Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road was written by George Miller, Doug Mitchell and P.J. Voeten. It was also directed by George Miller.

Mitchell previously produced Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the third film in the series. 

Miller cowrote and directed all three previous Mad Max films. Miller's had a very eclectic career, as he also directed The Witches Of Eastwick, Dead Calm, Lorenzo's Oil, Babe (!), Babe: Pig In The City (!!), Happy Feet (!!!) and Happy Feet Too (!!!!).

One wonders what the hell happened to cause the director of a series of high octane, Ozploitation action films to suddenly start churning out kiddy fare. According to Miller, he turned to directing children's movies after he had kids of his own. Now that they're all in college, he's decided to return to the action fold, thank Thor.

Fury Road is pretty much one long 120 minute action-packed chase scene, broken up by a few very brief intervals of character building. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that! It's a thrilling piece of cinema that knows exactly what it is, and delivers on its promise. It's also a very compact and focused film— under Miller's direction there's little or no fat, as every scene propels the action forward.

This is the first new Mad Max film in thirty years. It's had a long and tortuous journey to the screen, as Miller first had the idea for a sequel way back in 1998. Unfortunately numerous political and financial problems delayed the film for several years. Miller tried again in 2003, but the film was postponed due to the political situation in Namibia, where much of it was scheduled to be filmed. He tried once more in 2006, but the project was scrapped yet again. In 2009 Miller considered making an R-rated animated Mad Max before ultimately deciding to go ahead with a live action movie. Whew!

Mel Gibson was originally set to reprise his role as Max, but his nutsy cuckoo personal life, as well as his age, forced Miller to recast. Heath Ledger was briefly considered for the role before his untimely death in 2008. Eventually Tom Hardy was cast as Max.

When I first read there was going to be a new Mad Max movie, I audibly groaned. I just couldn't see a new one capturing the gritty feel of the originals, especially after three decades. The original films were famous for their amazing, death-defying and real stunt work. That was the main attraction of them— everyone looked like they were in real and constant danger.

I was afraid a new film would utilize digital stuntmen, ala Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull. I needn't have worried. Miller insisted on utilizing real stunts and practical effects whenever possible, and god bless him for that. The audience can always tell the difference between a real stuntman who's affected by gravity and a digital one who's seemingly immune to the laws of physics (Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Fast & Furious franchise). Some of the action in the new film is downright jaw dropping.

Fury Road did use some CGI of course, but most sources claim that 80% of the stunts and effects were practical.

So just what is this film? Is it a prequel, sequel, remake or reboot? There's no easy answer. It's definitely not a prequel, and it's not a remake, but it's not exactly a sequel either. Miller himself calls it a "revisiting," saying that "the previous three films exist in no real clear chronology, because they were always conceived as different films." Whatever that means.

The film could have been a sequel except for one small detail— Max's family. In the original series he had a wife and son who were killed by outlaws, but here it's his wife and young daughter. Why Miller chose to change this, I have no idea. If not for that bit of gender-swapping this film could have easily fit into the original chronology.

In the end I suppose we should just stop worrying about it. It's a new Mad Max movie that's long overdue, and that's all we need to know.

Many are hailing Fury Road as a feminist film that subverts traditional movie sexism. Alrighty then. Personally I just thought it was a kick-ass action movie, but whatever helps you through the day. Whether Miller intentionally made a feminist movie or one that just happened to have a large number of strong female characters, I can't say. And I'm smart enough to not get into that debate.

Lastly, Miller just announced the name of the next film— Mad Max: The Wasteland. So I guess that means we're getting a sequel! Huzzah!

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Sometime in the future, the world has become a desert wasteland, ruled by various isolated feudal societies. Max Rockatansky (played by Tom Hardy), a survivor wandering the Outback, is captured by the War Boys, soldiers of the cruel warlord, Immortan Joe.

Joe's the ruler of the Citadel, a small oasis in the middle of the vast Australian desert. He controls a natural spring and withholds it from his thirsty subjects. Max is brought to the Citadel and imprisoned. When it's discovered he's a universal blood donor, he's used as a "blood bag" for the weakened and ailing Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe's War Boys.

Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) is one of Joe's officers, and is chosen to drive her heavily-armored War Rig to the nearby Gas Town to pick up fuel. On the way she veers off course and heads for open desert. Seems she's stolen Joe's Five Wives— a harem of perfect, non-mutated female specimens he's using to repopulate the Citadel— and is taking them to the "Green Place," an idyllic spot she remembers from childhood.

