I admit I pretty much got worked up into a frenzy of anticipation over this movie. First, the amazing stunts in the trailers, and the hints of the beautiful cinematography to be found there. Then in started getting great reviews, and I was possessed! And it’s really quite something. I’m just, a week later, not 100% sure what.
To start, let me tell you that I never loved the original Mad Max movies. I saw the first two, but barely remember them, expect I vaguely thought they were kind of stupid. The only one I recall seeing while old enough to remember was Thunderdome, which I thought was stooooopid. What I’m saying is not to be down on the series, but that I am more in a place to appreciate this than ever. Anyway, we open with Tom Hardy as Max giving us a bit of exposition on how the world got to be this postapocalyptic wasteland, then, next thing we know, he’s a captive of the “war boys,” bald, pale white guys who are the minions of Immortan Joe, evil ruler. We see that Max is haunted by the memories of his daughter and wife, who he was unable to save, and we hear that he is reduced to one impulse: survive. He tries to escape, but is ultimately dragged right back in, which I have to say was quite effective—especially as we’re used to heroes always succeeding, especially over confinement by villains. But there are many ways in which this film circumvents expectation.
So Charlize Theron as Furiosa [great name] is assigned to drive a shipment of… something… from point A to point B, but it is soon discovered that she stole a bunch of Joe’s breeding stock, i.e. five beautiful women, and is taking them where they won’t have to suffer his disgusting touch again. And he is disgusting, as the film takes special pains to point out, when we see him without his armor, and discover that his entire body is covered with hideous sores and pustules. When he discovers that the women are gone, he send his armies out after them, and the rest of the movie is just a giant chase as he, and various other parties, come after her.
Among the first things I realized is that, despite the huge budget, this truly is just an exploitation film. It’s just one big long chase with minimal plot, existing almost entirely for the chases and incredible stunts. And it does have incredible stunts, in which objects have real weight and seem to actually be moving and interacting with each other [i.e. not CGI everything] and real people seem to be in real peril. The other thing is that Miller is able to construct even a complex action scene in ways that make sense and hang together, and retain spatial continuity from one shot to the next. The other thing is that it kind of works that there is little but action in the film, since it expresses the whole idea that there is nothing going on in this world but survival—there are few higher goals, no ideals of education or culture or becoming a better person, nothing but making it to the next day. And finally, that it all, including all of the characters, really is insane. These characters, the things they want, the things they go through, and some of the various things that happen here—it’s insane! Which makes it a very complete, true-to-itself world with a lot of integrity, and also makes me think that this movie might not ultimately do all that well, since it is so bleak, and brutal, and without much in the way of higher message that I doubt the masses will really get into it.
Amidst all this, the development of the relationships is really good. I really liked the slow development of trust and respect between Max and Furiosa, which is shown through an even sprinkling of tiny gestures and shared glances. Theron is especially effective in modulating her voice and facial expression in tiny ways to allow hints of vulnerability to show through. She first sees Max strapped to the hood of a car going while in the midst of one of the dangerous chases, and a look of pity crosses her face. They have a slow coming together over the course of the film—and you may have heard that the film really revolves around her, with Max as an involved secondary character—and it’s nice they way their relationship slowly develops, and once it does, we have several iconic shots of the two of them working together. Even the villain, Joe, is allowed a bit of depth and concern over his loss of “property” and unborn child, and there’s a nice character arc and quiet moments for Nicholas Hoult’s character.
What else? It looks great. You get big, bright colors and interesting compositions and visually-ecstatic visions of machines spinning in air and people flying everywhere. Daytime is mostly orange sand, and nighttime is saturated, luminous blue with small spots of light and color. There is a massive sandstorm sequence that succeeds in showing us a hellish vision of flames, clouds and bodies flying in air, but is curiously sand-less inside [or visibility would be so low we couldn’t see] and which peters out rather suddenly. And it has a solid moral center for a big blockbuster [and a film about a world without morality].
Let’s just not ask where the fuel for all these vehicles is coming from.
The film is also largely, and unrepentantly, feminist. Furiosa is the hero, and is extremely competent and tough but without giving up her humanity. She is helped in the end by a matriarchal group of elder women on motorcycles. The five women she is saving are also not helpless damsels in distress, but more than able to help and fight for themselves. Great! My only reservation is… if this is such a feminist film, why do the the escaping women have to be contemporary models, in little diaphanous, midriff-exposing semi-bikinis, often with their nipples prominently showing through the thin material? Why are they all model-thin and pretty? Why is their hair and clothing spotlessly clean and salon-perfect, when everyone else is greasy and grimy and scarred? And how does their clothes and hair STAY spotlessly clean and salon-perfect? I guess you could say that, being the breeding stock of Immortan Joe, they are essentially harem women and are there to be attractive—which would imply that current [anorexic, European] standards of beauty have survived the apocalypse, despite the lack of fashion magazines, music and movies—but then, how come their clothes and hair don’t get dirty during their extremely grimy adventure? And… none of them would want to change into anything that would suit them better in a life-or-death battle? The other explanation, which seems a little more honest, is that, as noted, it’s an exploitation film, and exploitation films have hot women and tits. I do appreciate how it goes out of its way to portray women as very tough and capable [including the models, it would have been too much if they were helpless], but, gee… do they all have to be skinny, model-pretty and nearly naked?
The other thing is that, being a slimmed-down, straightforward chase film, it got a little boring toward the end. After massive battles one and two, you know that all you can expect is a bit of development and then massive battle three, at which point I started to lose interest. There started to be a little bit of just waiting for it to end, but by then I had realized that this movie just isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Still, it is extremely weird, singular, and quite bleak for multiplex fare, and you have to give it credit for that.
So, exceedingly well made, coherent action, unexpectedly rich relationships, a strongly feminist bent while simultaneously putting women’s bodies on lewd display, a bit dull by the end. There you have it.
If you like action films, it’s very well put together.