It seems our film industry is suffering from a bad case of elephantiasis (and, come to think of it, sequelitis).
It’s as if Hollywood is now incapable of making any film that isn’t utterly bloated: distended by endless swollen CGI sequences that almost defy the audience to believe in them.
And one might almost be tempted to dump the latest Mad Max movie in the same heap with the increasing absurdity of the CGI fueled modern action movie. After all, Fury Road is bigger and badder than any Max before it.
But it has an intense grittiness to it that Die Hard 20 will never achieve, because nearly all of it is real. Those are real people bobbing around on the end of real poles, grabbing real people off of real cars driving hell for real leather across a real desert.
Well, you get the idea.
In fact, I find the use of CGI in a few beauty shots a bit distracting: they stand out thanks to the limited color palette of my aging analog TV set, and suddenly one is aware that the shot of Immortan Joe’s army driving at the camera is a fake. And then there’s the death’s head steering wheel that flies out of an explosion and straight at the camera as if its jaws swallowed up the picture, a hyper-exaggerated bit of imagery that reminds me more that a little of Timur Bekmambetov.
Which isn’t a bad thing.
What stands out here more than anything else are the incredibly bizarre vehicles, which exceed anything seen in the previous films (except perhaps Auntie Entity’s jet car) with car bodies piled on top of each other, stacked superchargers, all sorts of bizarre weapons and accessories, and of course, skulls everywhere.
There’s a lot of loving detail in all of these, and they seem plausible, even if one wonders just how effective they’d be.
Another interesting detail is something hinted at in the previous films, but never expanded upon: the terrible physical toll of the end of civilization and the chemical and nuclear contamination from those final wars.
While we’re talking “mutants”, these aren’t the classic SF mutants we know so well, but something far more realistic – and far more disturbing. We see badly deformed people in among Joe’s hideous civilization, and his cadre of “Warboys” all seem to be dying from radiation poisoning.
But how does it fit in with the other films?
What a lot of people missed in all the hate directed at Beyond Thunderdome was that it represented Max’s character going full circle: he starts as a cop, trying to preserve what’s left of a society going to pieces all around him. Then he throws all that aside to seek revenge, and by the start of the Road Warrior has become an amoral drifter alone in the wilderness. He does, in the end, help the handful of people trying to return to civilization, but out of a desire for revenge.
But in the third film, the burgeoning new civilization is brutal and ugly and despite his desires to merely restore his old, selfish life, he finds himself forced to protect the innocent and ultimately sacrifice all that he has – nearly at the cost of his life – and ultimately, without reward.
This has led some to complain that the Thunderdome version of Max wasn’t badass enough, but I find the redemptive arc – the idea of the man once dedicated to helping others somehow rediscovering his soul – far more interesting than mere badassery.
But Fury Road‘s Max is different from any Max we’ve seen before. Here, he’s scarred and haunted by the mere effort to survive in this terrible land without becoming one of the monsters. Certainly, if he isn’t actually mad at the beginning of the film, he isn’t far from it. Tom Hardy offers us a far more vulnerable Max than Mel Gibson’s (I have to wonder what the film would have been like if the original 2001 production, with Mel back for a fourth time, hadn’t been shut down by the bans on foreign travel after the 911 attacks. From all reports, it would have been the final film and have ended with Max finally settling down), and he is thrown into a nightmarish world far worse than either the extreme libertarianism of Barter Town or the desperate barbarian armies of Lord Humongous. Instead, Immortan Joe is more like an oriental potentate, complete with his slaves, his harem of wives, and his ultra-loyal corps of Janissaries, whom he’s promised will reach “Valhalla” if they die gloriously in battle.
What is not clear is whether this film is a reboot or a sequel. I confess I was somewhat amused by the story offered by the prequel comic book, where Max rebuilds the burned out wreck of his Police Interceptor. It seems a lot of work to bring an iconic part of the films back into mix – particularly when it only lasts a few minutes before being stolen and rebuilt.
Thirty years is a long time to wait (even George Lucas only took half that long), but the end result is ferocious: a harsh, driven film full of barbaric spectacle and brutal action. It isn’t like any of the other Mad Max’s, but that’s okay.
And in the end, it offers the hope of redemption once again…
Even if it isn’t the final wrap-up of his story we would have got fifteen years ago.