This post contains spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road.
After all the hype leading up to George Miller’s new Mad Max, it’d be understandable if you assumed it was the best movie of the millennium. I, too, had heard that it was excellent, and I was very excited to see it. So I was incredibly disappointed when I realized that it is anything but.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a mess.
In exchange for visuals that are occasionally mind-blowing, you’ll be forced to give up any sense of characterization or a coherent world. It’s a bummer. This breakdown of the film is laden with spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
The trouble with character development
Let’s start with the titular character: Who is Mad Max? Fury Road presents him as a drifter who spends the first third of the movie kidnapped, bled out, and strapped to the hood of car. The second third reveals him to be a competent driver if somewhat inept kidnapper. The final third shows him to be a decent shot who is lucky to consistently fall to not quite his death. He has visions of past failures that I can only assume allude to action in previous films. He’s a universal blood donor? I’m running out of things that I learned about Max over the film’s two-hour running time.
To be clear, this is not a criticism of Tom Hardy’s performance as Max; when given the (very) occasional opportunity to speak, Hardy’s voice gives Max life. Of course, because this is Tom Hardy in a massive action movie, Max is muzzled or gagged for much of the film. What the fuck compels visionary directors to cast a guy with a voice like Hardy’s and then make it incomprehensible?
Also, in this case, it pens in Miller’s capacity to establish the stakes of this world. For example, does Max have an opinion about being strapped to a car and driven into a war-zone? How unusual is this in the context of a wholly alien world? I do know it’s less unusual to be a bleeding hood ornament on the Fury Road than it is in our world (because Max isn’t crying and/or screaming about it as you would expect any normal person to do… also the massive blood loss he’s experienced doesn’t ever really seem to affect him), but I don’t know how different this is from day-to-day life in this hellscape, because no one gets to tell me; I also know that I don’t really see anyone else in that situation over the course of the film. I could really use Max’s voice to answer a whole bunch of questions…
Is Max a lone wolf type-character who eventually decides to join a Scooby gang? Is he an everyman forced to become a hero? Is he a hero? Is he anything?
I’d argue no, not really. In a top-of-film voiceover, Max says he’s all about surviving. At virtually no point in the film do his actions line up with that ethos. For someone who values survival, he throws himself into an extremely perilous run of situations. Is he doing this because he’s racked with regret from letting his family die in the past? Maybe, but his blasé attitude toward to the deaths of those around him doesn’t jibe with that. So Max in whole is a cipher whose skill-set and motivations change without warning in service of a flimsy plot.
Is Max an everyman forced to become a hero? Is he a hero? Is he anything?
But as you’ve likely read by now, Max isn’t really our protagonist. No, instead it’s Furiosa, who is all about redemption. From what? I don’t really know. She was kidnapped as a child, then decided to help the most conventionally attractive people in this world escape to her home (which, naturally, is gone). She is tough in an unspecific way, and she only comes into focus as a character in the film’s few quiet moments.
The bad guys are nondescript characters, notable mostly for being gross-looking and into polygamy. The many wives of the bad guy are stunningly not gross. The most interesting characters emerge late in the film; they are the women of Furiosa’s homeland. They each have distinct characteristics, sets of values, and a sense of real history, which only makes it more disappointing when some of them are turned into props who needlessly die without a word in the film’s final action sequence. Only one is given a specific sense of sacrifice (her seeds, which she had protected for years, live on after her death). Two die in a particularly ill-conceived motorcycle riding gambit that goes down in a way that suggests these characters really shouldn’t have survived to their advanced ages.
The trouble with plot
Let’s back up for a second though, and break down what happens in Fury Road.
Furiosa smuggles the big bad’s five wives into a tank and turns left on a drive that was supposed to go straight to an oil refinery. The big bad saddles up with a bunch of other little bads (one of whom is receiving a blood transfusion from Max, whom we met in the pre-title sequence dry, so he has to strap Max to the front of his car). All the bad guys chase after Furiosa, though this involves a lot of random car breakdowns which allows for the hood ornament (the titular Mad Max) to join up with the good guys. Then there are more breakdowns and chases. The most conventionally attractive of the wives dies. Eventually Furiosa, Max, and the remaining wives lose all the bad guys save for the one who used to be bleeding Max, but he was the kid in About a Boy so now he is good. They then, having driven past Furiosa’s home, which they thought might be Eden for reasons that defy explanation, decide to not drive forward toward another potential Eden, but instead turn around and drive back through the bad guys, creating another wave of destruction, killing a good number of good guys and the big bad in the process. They then return home as something akin to conquering heroes.
All of which is to say, why were any of these people doing any of this?
