For just over two decades, George Miller’s original Mad Max held the world record for highest budget-to-box office profit ratio in cinema history. For just $300,000, Miller created a dystopian action adventure without really creating a recognisable dystopia- one of the benefits of setting the movie “a few years from now”, before society has fully collapsed and before the franchise even introduced a reason for the chaos. Yet even with the two subsequent sequels, I wasn’t as attached to the franchise as much as others were; they are movies I feel are best appreciated by budding filmmakers, who surely envy the action set pieces and visions of a collapsed society Miller conjured up on a shoestring budget (Beyond Thunderdome did have a blockbuster budget, but let’s not talk about that one).
In the 30 years since that unmentionable trilogy closer, blockbuster budgets have increased, focusing more on explosive set pieces rather than coherent movies as a whole; Fury Road feels like the antidote to that, proving that bigger really is better for this franchise. Watch this movie back to back with the 1978 original and you probably wouldn’t guess they were part of the same cinematic universe – the MMCU, if you will. After all, with a $150 million budget, Miller can finally create the bonkers action sequences and bizarre future societies he has always desired onscreen that his budgets haven’t previously allowed. The only problem is he delivers so many of them you are left feeling worn out by the midway point, exhausted by the sheer amount of carnage onscreen at any one moment. It is the first film in history that suffers from being too awesome.
More so than any film in the original trilogy, Fury Road resembles a post-apocalyptic Wacky Races, with Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the Penelope Pitstop surrogate; a lone woman taking on armies of petrol-headed men in the name of femininity. Furiosa is very much the main character here – although if this makes her closer to Dick Dastardly than Penelope Pitsop, to continue this Wacky Races comparison, then Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is nothing more than her Muttley. Introduced eating a lizard in the midst of a high octane car chase, Max starts the film getting kidnapped and spends the majority of the film’s first act held in some form of captivity by the army of a cult leader called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), where he is mainly used as a “blood bag” to keep one of his soldiers alive. Furiosa on the other hand, appears to be unstoppable, kidnapping Immortan Joe’s “Five wives” (women he rapes for breeding purposes) and heading off in the direction of a half-remembered “green land” from her childhood where she knows they will be safe.
Immortan Joe doesn’t take very kindly to this and takes his entire army on the road to recapture them, with Max tied to the front of one of their vehicles to ensure he can keep giving blood to their soldier Nux (Nicholas Hoult, without a doubt the worst thing in the movie – his campy performance feels like a leftover from Thunderdome). Narratively, this sounds like a lot to take on board, allowing for multiple scenes of clunky exposition; in execution, Miller establishes all of this via action sequences, allowing for the action to tell the story, in a rare example of coherent storytelling despite nothing being firmly established in dialogue. Some viewers may complain that there is no narrative, just frequent bursts of action- what Miller has ingeniously done is devise a narrative that doesn’t need to be told in a traditional manner, mostly avoiding the “terrible dialogue” pratfalls that hinder most action movies.
Orson Welles famously described being a director on a movie set as “the biggest electric train-set any boy ever had”, something that shows in Miller’s direction here. He may be a 70 year old man, yet he directs action sequences with a the giddy passion of a young child who has had too much sugar. When it comes to martial arts movies, I often state that the best ones are the ones that leave you feeling exhausted by the time you finish watching it, as it has been successful in involving you in the action. The same can be said of Fury Road. However, it may also be because of battle fatigue, as the amount of car chase sequences do eventually leave you worn out, but dubious as to why.
After all, the sequences that stayed in my mind after watching didn’t involve car chases at all; the opening sequence with Max trying to break out of Immortan Joe’s prison, whilst battling with tons of soldiers down increasingly narrow corridors, established a pace that the rest of the movie followed, yet was far more unique then the later sequences, which have all mashed together into one big set piece in my mind. None of these sequences are bad (no movie with flame throwing guitars is bad, that’s just a fact), but it does eventually prove that it is entirely possible to have too much of a good thing. I eventually started embracing the rare moments of calm between action scenes, as Max and Furiosa bonded in the desert, with the sound of the calvary speeding over the sand dunes in the distance eventually filling me with dread.
I blame this battle fatigue on seeing the movie in 3D. I tend to avoid 3D screenings of movies as a rule and Fury Road is the reason as to why; in 3D, fast-edits between shots in fast-paced action sequences tend to look visually ugly, whereas they would look perfectly coherent in 2D. The best example of a 3D movie is Gravity, as Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography managed to show coherent action sequences that actually understood the point of 3D. It’s not about enveloping you in the action, but showing the depth of the image, which in the case of Gravity, took up to 10 minutes in certain shots to allow the audience to observe every little detail whilst remaining firmly at the edge of their seats. The fast cuts in Fury Road are tiresome in 3D as it’s absorbing you into an image you aren’t going to have enough time to register, yet would perfectly except when shown as part of a sequence in 2D; all 3D adds here is an almighty headache.
Despite my criticisms, the movie finally fulfils the potential for apocalyptic madness that the original trilogy only promised – you just yearn for more moments of calm before the never-ending storm itself. This is the first Mad Max film that lives up to the madness promised in the title, so me complaining about wanting a tiny bit of restraint is a complaint you should feel free to ignore. George Miller has executed his intentions perfectly here, and how many other blockbusters can you say were made without looking like they were bowing down to studio pressure?