Sunday, December 27, 2015

Catching Up: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

 3.5 / 5 

Even taking into account the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies and Avatar, there can't be many worlds as distinctly and carefully imagined as the post-apocalyptic wasteland of director George Miller's Mad Max movies.

Even if the specifics of the previous movies are forgotten, surely you remember Tina Turner as Aunty Entity inside the Thunderdome, or Mad Max himself wandering down an endless highway, gun in hand.  The stories took a backseat to the visuals and the pure visceral thrill of filmmaking.

And so it is, 30 years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which was rated PG-13 and virtually a family film compared with Miller's fast and furious Mad Max: Fury Road.

The movie contains a story, abut it seems substantially less important to Mad Max: Fury Road than its relentless action.  Miller has crafted a movie that seems to get at the essence of cinema: It's a heady rush of images and sounds, of meticulously crafted action sequences punctuated by a few scenes of expository dialogue.

Tom Hardy takes over for Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, who began this film series in a time only slightly removed from our own, when roads and buildings and towns still existed.  Thirty-six years after the first movie, the setting is utterly different.  Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a completely alien environment, a world re-imagined by some far-off war over oil, and it's every bit as deeply imagined as any of the current "franchise" movies, only fueled by an actual artistic vision rather than a need to protect a corporate investment.  You get the sense in Max Max: Fury Road that Miller values his vision over any other consideration, including financial.

The language, the hierarchies, the relationships and the rules of this world are vividly depicted, so carefully and completely thought out but rarely explained that watching Mad Max: Fury Road is sometimes akin to sitting through an ethnographic film, the kind you watched in college that lacked narration and let you draw your own conclusions about what you were seeing.

The production design on this film is staggering.  Every frame is filled with new surprises, and none of it feels recycled, even if it's somehow vaguely familiar, like a nightmare you think you might have had before.  The story is simple but told with intricate complexity, involving Max being kidnapped to serve as a "Blood Bag," a walking IV transfusion for a soldier in the bizarre army of Immortan Joe, who keeps his community in line by withholding little things like water and food.

There's a lot more going on here, so much that it took three screenwriters to flesh it all out, but the story is secondary here.  It involves Max being strapped to the front of a truck by the soldiers who are sent out to find Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is supposed to be going to get "guzzoline" for Immortan Joe but has actually hidden his five wives in a massive big rig and is trying to get them to the safety of a possibly imaginary idyll known as The Green Place.  (Throughout much of Mad Max: Fury Road, I was certain I didn't understand anything that was happening -- imagine my surprise to be able to recount all this now!)

Despite her name, Furiosa is the heroine -- and she's on the run from the bad guys, and of course Max ends up in her big rig and starts fighting alongside her.  And that's the setup for two hours worth of incredible chase scenes and stunts.   Which is what Mad Max: Fury Road is all about.  The story, as detailed as it is, is only an excuse for eye-popping action.  Most of what happens on screen in Mad Max: Fury Road seems like it should be impossible, and the knowledge that the bulk of it was created with minimal use of digital effects makes it all the more astounding.

It is amazing to watch.  And it takes place in a world so elaborate, so terrifically imagined, that it's utterly immersive as a story -- you believe these things are happening in this make-believe world.

Yet as thrilling as that is, Mad Max: Fury Road also left me a little cold.  There's so little room to create characters or set up relationships that watching it is like riding an especially aggressive roller-coaster: It's undeniably entertaining and exhilarating, but also exhausting.  Max Max: Fury Road is a cinematic feat that is impressive to behold but harder to truly enjoy.

 Viewed Dec. 27, 2015 -- VOD

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