Joe calls for aid from Gas Town and the nearby Bullet Farm to help him recover his Five Brides. Nux, who's now been rejuvenated by Max's blood, leads the pursuit. Unfortunately for Max, he's strapped to the front of a makeshift vehicle, with an I.V. line going from him directly into Nux.

Furiosa drives into a massive sand storm to escape. Many of her pursuers are killed by the violent winds and lightning inside the storm. Nux's pursuit vehicle is hit by the storm and crashes. Max wakes up some time later and sees Furiosa repairing the War Rig nearby. He and Nux join forces with Furiosa and the Wives, and flee Joe and his pursuing armies together as they search for the Green Place.

The War Rig gets stuck as they pass through a muddy desert bog. They're eventually able to free it and continue. When they reach a mountainous area, Furiosa recognizes it and shouts her clan affiliation. A group of hidden female cyclists, the Vulvani, appear and tell her they're the last remnants of her clan. When she tells them they're searching for the Green Place, they tell her she already passed through it. The inhospitable bog was the remnants of the once fertile oasis.

With few options left, Max suggests turning around and taking control of the Citadel from Immortan Joe. The group decides to do just that. They're confronted by Joe's mobile army, and Furiosa kills him. Nux sacrifices himself by destroying the War Rig, allowing the rest of them to escape. Furiosa is injured, but Max revives her with his blood.

Max, Furiosa and four of the Wives return to the Citadel, where they dump the lifeless body of Immortan Joe unto the ground. The citizens are overjoyed at his death, and welcome Furiosa as their new leader. She orders the spring to flow freely, providing water to all. Max slips away quietly, disappearing into the crowd, because he's a wandering kind of guy.

Thoughts:
• Miller wisely chose to skip rehashing Max's origin story this time out, and thank the Maker for that. We don't need to see his origin story all over again. All we need to know is his wife and child were killed and he's been wondering the Outback ever since.

In fact Miller only gives us the briefest of outlines on any of the characters, including Furiosa, Imperator Joe and Nux. And it works! We don't need a ton of exposition about them. We get a sense of who they are through their actions and their minimal dialog, and that's enough in a film like this.

Other filmmakers could learn a thing or two from Miller (I'm looking at you, Spider-Man films, with your constant retelling of Peter Parker's origin story).

• It's a bit odd that Max practically takes a backseat in his own film. He goes a good twenty minutes before uttering so much as a word, and even spends the first half of the film with a metal grill covering his face.

Although it's set in the Australian outback, much of the movie was actually filmed in the vast deserts of Namibia, Africa.

• There are several references to previous Mad Max films.
In The Road Warrior, one of the characters headbutts another during a fight. Miller inserts one frame of pure white into the film to augment the force of the impact (to wincing effect). He does the same thing here as Nux headbutts Slit, one of his fellow War Boys. 
Max's car, which is briefly scene at the beginning of the film, is the same model (heavily modified) as the one he drove in Mad Max and The Road Warrior.
Max's costume is very similar to the one he had in The Road Warrior. He even wears a knee brace as Mel Gibson did in that film.
Furiosa's War Rig has a series of kill switches on it that prevent it from being stolen. Max had similar switches on his car in The Road Warrior.
One of the Five Wives idly plays with the innards of a music box during the film. Max gave the Feral Kid a similar gift in The Road Warrior.
• The main plot point concerns Immortan Joe and his quest to recover his Five Brides. The Brides are so valuable because they're perfectly healthy and are the only fertile women in the entire Citadel.

One has to wonder where the Brides came from. Why are they seemingly untouched by mutation and disease? Are they just lucky, or have the five of them been carefully cultured and cared for, like prize orchids?

Hugh Keays-Byrne plays main villain Immortan Joe in the film. Keays-Byrne also played the Toecutter way back in the very first Mad Max film. Obviously they're not the same character, since the Toecutter (thirty six year old spoiler alert!) died in the first film.

• One thing I've long wondered about these films: How is it that so many of these post-apocalyptic survivors have such ripped builds? Take Lord Hummongus from The Road Warrior, for example. He's built not unlike Dwayne Johnson, despite the fact that his diet probably consisted of dirt and cockroaches.

