Note: This post was originally written by me for a website called Quantum Pop Blog. When the site went under, I took the posts I had written and liked and moved them here to my personal site. For the most part, these posts remain unchanged for historical reasons (and laziness)
Let me just get the following out of the way. I think George Miller is a brilliant director. I think Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are both brilliant actors, and I envy the talents and skills of all three of them. I have no doubt that Fury Road will be an astounding film. From the 2014 San Diego Comicon trailer alone, the visuals are evocative and the action is going to astounding.
That all said, this is not a Mad Max movie. The character may be named Max, he may be “mad”, and the environment, weapons and vehicles might be the same, but this is not another chapter in the life of our favorite post-apocalyptic drifter. To understand why I make that statement, I have to break down my argument into three parts. The first is the budget, the second is the character treatment, and the third is the story treatment. Let’s begin.
Have a look at the first chase sequence from Mad Max:
In the first four minutes of the film viewers learn everything they need to about the characters and their relationships. In fact the interaction of the characters generally occurs before a major crash or moment of action. It had to be this way because of the limited budget. In 2014 dollars, Mad Max was made for something close to 500,000 USD. The Road Warrier was something close to 5 million. This is no-budget and low-budget territory, respectively. To pull off the story, the filmmakers had to make sure the characters and their interactions were compelling to give the violence meaning. By contrast, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was made for 12 miliion USD. More than twice The Road Warrior, and it showed in a bad way.
When the budget for a film increases significantly, it’s hard not to think of what could be done with all that extra cash. This tends to cause a filmmaker to do all the cool stuff at the expense of the meat and potatoes of a film. It also means the studios have more say in what is going to happen. This, I suspect, is what led Thunderdome to be the film that it was. The budget was a little too high and film became a little to Hollywood-ized. It became a little too fun, a bit too gimmicky, a little too showey, and a little too optimistic and as a result it became a flat chapter of the franchise.
With Fury Road, the Miller has clearly gone in the direction of “cool stuff”. The visuals are fantastic. The shot where the cars are going through a sand storm and being struck by lightening is phenomenal. The opening shot where Max is standing and looking out at the wasteland, evocative. But will it come at the expense of the film? Is it going to be all visuals, or will there be the strong character interaction? It was the character relationships that gave the action meaning and value. While limited, the interplay between Bubba Zanetti and Toecutter, Johnny the Boy and Goose and even Wez and Lord Humungus gave some volume to films that were thin on plot but high on octane.
It’s a mistake to think that a good Mad Max film is just a bunch of freaky-looking people trying to kill each other. That’s a large part of it, true, but for the first two films at least there is the undercurrent of people desperately trying to hang on to human dignity while others have completly given up on the concept. Was George Miller thinking about that when he made the films? Who knows, but that theme was there all the same and it worked.
Let’s look at some names. Toecutter. Bubba Zanetti. Sprog. Goose. That’s from Mad Max. Lord Humungus. Wez. Toadie. The Feral Kid. That’s from Road Warrior. Auntie Entity and Master Blaster. Names from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The name Master Blaster is particularly egregious because it’s actually two names: Master and Blaster and not very imaginative or interesting. Again we see some Hollywood effect on the film. Thunderdome marks the point where names were being created to sound wierd or cool just for the sake of doing so. With the exception of maybe Lord Humongous the first two films had names more or less rooted to the environment the characters played in. That brings us to Fury Road. Fury Road brings us Immortan Joe and Imperator Furiosa. This last name made me think of the dystopian game Warhammer 40K and I half-expected a group of Space Marines in powered armor to appear as a result.
In addition to this, Imperator Furiosa is a cyborg. A cyborg. In a dystopian future, where water and civilization are both gone and gasoline is more precious than gold, a central character sports a diesel-powered cybernetic arm. It’s OK, though, it’s a low-tech arm. We know because it has a wrench embedded into it. Who has the technical ability to create such a device let alone maintain it? I would say the story but as we’ll see later, the story may be an issue all its own.
Let’s focus a bit on Max. In the trailer we see him abused in various ways. IO9 writer Analee Newitze is enthused by the trailer and she should be. But, she also is excited to see the potential breaking of our favorite road warrior. I think that would be a mistake. The allure of Max Rockatansky is that he’s become inhuman enough to ruthlessly survive at all costs, but is still human enough to struggle with why he should keep going. He jumps between trying to find meaning in a world that lacks any and giving in to his beserker lifestyle. Breaking his will destroys this image because it adds nothing to the character and in fact makes him a different character completely.
And yet, despite this, for most of the trailer we see someone we think is Max at his most vulnerable and possibly broken. We have a brief glimpse of him fighting, but the most significant shots are of him looking sheepishly over his shoulder or forlornly at Furiosa as she asks him his name. This just isn’t the Max of the first three films.
The Mad Max franchise was never big on plot, but made up for it in action and character relationships. This film is clearly going to be different. The Wikipedia page alone, as of this writing, has a synopsis indicating that Max and Furiosa are going to save the world. Or restore order to a lawless land. Or something similar to that. So basically Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron save the world. A far cry from just trying to survive in a heartless new age.
In addition, George Miller has stated the entire film is to a one and a half hour chase scene. Even the first film had some other stuff going on besides the action. Instead we’re going to get an interweaving of moments during a movie-length action sequence. Miller has also cited the manga masterpiece Akira as an example of what he would want to do with the franchise. Akira was, in addition to a work of amazing skill, a political statement on Japan, its youth, and its place in the world. It featured a futuristic world that is then destroyed and the post-apocalyptic scramble that occurs after. All this points to a complete re-envisioning of the Mad Max mythos, to the point where it should be considered a separate work.
Fury Road is going to be an awesome work. The visuals are phenomenal and the talent is equally impressive. That said, this is simply not a story that occurs in the Mad Max universe. Beyond the wasteland environment, the cars, and the character name of Max, everything is different. The names are high-minded and abstract, the existance of a cyborg alone would not have worked in the previous franchise and Max himself is going to be an altogether different being. This is simply a different work and should be treated and enjoyed as such.
And yes, it is ridiculous to write such a long essay over a two minute trailer. The tag line to this site is “much geekery to be found here”. So there.