Hope isn’t a mistake – when you’re female (spoiler notice)
It was fun to see Dutch cinemas scramble to program more viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. Apparently, they hadn’t expected audiences to respond as they did to what seemed a typical boy’s film about high octane (and high testosterone) car chases in an apocalyptic landscape. Ho-hum. Let’s put it somewhere in the evening for a few weeks. Then things exploded on social media and the film became kind of a must-see for geeks worldwide. Why the enthusiasm for a franchise that had its last outing thirty years ago with Tina Turner in punk-rock clothes and singing, admittedly, a highly addictive song?
Part of it must be the trailer, which captured the sort of lurid, sensational, frenetic action we’ve come to expect from the average summer offering. Seeing it is recognizing the potential of its vivid imagery and daring to hope that the film will have the edge the trailer promises, rather than being like how most blockbusters turn out: a smorgasbord of boring digital whizz-bangery in lieu of actual competence in cinema-making. Mad Max may be crazy, but it delivers on exactly this hope. It’s wonderfully focused, yet still deliriously over-the-top, an exercise in cutting away fat until only the relevant and interesting (in this case: forward-moving) remains. Momentum is the name of the game. It does this with the same exaggeration of Zack Snyder’s 300, though Fury Road shows a bigger penchant for practical stunts and strong female roles.
First, the editing, which is in some ways the biggest if least discernible show stealer. It’s fast paced. Really, really fast. Where the majority of movies create a mess out of this style, dubbed ‘chaos cinema’ for its sloppy, impossible to read action, director George Miller had a strong idea how to tackle this properly: by fixing the focal point of nearly every shot smack in the middle. He reportedly put a crosshair on the camera and kept shouting ‘focus on the nose!’ to frame everything of importance in the same spot. Tedious? Quite the opposite. The eye no longer needs its time to register where stuff is happening – which for Miller became the jumping point to shorten and shorten his shots. And it works. Despite the insane choreography (the camera zooming through windows to the terrific frenzy of the murderous motorcade), everything’s clear. You understand the relation between all the important elements on screen, rendering the complicated action as untroubled as the acrid deserts of this post-Armageddon Australia.
It’s a thrill to see all those vehicles crashing and cavorting through the sand. Though strongly enhanced, adjusted and composed by digital means, a real effort was made to actually do all the stunts and create most of the hardware. It shows. It never feels fake, despite making no strong claim to naturalism. You’ll go into a toxic cyclone and believe the damn thing exists.
It took nearly fifteen years to make this film, while the end result is deceptively simple. Things that are truly good often look effortless and sensible. In truth, Miller and a team of specialists spent most that time developing the techniques and the story. Well, storyboard. At one point the director had 3500 storyboards worked out, without having a single line of script. Miller’s first priority was getting his vision for the action on the screen. His second seems to have been infusing the film with a feminist perspective. The story deals with material that’s insanely easy to get wrong, including breeding harems and scantily clad damsels in distress. Eve Ensler, the outspoken feminist writer of the Vagina Monologues, came on board to ensure it addressed what is currently the hottest topic in geek culture in a way that was appropriate and in some ways as daring as everything else in the film.
Looking at the title you might think Fury Road’s protagonist is Max, but you’d be wrong. He’s a peripheral character, meant as an easy access point into the world. It’s a classic story technique, which for the controversial theme here takes on the character of a cheeky bait-and-switch. Come for Max, witness Furiosa: the one-armed true heroine of this crazy chase. It’s her tenacity and skill that set all the action in motion, drives the plot, drives the truck, drives Max to a state of... lesser madness. Charlize Theron shares top billing with Tom Hardy for good reason.
Feel free to read a slew of feminist moves and plotlines into the story. You’d be right on all of them – they’re quite overt. There’s a conversion from an oppressive, patriarchal society to a liberated, matriarchal one (where Max, in the end, understands he has no place and disappears into the crowd to leave the future to Furiosa and her band of emancipated harem girls). Not a single man on screen comes even close to being rational, reasonable, sane. They’re brainwashed War Boys, disgustingly fetish’d lords, or a hero far from lucid and spending a quarter of the movie with an iron beak atop a roving buggy. Contrast that to the women: desperate but with an eye to the future, politically engaged, trying to strike a balance in their lives without surrendering to the wickedness around them. Planting crops to seed a future worth living in! Best of all: they come in just as many guises and roles as the men do, none of them hinging solely on tired tropes and all of them interesting on their own – rather than having their identities set in relation to the surrounding males.
Unsurprisingly, Fury Road instantly caught the eye of sexists and woman-haters on the less bright parts of the internet. Their furious claim was that feminism had infiltrated the movies and ruined things for everyone yet again. Of course they were miffed: they got likened to a gangrenous, decrepit warlord and his mutant offspring and the world is loving it. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing mad about that.