once the story opens up it reveals a considered approach to the reality of living with – and standing up to – a lifetime of abuse within a core cast composed primarily of women. The female characters are given depth beyond slotting into traditional roles of ‘beautiful victim’ and ‘strong female character’ (read: basically a dude). They’re sympathetic and selfish and hopeful and regretful and cruel and vengeful. They’re complex. To quote the screenplay, they are not things. In short, they’re humans.
This is commendable. It’s excellent. I’m not convinced it should be regarded as a revolution, though. Fury Road takes part in a familiar post-apocalyptic world, one dominated by men – where women are systematically marginalised and victimised. It shouldn’t be radical that a narrative in a world like this might choose to shift focus from its taciturn, Campbellian hero to investigate the lives established on the margins – these women are inherently more interesting; it seems patently ludicrous – and sad – that Fury Road is one of the very few films that chooses to tell their story. Fury Road does all the right things – it treats women as people, not objects; it finds room for more than a couple female characters; it casts women over forty as something other than doting grandmothers – but it’s simply disappointing that this sort of basic acknowledgment that men might not be the most interesting and important thing in the universe is so rare that it warrants such celebration.
Half-asleep on Friday morning, I listened to Triple J’s Breakfast team – Matt Okine, Alex Dyson and newsreader Amelia Marshall – discuss Fury Road in the context of the aforementioned MRA indignation. Okine’s scepticism that film was feminist was relatively shallow, suggesting that the inclusion of scantily-clad women wasn’t consistent with feminist ideology (there is maybe a skerrick of merit there – why didn’t Furiosa save Joe’s less conventionally attractive slaves? – but it’s not the strongest argument). Equally, I initially dismissed Marshall’s observation that surely feminist films should focus on the wage gap, not petrol-fuelled warfare. Yet, there’s something to that. Let’s not overpraise Fury Road for its obvious respect for women (especially when contrasted with the achievements of a film like, say, Wadjda) when it’s still a (largely) male-helmed film operating within a fundamentally sexist industry. Fury Road is a great film, and a step in the right direction for blockbusters. But it’s not going to change your life.