Why did Furiosa pick this moment to free the five wives? Did she have a good opportunity now? Not really, by my estimation. She gets noticed changing course almost immediately. Was it particularly crucial they leave now? If so, that wasn’t particularly well-explained. Did she have a plan beyond “turning left” or a destination beyond, “a green place”? No. Why did the big bad mount up and ride when he had a whole army at his disposal? What was any of these people’s goal? It seemed like the wives were (understandably) fed up with being used for breeding and reached a breaking point, but aside from that, all the action of this movie started with no direct intention. At one point, an associate of the big bad says, “all this for a domestic squabble,” which I guess was a meta-joke, but really it just made me check my watch and realize that we had another hour of post-apocalyptic polygamist madness to go.
Without clarity as to why an action sequence is going down the way it is, no amount of artistry is going to make a sequence resonant.
“Ah!” I can hear you saying, “sure the action happened arbitrarily, but this is an action movie! The action itself is what’s important!” And yeah, there’s a lot of action in this movie, and while it’s very pretty, it’s not compelling.
In one particularly attractive set piece, the car chase that is the movie runs into an electric sandstorm. This section looks very cool, but the risks inside the storm are unclear. For some cars this storm means instant death and destruction; for others not so much. Is it good fortune that lets our heroes make it through (relatively) unscathed? Or is it savvy driving? I don’t know, and that’s a huge problem.
Without clarity as to why an action sequence is going down the way it is, no amount of artistry is going to make a sequence resonant. A film like Edge of Tomorrow is built around this notion; our heroes have an edge (they keep reliving the action sequence) that allows them to consistently improve their performance within it. We as viewers understand what the challenges our heroes are facing are and how they might overcome them.
In Mad Max, the challenges and the resulting successes are (for the most part) arbitrary. Why do the good guys win? Are they better at planning? No, they have no coherent plan. Are they stronger? Are they better shots? Not really. They’re just luckier.
The trouble with effects
Leaning on the good fortune of a film’s heroes is a crutch of CGI blockbusters. Because computers allow directors to stage the impossible, they can rewrite the rules of action as need be so as to keep key characters alive and well. Fury Road has been touted as a different kind of blockbuster, one shot with primarily practical effects. But while the action sequences themselves may be real, the way in which they play out is just as silly as a typical CGI laden superhero movie. Despite the technique involved in filming, there’s little to separate Mad Max’s action from a wretched blockbuster like Man of Steel, aside from the color palate.
Oh that color palate, though. The world of Mad Max: Fury Road sure is designed! There’s a Wes Anderson–Burning Man attention to detail that screams “we worked hard on this, please like our art!” “Oh look,” you’re supposed to say with a gasp, “the gas pedal is a foot measuring device! From a shoe store in the old country, which for me is the present! How clever!” But it’s cleverness without meaning.
Twee-Burner nonsense would be a nice way to build out a world short on resources, except that everything seems to exist in the world fully formed. Where are the junkyards in the landscape from which this shit is being pulled? I get that in theory this is a world where scarcity of goods is a crucial factor, but all we see are the attractive (and inefficient) fruits of an outside hand. This isn’t a Star Wars-style lived-in universe; this is a universe of noticeable art direction. Which would be fine if that art direction lived in service of a great story. But it doesn’t. It’s just diverting window dressing.
The trouble with plot, continued
Back to the notion of scarcity: The big bad in this film is a bad guy both because he’s gross and has a quintet of wives, but also because he doles out water to his people with a miser’s touch. The film concludes with our returning heroes giving the people of his city all the water they can drink. Are we as viewers to believe there really was no problem with water scarcity? That the only problem was the villain’s miserliness? Or are they going to have to turn off the flow, only to repeat the cruelty of the master whose shackles they’ve wriggled off? All of which is to say the world of Fury Road is incoherent enough that the resolution lands with a thud.
Is Mad Max: Fury Road terrible? No. Is it better than an average action film? Also no. And I say this as someone who loves action movies. Even ones that are pure silliness appeal to me. Take Nic Cage’s face off, and I’ll be happy as long as you also set up the stakes of the world.
Mad Max doesn’t bother with that. Instead it tries to create stakes through aesthetics alone, and winds up being a film that’s forced to rely exclusively on its few truly visceral moments to engage its viewer. In terms of craft, Mad Max: Fury Road couldn’t be less similar to Avatar (which was over-scripted and relied exclusively on CGI for its action sequences) but the impact on me as a viewer was almost identical. I was thrilled on occasion, but mostly left cold, wondering why I was supposed to engage.
What you should watch instead
If you want a great recent action movie with a woman kicking ass, see Edge of Tomorrow. If you want to be moved by Tom Hardy driving (and, gasp, talking), see Locke. If you want to see a band of vagrants cross a wasteland with purpose, rewatch The Warriors. If you want style and substance paired in an action film, rewatch The Matrix. If you want a meticulously designed chase sequence staged with heart, watch The Grand Budapest Hotel. If you want post-apocalyptic imagery presented without context but imbued with real meaning, watch Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness.
Interested in another opinion? Read Aja Romano’s review, “‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is everything you’ve heard and so much more.”
Screengrab via Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube