Director: George Miller
Writer: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
So much to enjoy and a welcome return to CGI-free action, but the story is left wanting.
Truly original world building is hard. Sure, a film maker can take inspiration from an existing novel, comic book or TV; but dropping your audience into a world they’ve not seen before is never easy and must be increasingly difficult today when every other release looks the same bar the costume the characters are wearing. Re-enter George Miller and just watch how effortless it can seem when done well.
If anyone knows the world of Mad Max it’s of course Miller. Writer and Director of the original trilogy from 1979 to 1985, Miller created an action movie icon from his hero Max Rockatansky; loving husband and father who saw everything taken away from him on the edge of an apocalypse and who would go on to wander the desert in search of salvation where gasoline became the new currency. Armed with a $150 million budget (normal by today’s standards but skyrocketed from what he had in the 80s, even adjusted for inflation) Mad Max: Fury Road expands on the world Miller showed us in the previous films and seamlessly fits this new chapter into where we left off in 1985. The cast of characters is too many to mention and too madcap to ever describe in words, but crucially each and every one feels perfectly suited to the surroundings and nothing is meant to shock the audience but rather remind us of the world we’ve not seen on screens for the longest time. The vehicles are all essentially the same as the previous outings (after all, technology hasn’t advanced in this world) but new touches like men on pole vaults, JCB diggers, cars covered in spikes like a hedgehog on wheels, and a disfigured guitarist (complete with flame throwing guitar) and drummers on boards ensure this latest chapter is very much its own movie, not content with paying mere fan service.
Fury Road starts with its foot on the gas and rarely eases off, and to begin a film with such vivid and original ideas, fully realised in a nightmarish landscape where the gaps between movies are left unfilled, is to be applauded. Miller puts Max, and by virtue his audience, smack-bang in the middle of a society which he has never seen before, and one far more extreme than the family-friendly world which was Bartertown. In the first few minutes Max is attacked, tattooed, gagged, and held prisoner. All this before the title card is even up.
But it’s this full throttle approach which brings about the shortcomings in Miller’s film. Whilst the subsequent action sequences are a joy to watch from a purely aesthetic point of view and features stunt work which rivals anything in the series to date with vehicular destruction with balletic quality most blockbusters fail to even grasp any more (let alone execute), I couldn’t deny the distinct lack of emotional investment felt for the characters and their plight. Chase sequences are great only if you care about one thing; do I really care enough to want these people to get away? I couldn’t say that I did, and, despite seeing the film twice in three days before writing this review, Miller’s investment in action is equal only to the investment we need to be fully on board, and not just a passenger.
Case in point: the second film in the series, The Road Warrior presents an all-time high in action cinema, where a 13 minute chase sequence was the culmination of everything which had come before. The was no other option for Max, it was drive or die, but it took 80 minutes to get to that point in what is still one of the most economically perfect action films I have ever seen – each scene, character, and line is vital to the story. Not a moment is rendered surplus. In Fury Road our enthrallment, once the novelty of all the explosions wears off, is measured by how much we care about these new people, thrown into the mix with Max and often taking the lead from him. Once their goal is revealed and their ‘plan B’ is set out in the final third, the reasons to truly care are worn very thin; this is after all a Mad Max film so why we should care about these others above him was misguided. Max has precious little story, aside from a voice over which felt tacked-on to appease test screening feedback and some ghostly visions of his dead daughter. A more interesting story would have shown Max’s relation to the place where he was held captive, and his connection to the people he seems so intent on saving in the end. For a film which triumphs in its creation of a terrifying world, so much more could and should have been used to give the film dramatic weight.
Expectations were high for the film and they were met and not in equal measure. In a film which seems almost afraid to put it titular character at the forefront of the story in fear the name no longer carries credence, much was lost with the need to build new backgrounds, lives, and stories to stretch a 90 minute story across two hours when all we wanted was too see Max again and forget the rest. Ironically, the some of the final words we hear in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome were “We don’t need another hero” – if only Miller believed this, too.