Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: Mad Max Fury Road (2015)

I am somewhat giddily in love with Mad Max: Fury Road. As of this writing, I have seen it twice in the theaters, plan to see it there once more, and have already pre-ordered it on DVD.* I know I will be enjoying this film for years to come and will teach it in my future "Women and Film" courses. Therefore I don't think my future self will be too upset if I declare it to be the best mainstream action film of the year 2015. It is one of the best films bar none that I have seen in a long time (since I saw Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan earlier this year at any rate).

Yes, I love Fury Road like a fanboy. Still, I completely understand some folks' concerns about and criticisms of the movie. It's a bit violent and brutal, of course, and some reviewers consider it to be too thinly plotted. Furthermore, while its themes are pronouncedly feminist, it does demonstrate some noticeable objectification of female bodies. Its real-life environmental record is abysmal. I will address some of these concerns later in this spoiler-inclusive review. Yet for me, given that so much contemporary mainstream action fare is so much crappier than Fury Road in quality and ideology, it is easy to focus on what this movie gets right and to slightly overlook the ways in which it plays into retrograde conventions.

Adam Lubitow, writing for the Rochester City newspaper, says almost everything I would want to say about the film -- I urge you to read his review in full. He writes:
At 70 years old, George Miller has put his younger peers to shame, producing an instant classic of the [action] genre. His film is packed with thrillingly kinetic action sequences, filled with unforgettable images; the world of "Mad Max" is a marvel of production and costume design. Each frame is brimming with details that demonstrate how much thought and care went into building this universe.
Indeed. The incredibly high degree of filmmaking craft on display here is so stunning that this io9 writer calls Fury Road's very existence in today's Hollywood "a miracle." I am inclined to agree.

But the latest Mad Max installment's specialness doesn't stop there. Lubitow's insightful review notes Fury Road's "unabashed feminist streak":
It's the rare action movie (or any genre for that matter) that not only passes the Bechdel test, but does so with flying colors. At a certain point, there are 12 women on screen, all talking to one another, never about a man. For a film with a plotline about women being treated as sex slaves, it's never exploitative. We're never forced to witness their abuse, and only meet the women after they've escaped. The film's mindset can be summed up by the first clear look we get of the freed brides: rejoicing as they use a bolt cutter to help each other break free of their painful-looking chastity belts.
Once Max joins Furiosa and company about twenty minutes in, he searches the War Rig's cab for guns but misses Furiosa's gearshift knife, which she reveals to the viewer (but not Max) as a punchline to the scene. This whole sequence exemplifies what makes Fury Road so unique and great: Max's "serious" action hero behavior is rendered comedic, his paranoia shown to be misplaced even as it simultaneously illuminates how deeply traumatized he is. We are shown (not told) that Furiosa has complete control over this situation and is not scared of Max at all. Her reveal of the gearshift knife informs us that she could have pulled that knife at any time and killed him, but has elected not to. This wonderful sequence, and the one that follows it in which Max works to remove his metal face mask with a file, positions him as an object of laughter, just like Ronny (Nic Cage) in Moonstruck, being made fun of for his melodramatic suffering after the loss of his hand.**

"I lost my hand!" laments Ronny Cammereri. Film scholar Kathleen Karlyn argues that moments of male melodrama in Moonstruck are tempered by female laughter, re-centering the film's narrative around women's power to disrupt patriarchal oppression via comedy. The same general strategy holds true for Mad Max: Fury Road, in which female power renders "serious" male heroics funny.

In short, Imperator Furiosa is the protagonist of Fury Road and Max is essentially her comic sidekick. He plays a key role in the action, has some great fight sequences, and we feel his pain and trauma via inventive, sparingly used flashbacks, yet there is no doubt that Furiosa is this story's hero.

Furthermore, the movie is at great pains to illustrate that the dominant form of masculinity in its world is bankrupt, hollow and destructive: we see a belt with a Death Skull motif placed over Immortan Joe's crotch at the outset, just before he withholds from his people the life-giving water coming from his symbolic triple-phallus. Then, at the end of the film, the milk-giving mothers open these same water valves for good.

Meanwhile, our gang goes through the valley -- a vaginal metaphor -- bringing seeds back through the same valley to the water-rich Citadel and giving birth to a new civilization. This sort of thing has prompted some reviews to call the film ecofeminist.

Yet as Philip Smith correctly argues, Fury Road does indulge one sexist cinematic convention: the visual objectification of women's bodies. Immortan Joe's scantily clad wives are indeed put on display for the viewer's pleasure, in accordance with the pervasive Hollywood practice documented by film scholar Laura Mulvey.*** Yet I am inclined to agree with Lubitow and others who see these characters as being developed enough to alleviate accusations that their depiction is gratuitous or exploitative. In the context of the film, their relative nudity has been imposed upon them by their patriarchal oppressor, so it functions as a reminder of the conditions from which they are proactively escaping. Furthermore, they are given much more to do in this film than to just stand around being objectified.

