Once a week for the past six years – a streak that could not be interrupted even by Superstorm Sandy – the New York Movie Klub has gathered its 20 or so members to share a film with each other. Cinephile City’s Mark Young is a member of the Klub, and every Monday he will share the previous week’s movie here.
It used to be, when someone was making a movie which took place after an ill-defined apocalypse in a far-flung future, they were actually making very sharp commentary on man’s capabilities to do evil unto himself in the current day. George Miller’s Mad Max was inspired by a gasoline crisis that brought Australia to its knees; Soylent Green was born out of several real-life food shortages.
However, in a lot of recent films, the idea that mankind would be responsible for its own demise has been neatly excised. Zombies? The result of a disease that we didn’t see coming and which spreads too fast for us to stop. (World War Z, a novel with a lot of pointed political allegory, saw most of it removed from the film adaptation.) Tom Cruise’s Oblivion? Hey, the aliens invaded us, bro. Will Smith’s After Earth? It’s more about how Scientology can help you survive hell on Earth, than how Earth went to hell in the first place. Even the comedy This Is The End revolves around an act of God. Our destruction, the movies are telling us more and more, is out of our hands.
In 2015 George Miller returned, to make his retort: Bollocks to your no-fault Armageddons. His newest, Mad Max Fury Road, is many things, including one of the most kick-ass action films ever made. But on my Movie Klub rewatch I was struck by how much it is an angry rebuttal to the idea that we are not responsible for the world our forebears left us. Miller devotes all of his creative energy to creating a world where, though a person can drive its desert wastelands for days without seeing another human being, not a one of us is in it alone.
Miller’s direction, as highly motivated as if he were a recent film-school graduate, leaves the other three Mad Max films — high-quality pictures, each one of them — in the dust. The hand-crafted vehicles dance about each other with a grace unmatched by The Road Warrior at its best. Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa carries a grimy, jury-rigged prosthetic arm that is one of the most impressive effects in the short history of using computer technology to create such illusions. The wildly imaginative details of Joe’s army make the Thunderdome look like a child’s toy: an army driven by a madcap death-metal guitarist, DIY harpoons to slow opposing cars like wounded whales in the ocean, soldiers who launch kamikaze attacks from devices which could best be described as drunken metronomes.
In an upcoming documentary about his life and career, the great director Brian De Palma says the problem with modern action cinema is, so much of it is built inside the computer that the director isn’t really allowed to express a vision. A lot of that vision comes from the pre-visualization guy, or the woman who did the animatic, or the ILM shop which laid out the virtual set that will eventually be projected onto a green-screen surface. Mad Max Fury Road is the ultimate expression of the opposite: everything which we see is exactly as Miller imagined it. Each action scene is like a short story in itself, starting with these practically-constructed cars racing across the desert, piling on complications and tension until a giant computer-generated or computer-aided effect does come, at which point a thing that built entirely out of pixels feels as full and real as the rust on each car’s chassis.
The most bracing aspect of Fury Road is how long it takes for “Mad” Max Rockastansky (Tom Hardy) to figure into the plot. In the first scene he is captured by the “War Boys” of the vile dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keys-Byrne, who played a different villain in the very first Mad Max film), to be used as a “blood-bag” transfusing his healthy plasma into wounded War Boys. For the first forty-five minutes of the film Hardy is trapped in chains and cages, wearing a weird mask that limits his speech to semi-coherent mumbling. He’s on the sideline, watching Furiosa attempt to rescue five of Joe’s slaves/wives from their captivity.
Max’s passivity is absolutely by design, and you can tell it from Hardy’ unique performance. Even after Max and one of the War Boys (Nicholas Hoult) become a part of Furiosa’s quest, there’s something … off about Max. It takes some time to figure out what the issue is: since Mel Gibson played Max as a strong-silent type in the first three films, this is the first film in the series where Max is obviously mad. It’s not just that Max is plagued by hallucinations of friends and loved ones who have died since the old world was lost. Hardy’s acting is loaded with details that suggest Max no longer knows how to be around humans: he presses himself against the bulkheads of Furiosa’s truck like a caged animal, often communicating only by grunts and growls even after his blood-bag mask comes off.
Max’s journey as a character is clear: he’s been living for himself for so long that he’ll need to learn from Furiosa how to live for other people. Theron’s note-perfect performance is just what he needs to find his way. So much of Furiosa’s character is backstory: it’s implied that she has been the toughest soldier in Joe’s army for a long time, and implied that she has been looking for a way out for decades, but neither is ever shown. It’s on Theron to deliver that, with the eyes of a world-weary soldier and the carriage of a swaggering truck driver. She’s able to connect with Max because they’re not so different, and that is all in the details of performance as well: the way that Theron roars and lunges like a predator during the fight sequences, the way that she visibly divorces herself from her charges like a bear who may have to kill her own cubs to survive. It’s the best performance from a woman in an action movie since Sigourney Weaver in Aliens: through sheer force of will, Theron (who shares top billing) charges into a Mad Max movie and renders Max nearly irrelevant.
It’s a stinging rebuke of your average action movie, in which all of the lizard-brain stimulation goes toward lizard-brain thinking: We’re the good guys because we are good. They’re the bad guys because they are bad. This movie could have done the same thing: Furiosa is good because she is delivering these five girls from slavery. Joe is bad because he is the slaver. The movie’s unbelievable action design would have still made for a fun time even in that case. But it would have been the same problem that so many action films have: larger-than-life characters ought not strive to make the world a smaller and more selfish place.
Furiosa is powerful enough to improve the entire society that Joe has built, but her plan does nothing to build a new world, and all of her considerable bad-ass-ness won’t keep plants from dying in the sand-blasted landscape. It’s a noble thing, freeing Joe’s wives, but it won’t undo any evils that she did while in Joe’s army. Max’s real value to the movie is to teach this to Furiosa by example — he’s had three movies’ worth of running away and killing people, and it didn’t save him. She has to find a new way over the course of this story, or else she’ll end up as mad as Max.
The most striking thing about Mad Max Fury Road is how very urgent it all is. Max has been wandering in the desert for a long time. He’s seen his share of wild stuff. But injecting him into Furiosa’s tale, having his life shaped and altered by her revolutionary attempt, lends the movie freshness and vitality. Showing how Furiosa must learn to live for a better world instead of merely running away from the awful one is a vibrant, important lesson that most post-apocalypse films wish they could teach. This doesn’t feel like the fourth movie in a series, and Max doesn’t feel like a character originated by someone other than Hardy. It feels as bright and new as the first roller coaster must have felt to audiences which had never experienced a thrilling, plummeting feeling in the pit of their stomachs. And, much like a roller coaster, it makes its competition look small and earthbound by comparison, as it soars to heights previously unimaginable.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City. Follow him on Twitter: @mm_young