*This review may contain very light spoilers
Mad Max: Fury Road is currently the king at the box office (except for being hilariously trounced by Pitch Perfect 2 at its opening) and it seems like there isn’t a media outlet or moviegoer out there that didn’t absolutely love the crap out George Miller’s epic post-apocalyptic comeback. Ok, so there are a few contrarians and bloggers servicing the minority of viewers that hated the movie, but as a whole , your ears are probably falling off from the praise that Fury Road gets from virtually everyone you talk to. Truth be told, I didn’t write this piece to join the haters or to add very unnecessary fuel to the fires of adulation; the fact is that I had a good time and got to see the movie in wonderful and intelligent company. My problem is that this film pissed me off and I needed a platform to really get to the bottom of that feeling.
Fury Road is a visual masterpiece, from its gorgeous art direction, to its intricate costume design, to perhaps its most awe-inspiring feature, those ridiculously badass vehicles (and vehicle battles). The film actually starts off on a high note story-wise. The tension is there, the strangeness, the maniacal rush of imagery and sound; I was probably under its spell for a good 10-20 minutes until Max started to actually speak, and then it seemed to go everywhere and nowhere for the next hour-and-a-half in deafening, confusing, and frustrating fashion.
I guess this is where you have to choose a camp as an audience-member. Are you a seasoned Mad Max enthusiast that’s seen the entire series and recognizes Road Warrior as a quasi-masterpiece? Are you a casual viewer who’s definitely heard of the franchise but otherwise came into Fury Road with a clean slate and an appetite for some Tom Hardy/Charlize Theron? For myself, being part of the former and a little bit the latter, the Mad Max saga is simply iconic. It’s not a Star Wars or Lotr type thing, Mad Max is more of a cultural staple, a series of films that changed the game in cinema and fashion and pretty much gave birth to the post-apocalyptic genre as whole, while also plunging North America into a wonderfully strange obsession with Australians that would culminate with Crocodile Dundee and that freaky Energizer guy. For the record, I love Aussies.
So if you’ve seen at least one of the original Mad Max films, even the saxophone-infused Beyond the Thunderdome, you might have noticed while watching Fury Road that this film seems to take an almost complete departure from the universe set down in the first three films. Max’s wasteland was a strange and enigmatic frontier of killers, survivors, and weirdos, but in Fury Road we seem to have left this planet and landed somewhere between John Carter’s of Mars and Tatooine. George Miller’s dark post-cataclysmic universe may have always been filled with outlandish things, but they had always made sense up until this point, at least they were based in the realm of the plausible.
Sure, Lord Humongous (the baddie from Road Warrior) was absolutely bizarre. This well-spoken tyrant trapped in the body of hockey-masked WWE wrestler who liked to preach through a loudspeaker while his indian-punk wasteland biker gang roasted their victims alive, but the whole thing was still possible in an extreme setting. Everything technological was cobbled together, ugly, barely functioning. Fury Road seems to be vaguely exist in this space, but then there’s a guy with steampunk respirator, an impossibly sophisticated water pumping system, dieselpunk stock cars, super speed bikes, and wasteland gangs that all seem to employ the services of very talented costume stylists. These same gangs like to attack in waves using an assortment of Cirque du Soleil acrobatic stunts that end up costing the lives of their soldiers more than giving them any kind of edge.
The film is also impossibly loud an obnoxious-sounding with a score that is neither memorable or fun. I hoped that Miller of all people, having mostly stayed true to his films at in the special effects department, would opt for a more subtle score, or something that meshes with the previously established bleakness of Mad Max. Instead we got ear-shredding tent pole noise the likes of which made me want to vomit during the last 20 minutes of Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises.
I could pick out several other problems I had with Fury Road, but I think there was one detail above all that deflated this film for me; they screwed up Max. The character development was nearly absent from the film entirely (Charlize Theron in particular is to be lauded for breathing any life into her character), but nothing stung me as much as George Miller’s apparent amnesic treatment of Max. Mel Gibson’s Max was a deeply burnt soul, a total PTSD case who had to make a concentrated effort to form words and eye-contact when he was forced to socialize. He was a lone wolf with a broken spirit that just wanted to drive on into the unknown and never feel again. This portrayal is what made Max so compelling when he would be forced into the role of a saviour and protector. He was the quintessential reluctant hero who would never fall in love again, never become your friend because he knew that eventually he would be the only one to survive the NWO. He didn’t have music video flashbacks or supernatural ghost apparitions telling him which way to go. He didn’t smirk and do physical comedy.
This Max, as little as we get to experience him in Fury Road, is a bad pastiche of the original. One minute he’s a silent madman, then a mumbling lunatic, then a bumbling hijacker, and suddenly a touchy-feely hero that warns Furiosa, “I’m so sorry about this” as he performs a completely ridiculous blood transfusion in the back seat of a truck. I think I could deal with all the other inconsistencies that Fury Road threw at me during its exhausting two-hour romp, but how can I get behind a film that couldn’t even get its protagonist right?