This pro-woman, pro-feminist stance is so rare to see in a mainstream action film, and so delightfully surprising and refreshing as presented in Fury Road, that mother Cecily Kellogg even took her nine-year-old daughter to see the film despite its "R" rating. Writing that the movie "kicks ass, and that ass-kicking is done by a huge variety of women," she asserts:
There's a small moment in the movie where [Max] turns the big gun with the last bullet over to Furiosa because she's a better shot. Frankly, it's stunning. I've never once seen that in a movie.
Me neither! Kellogg's comment exposes one of the Fury Road's greatest strengths, and the main reason it is destined for "classic" status: its ability to convey important character development moments in action rather than dialogue. Indeed, the best thing about Fury Road, besides its bold feminist ideology, is its complete commitment to "Show, don't tell" filmmaking (what Hitchcock and others call "pure cinema").

For some (re-)viewers, this "show don't tell" aesthetic is taken too far. Film blogger David Palmer, echoing similar yet more forgiving comments made by Entertainment Weekly reviewer Chris Nashawaty, writes that Fury Road is too much "style over substance" and that "from a narrative perspective, it leaves much to be desired." While I respect his view on the matter, I can't help but wonder if the recent (post-1990s) spat of over-explicated blockbusters -- a style of over-talked, superficially cerebral action film of which Christopher Nolan is the undisputed king (though Michael Bay is also guilty of over-complicating his "plots" with needless chatter about doomsday devices irrelevant to the films' action) -- has blunted many contemporary viewers' ability to pick up on subtle visual cues, rendering it difficult for such viewers to register unexplicated actions as a legitimate form of characterization.

On a tangential yet related note, I think this same phenomenon of slight viewer inattentiveness and expectation that anything important will be spelled out in dialogue is what leads many commentators to erroneously label the films of Stanley Kubrick as "cold" or "antiseptic" or "distant." Those films are full of life and humor and deep emotion, but Kubrick achieves his effects (affects?) by creating dissonance, tension, even (at times) deliberate contradictions between what characters say and what we see. His characters lie and obfuscate and dissemble, displaying a lack of self-awareness that is both intensely amusing and true to life. Nowhere is this technique used more clearly and sublimely than in his great masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), in which almost everything the smug, hilariously self-satisfied narrator tells the viewer about Redmond Barry is incomplete, misleading, and/or outright false. The meaning of that film lies in the discrepancy between what we are TOLD of Barry and what we are SHOWN of him. It requires a perceptive viewer and multiple viewings to suss this out.

I place Fury Road in the same category. It is, quite literally, deceptively simple on the surface, yet is freighted with meaning. Unmistakably feminist meaning. Lubitow agrees:
Despite the sparse dialogue, there's just enough development so that every character gets their own arc. The brides all have distinct personalities, and we come to know each of the characters not through tedious exposition, but through the actions they take.
As this video essayist points out, part of Fury Road's visual power lies in its refusal to use Chaos Cinema techniques, instead relying on more traditional (or "classical") shot framings and editing techniques:

Fury Road's stunning visual beauty also has a lot to do with its location, and therein lies a sad story of ethical misdeeds. The production's sketchy environmental report card is thoughtfully discussed by ecocritic Steve Rust here. In that piece, Rust points out that
[what’s] most concerning about Miller’s latest film isn’t the message audiences take away from the text, [but] the actual environmental impact of the film on on the areas where it was filmed in the [ecologically] sensitive desert of Namibia. Back in 2013, when only hard-core fans and industry insiders were following the film’s production, the film stirred up controversy for a short time over concerns that the film crew was tearing up the desert.
Rust quotes Guardian reporter Natasya Tay, who writes that “a leaked environmental report claims [Fury Road's] film crew damaged sensitive areas meant to be protected, endangering reptiles and rare cacti.” Rust notes that despite the implications of that leaked report, the film was given a pass by the regional film commission, and he concludes that "the question remains whether the NFC (Namibia Film Commission) sought to cover up the damage in order to avoid controversy and maintain good public relations so as to bring more films to the country for the economic benefits they provide."

Environmental abuses by film crews is a pervasive problem that needs to be remedied. Yet at the same time, as Bitch Magazine's Sarah Mirk argues, Fury Road's ecofeminist message may go some distance toward discouraging the kind of real-world abuses the film's production itself committed:
the toughest people you’ll meet in this dystopia are a collective of old women who are diligent heirloom seed savers. In the midst of the desert’s chaos and murder, they see a clear path forward: Find a way to heal the earth. The secret weapon of Fury Road is not a bigger gun, a faster car, an improbable spaceship, or a boy genius. It’s a pile of heirloom seeds. In the end, nothing is more powerful in the desert than the simple forces of soil, seeds, water, and tender care.
I do not excuse the environmental damage Miller's production crew inflicted upon Namibia's Dorob national park, and I sincerely hope that Fury Road and future productions like it will be firmly held to environmental standards that disallow such flagrant abuses.