The same thing happens here in Fury Road. The War Boys are all riddled with tumors and are called Half-Lifers. In fact when we first meet Nux he's too weak to stand until he gets a transfusion of blood from Max. Yet somehow they've all got inexplicably shredded bodies.  

Seems like people as sick as they are would be too weak to hit the gym every day.

• Speaking of blood, just how much do you suppose Max lost to Nux while he was hooked up to him? Hopefully less than a pint, or he probably wouldn't have had the energy to do all that running and leaping he does throughout the film.

He even gives Furiosa a transfusion late in the film to save her, and is somehow still able to walk around.

Also, Max is labeled a universal blood donor by the War Boys. How do you suppose they determined that, especially in a primitive society such as theirs?

• Speaking of the War Boys, they're all willing to sacrifice themselves for Immortan Joe, who's brainwashed them into thinking they'll go to Valhalla after death and be reborn into his service.

Whenever a War Boy decides to sacrifice himself, he spray paints his mouth and teeth with chrome paint. It's an interesting image, but I have to wonder what they actually used in theses scenes in the film. Is there something that looks like chrome spray paint that wouldn't poison the actors?

UPDATE!: According to the interwebs, which are never wrong, this is what the production used as silver "paint." Aerosol food coloring for cakes.

• I have some doubts about the resilience and reliability of the engines in the War Rig and the various other homemade vehicles, especially in the harsh desert conditions. But without these magic engines (that can start even when full of dirt) there'd be no movie, so I'll let it slide.

• Kudos to the effects team who worked on Furiosa's bionic arm. It looked absolutely real, like a prosthetic a person could actually cobble together. Best of all it looked like her arm was actually missing, and not like she just slipped a bulky glove over her real hand. Let's see a cosplayer recreate that!

Same goes for her exposed CGI stump when she removed the bionic arm. If I didn't know better I'd swear Charlize Theron actually lost her arm.

• As mentioned earlier, Miller used practical effects whenever possible, and insisted that all the vehicles in the film be functional and drivable. 

My favorite was the "Doof Wagon," a portable stage festooned with hundreds of speakers and drums, topped by the Doof Warrior, a blind heavy metal musician with a flame spouting guitar. Crazy!

• Unlike most modern action films, the action in Fury Road is very easy to follow. Miller's a master of knowing what to include, and what not to. At one point Max walks off into the fog to take care of the Bullet Farmer. He returns a while later, bloodied and carrying a satchel full of weapons.

How many other filmmakers would film a scene that way, letting the audience simply imagine what horrible things Max must have done to the Bullet Farmer? Very few, I'm afraid.

There's one scene where Miller's direction fails though— the death of Immortan Joe. One minute he's alive and driving his car, the next Furiosa does... something to him, and then he's dead. What exactly she did to him I have no idea. It was very poorly filmed and downright anticlimactic. I expected Joe's death to be much more... epic.

• This film continues a trend of modern movie making that I hate— characters whose names are never mentioned, so you never know what to call them (or if they even have names). Immortan Joe's Five Wives are named The Splendid Angharad, Capable, Cheedo the Fragile, Toast the Knowing and the Dag. You'd never know that by watching the film though. I found that out by researching the movie online.

• Late in the film Max and Co. come upon a naked woman chained to a tower. Max rightly suspects it's a trap. Furiosa recognizes the woman, who chastely rappels down the tower, showing the least possible amount of bare skin possible. 

This is an R-rated movie, for Christ's sake! I guess violence and gore are fine, but a bare breast? Laws no, that would be going too far.

• When Furiosa realizes that the Green Place doesn't exist, she and the rest of her clan decide to ride across the salt flats, in the futile hope of finding a refuge. She says they plan to ride across the flats for 160 days. That's an awfully long time; over five months in fact. 

I realize that motorcycles get much higher gas mileage than cars, but still— how could they possibly carry that much fuel with them?

• Australian character actress Melissa Jaffer plays the Keeper of the Seeds, who, as you might guess, carries a satchel full of fruit, vegetable and tree seeds, hoping to one day find fertile land in which to plant them.

Farscape fans will recognize Jaffer as Noranti, an alien witch with a third eye.

According to the 78 year old Jaffer, she and the other older actresses who played the Vulvani did their own stunts, despite reservations from the crew. Good for them!

Mad Max: Fury Road is a non-stop, relentless chase film that effortlessly revitalizes the franchise. Other filmmakers could learn a thing or three from George Miller's taught and economical direction. I give it a A-.

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