Saturday, May 16, 2015

The (moderately) feminist dystopia of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

Relentless is almost the word. It's not an entirely accurate description as in Mad Max: Fury Road the motors do occasionally stop purring, and the characters do take moments to engage with each other in ways other than hyperviolence and generalised grunts. These moments are proudly fleeting, however, and for the most part the chase is also on, and the audience is advised to take a good deep breath when the Warner Brothers logo appears. Just in case.

Here be chaos, but of a controlled kind. It is unhinged yet gifted with directorial clarity. It is deranged yet blessed with something approaching gracefulness. It is an impressive realisation of cinematic anarchy within the confines of a big budget blockbuster. Fury Road is the work of a cult auteur, finally granted access to the technology and resources to make the film he always wanted to make – and a studio thankfully stupid enough to give them to him.

It's a complete work, the ultimate confluence of three earlier drafts. George Miller seems reluctant to leave the camera still for any more than mere moments, bar a handful of picturesque, almost David Lean-esque shot he loosely scatters throughout the narrative - seconds of poetry amidst the insanity. The camera otherwise moves with the restlessness of the film's many unnaturally twitchy characters, eager to disorientate and amaze – both at once, if possible. The editing finds some new angle of desert grit to probe every couple of seconds, and since we all know boring old reality moves with devastating slowness at the best of times, Miller and co rightly pump up the movement speed by around 33% or so from time to time to keep things rocketing along nicely, adding an unreal edge to an already surreal experience.

Max's journey there and back again demands a robust theatrical sound system to do justice to its gloriously symphonic sound design. During its highest octane moments – in essence a good two-thirds of the generous running time – the speakers blare out a propulsive soundtrack: barely audible dialogue, the frequent soothing sounds of explosions, and the near constant hum of engines being pushed beyond their limits. Don't mistake this for a cacophony: it's the perfect fit for a film this outstandingly busy. George Miller, totally aware of this, even has the diegetic and non-diegetic elements of the soundtrack explicitly overlap through an inspired recurring gag: a guitar player suspended on one of the motorcade's vehicles, backed by a wall of amplifiers and gang of drummers. His ludicrously distorted riffs not only cause flames to spew from the head of his guitar (while the camera crane swoops with reckless abandon), but they also seamlessly blend with the musical score – causing a pleasingly tangible relationship between the fiction and the score that earns a chuckle every time the joke recurs and raises its finger to conventional form.

Yet perhaps the capabilities of modern technology are not always for the best in the dystopian world of Fury Road. Miller colour codes the world with extreme saturation. For the most part, this is a fetching post-production flourish, emphasising the barely believable nightmare world Max finds himself travelling through (or at least helplessly tied to a pole being propelled through). During the day it works best, but at night the effect shows both strength and limitations. Choosing a pure blue hue is unquestionably an imaginative way of capturing those typically troublesome night scenes, while also highlighting how starkly artificial the effect is. It becomes doubly distracting when there's a light source in the frame, illuminating the surrounding area with much warmer tones. It's an ambitious but ultimately jarring decision, a simple example of a film that has completely abandoned the more grounded post-apocalyptic world and look of Mad Max and The Road Warrior (hereby retrospectively retitled 'Mad' and 'Madder' – with 'Maddest' reserved for Fury Road).

The film's relationship with modern technology is, in the parlance of our times, complicated: while the film piles on the CG to an almost aggressive degree, it also benefits significantly from the potential of the same, allowing for stunts and scenes that would otherwise be impossible. Fury Road's solitary (contractually obligated?) 'there's shit flying at the screen in 3D!!!!' scene could, however, be generously described as utterly superfluous, and looks beyond ludicrous in a film that otherwise benefits from the supreme clarity of a two-dimensional viewing.

It would be disingenuous to not emphasise at this point how pleasingly physical the film is in spite of the abundance of computer generated imagery. The brawling is brutal. The vehicles shunt each other, collide at insane speeds, are repeatedly penetrated with bullets and projectiles, and have their doors ripped off and tires burst. Weaponry feels appropriately weighty, and indeed the very clear shortage of ammunition is welcome in a cinematic landscape where heroes are often gifted with magically refilling magazines. And one of the film's most immense, dangerous and visceral scenes takes place in a computerised sandstorm – Fury Road is an example of a production where the technology of today is used for good as well as occasional evil.


'Max' has never been more appropriate description of this film's philosophy - yet at the same time there's a welcome economy to the film's storytelling. A fleeting prologue voiceover aside, little time is wasted on establishing lore, motivations, backstories, relationships and so on. The film's ideas and themes emerge nimbly – some sharply considered exposition aside - and the details of the world are dispensed at a pleasant pace instead of an immediate overload, perhaps considerate of the fact many viewers will already be in need of a mild sedative. It is a captivating world, and a brutal one. There is crossbreeding, brainwashed kamikaze troops lusting for Valhalla, slavery, corrupt & grotesque leaders, and many more horrors besides. The transformation that was underway in the original Mad Max films is complete – a dark future, although slivers of humanity still creep through.

The much-heralded / lightly-feared (by some) feminist subtext emerges as one of the film's most unexpected assets, especially in a genre and series that sometimes overdose on testosterone. The postergirl is of course Charlize Theron, whose Imperator Furiosa is a powerful, intelligence and sly character, perhaps more so than the titular character. A strong case could be made that she's even something of a secondary protagonist here, with a clearer emotional arc than Max himself. More interesting, though, is the film's approach to a hoary old trope. After introducing some deceptively stereotypical damsels in distress at an early point – in the dystopian equivalent of a gratuitous wet t-shirt scene - Miller and his co-writers spend the next 90 minutes challenging, exploring and mildly subverting those gender roles to quite pleasing effect.

The entire story hinges on the protagonist – Immortan Joe – pursuing the convoy in search of his 'stolen' property – i.e. these five fertile women. The film – and hopefully the audience – is clearly quite disapproving of this idea of women as 'objects', and does its best to articulate those disapprovals. As the narrative barrels towards its destination (and eventually back towards the point of departure), these women become more active participants in their own story. A further twist to spice things up sees a group of elderly women introduced, who turn out to be some of the most capable, accomplished fighters in the film – a welcome riposte to the stark age and gender divide in action films generally.

Fury Road doesn't go quite as far as it could - one or two of the damsels remain damselled, and a few men do step in to save the day from time to time - but nonetheless it's supremely satisfying to see male and female characters operating on a level playing field for much of the running time (although, in this violent world, that also inevitably means some of the women don't see the end of this high-stakes, bloody roadtrip). As a matter of fact, it's the women who ultimately literally ascend to a position of power and authority as the film cuts to black – an encouraging, hopeful closing image if ever there was one.

And it's not the lively gender politics of the film that minimise Max's role in proceedings, but rather Hardy's performance. His gruff accent doesn't manage to transcend its ridiculousness, and for that reason largely struggles to convince when he is speaking – thankfully, something of a rarity. Max is at his best, then, when keeping mum, and some of his straightforward gestures and nods make for some of the most effective, affecting and humourous character beats. At the start of the film, he has been dehumanised, the brutality of the world having worn him down, and he's running on fumes (aka survival instinct). He's also kind of an asshole. But as the story progresses he becomes the familiar Max of mythical proportions, re-calibrating his moral compass and becoming a righteous, unstoppable force for good instead of selfishness. He is in many respects reminiscent the ronin in Yojimbo, or The Man With the No Name – although, as he belatedly concedes as a friend hovers on the border of life and death, his name is Max.

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