As for me, it seems that my inner cinephile and my inner feminist have gotten the better of my inner ecocritic in this case.


Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, the real star (and protagonist) of George Miller's contemporary masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road

Bonus auto-ethnographic afterthoughtsMad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was the first Mad Max film I ever got to see in the theater. Prior to that I saw The Road Warrior (1981) many many times on VHS, and much later I saw the original Mad Max (1979) on home video as well. For me, The Road Warrior in particular is an iconic and much-beloved action film of my youth and beyond. Even Mel Gibson's late-career racist antics have not dimmed the greatness of Mad Max 2 for me. That movie set an incredibly high bar for high-octane action, a lived-in universe, mythological storytelling, and realistic lo-fi special effects that few other films have achieved so effectively.

Miller himself has made clear that Fury Road does not occupy any particular place in the Mad Max "chronology," a term I place in quotes because, aside from the events of Mad Max presumably happening first, there is no specific chronology to any of the films in the series. That said, I did notice one little visual detail at the very end of Fury Road that suggests a (hyper-)link to an earlier installment. Right at the end of the film, as the big truck platform is being lowered to receive Imperator Furiosa and the crowd is chanting "Let her up! Let her up!" I spied two guards on that platform wearing metal helmets encasing their whole heads. Could this possibly be an oblique reference to Lord Humungus (pictured at left), the villain of The Road Warrior? Is one of these Humungus-like soldiers serving Immortan Joe the actual future Lord Humungus? Or are these guards a couple of Humungus's past followers? Or are metal helmets just fashionable in the post-apocalypse? My guess is that we'll never know for sure.

Theron and Miller on set in Namibia.

UPDATE 6/20/2015: I found yet another extremely laudatory review of Mad Max: Fury Road, by Grantland's Alex Pappademas, which accurately claims, among other things, that "we live in times of lowered expectation, blockbuster-wise; we pretend that not-insulting relaunches of old IP are worthy and that the rare worthy ones are also interesting and necessary. We’re lying to ourselves, but we do it because there’s almost nothing else out there." He then describes Fury Road as a glorious exception to this situation. I wanted to link the review here because it is both very well written and because it notes several details -- George Miller's original plans to shoot Fury Road with Mel Gibson back in 2001, its visual shout-outs to Peter Weir's The Cars that Ate Paris -- that I haven't seen discussed anywhere else. It also contains a nice sum-up of the main theme of each of the four Mad Max films. This is the kind of review I want to re-read in ten years or so in order to marvel at how presciently Pappademas declares the film to be "one of the best action movies of the decade."

UPDATE 9/2/2105: I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for this film.

UPDATE 9/16/2015: As astute feminist critic (and personal hero) Anita Sarkeesian has pointed out, "Fury Road isn't feminist."

UPDATE 10/12/2015: Upon viewing Fury Road for the fourth time this past weekend, I noticed those Humungus-like troops I mention in my "Bonus Afterthoughts" much more clearly in an early shot about ten minutes into the film just after the War Rig takes off:

To be fair, upon closer inspection, these guys' helmets are a bit different from Humungus' -- they are more fully encasing of the head and even have a noseguard / plume-like thingy on the front. Yet they are metal masks and therefore for me evoke the Lord H from The Road Warrior. Like Kyle Buchanan, I like these small, flavorful details and appreciate that Fury Road allows me to enjoy and contemplate their possible meanings without expositioning the shit out of them the way so many other contemporary movies do.

UPDATE 12/1/2015: Mad Max: Fury Road has won the National Board of Review's 2015 Best Film Award. Be sure to check out Variety's video interview with George Miller at the tail end of the linked post.

* I haven't embraced Blu-Ray yet because, even though I have access to a Blu-Ray player at home, I am a film studies professor and my college has not yet converted to Blu-Ray.
** Kathleen Karlyn makes this convincing argument in her classic essay, "Comedy, Melodrama, and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter," anthologized in Classical Hollywood Comedy (1995, ed. Karnick and Jenkins) pp. 39-59.
*** See Mulvey's famous and influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18.
† EW's Nashawaty later clarified that he really liked Fury Road, especially for the visceral impact and "insane beauty of the film’s practical effects and old-school stunts. There were sequences in Fury Road where I actually thought someone might die while the camera was rolling. When you compare that to something like San Andreas, where, as disposably entertaining as it is, you never for a second believe anything you’re seeing with your eyes, then the intoxicating and nervously giddy power of practical effects becomes obvious."
 As a potential example of this blunting effect, Palmer makes the baffling statement that "there are several points where two of the girls traveling with Max ask what will happen to them if the cult leader catches them, and I kept wondering the same thing." Isn't it obvious? They will be returned to sexual subjugation! Do we need a graphic scene of Immortan Joe violently raping his imprisoned "wives" in order to make those stakes clear?

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