A gorgeously shot film that is hampered by a spartan story that never really goes anywhere and action that becomes repetitive by the end of the first act.
Note: this is a first impression review soon after seeing the film; I'll update it after a second viewing.
The first sequence in Mad Max: Fury Road is brilliant. After Max is caught and taken to the Citadel, a city in the desert ruled by a despot and populated by people living in squalor, he is about to be branded when he breaks free from his captors and attempts to escape. The initial sequence is thrilling and sets the tone for the movie perfectly. Sequences look like they were filmed at low frame-rates then played back at real-time, with a fast, somewhat jerky feel to the movement. But it is crisp the entire time. By the end of the scene, I was on the edge of my seat and smiling. This movie seemed destined for greatness. Alas, it was not.
I would like to preface this piece by saying that not only critics, but many people recommended this movie with accolades to spare. I didn't quite know what to expect, but when phrases like 'it will restore your faith in movies' are being bandied about, I was amped to go see it. I'll talk about a couple things in this review that help explain in part why it was a disappointment, but also why it is still worth seeing: how it compares to other recent action movies, the musical score, female empowerment, the characters (or lack thereof), the editing and visuals, and some parting thoughts. This review contains spoilers.
Quick plot synopsis: Mad Max (Tom Hardy) is captured and taken to the Citadel, which is run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an old despot seemingly on his last legs. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is tasked with taking a tanker to Gas Town to collect gasoline (surprise!). Turns out she's stolen Joe's five wives—Toast (Zoe Kravitz), Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whitney), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Kershaw), and Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—and is attempting to take them to safety. Mad Max is brought along to catch the girl by being a blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a rider in Joe's army whose obsessed with achieving glory (references to warriors going to the gates of Valhalla). What results is an extended cat-n-mouse chase sequence across the desert as Joe attempts to retrieve his wives.
To put this movie into context, I'm just going to list off a couple of other blockbuster-style action flicks of the past year or so and a one line impression:
- Captain America: Winter's Soldier - excellent fight choreography and a darker storyline that stands in stark contrast to the first movie's B-movie romp.
- Godzilla - attempted to add gravitas to the franchise but forgot about the main attraction, namely that we came to see Godzilla duke it out with other monsters.
- X-Men: Days Of Future Past - retconned the X-Men timeline but was watchable and had some cool fight scenes (and an awesome Quicksilver scene), but seemed to introduce more questions than it answered.
- Transformers 4 - not technically a movie, more of an amusement ride that is fun while it last, as long as one doesn't think too hard.
- Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes - a couple characters actually develop during the movie, the plot is coherent, and the action is a mix of realism and OMFG ridiculous.
- Guardians of the Galaxy - fantastic, made fun of itself and executed well on the base premise while delivering crisp action and witty dialog.
- The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies - a confused, unnecessary sequel that featured a lot of action with no real desire on the viewers part to care after the first act has run its course.
- Furious 7 - mindless fun with a half-baked attempt at a story.
- Age of Ultron - had a couple of moments, but felt overstuffed as it ended up mostly being a setup for phase 3 Marvel movies.
These movies run the gambit from guilty pleasure (Transformers 4) to brilliantly executed (Guardians, Dawn, and Winter Soldier) to B-level action flicks (Ultron and Furious 7). Mad Max: Fury Road sits squarely in the last category and yet has received oodles of praise (see Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores). It might be that this movie takes more than one viewing, but leaving the theater I didn't feel like I was lifted into another world, left pondering some new idea, or anything else similarly profound. I wasn't even left raving about the awe inspiring visual treat, as was the case with the sublime Pacific Rim. Rather, there was a feeling of 'oh, that was neat'.
Now, this takes nothing away from the visual spectacle of the movie. The car chase scenes (i.e. the entire movie) are fantastic and well done. Besides the dust storm scene in the first act of the movie, all the stunts and action feels visceral and real (even if they weren't as real as portrayed). However, precisely because the movie's world has gone mad and has limited resources, the variety of action tends to be quite limited. Truth be told, there wasn't that many inventive new cars or gadgets in this Mad Max and by the end both of the film I had grown a bit tired of the carnage.
While the visual effects were largely great in isolation, the editing is all over the place. There are points when the movie fades to black, with the audio becoming silent, only to cut into the middle of the next scene in progress. It is at times jarring and it is unclear whether this is meant to allude to a specific style of film making or is just a cheeky effect to be different. There are also odd little moments, such as when they are removing the baby from Splendid (one of Joe's wives that he uses), one of the War Boys yells out that he had a brother, and the camera cuts to a different scene without lingering. Within the movie, the switch from removing the baby to this yelling of glee feels odd and forced. Maybe within the insane world that the movie's characters reside these little quirks make sense and are consistent. But in the movie these moments come off as incongruent with the general flow of the film and often left me wondering if the scene was supposed to be taken tongue-in-cheek or if some things accidentally made it past the cutting room floor.
Mad Max's score was great overall (give it a listen here), but there were times when it was inappropriately used. There was a point in the middle of the movie when the action has slowed down and the protagonists (Furiousa, Mad Max, and crew) are deciding what to do next. Furiousa walks out into the desert and cries that they have not found the 'Green Place' they were searching for. There is a swelling of music and it appears we are supposed to feel for her and the loss at not finding the promised land; yet, the movie has not earned this moment, and like the other out-of-place moments described previously, feels slightly misplaced and breaks the pacing of the film. However, other than this and a couple other moments, the soundtrack has a great energy to it and Junkie XL did a great job with the composition on that front.
One thread that runs through many reviews of the film is female empowerment. Absurd comparisons are being made between Imperator Furiosa and the Alien series legend Ellen Ripley or Terminator's Sarah Connor. But I see none of that here. Her being a strong female is seen as empowering, when her role appears to just as easily been filled by a male character. The women she is trying to save, Joe's wives, spend most of the movie seeming more spoiled and bone-headed than tough women who've been kidnapped and abused their entire lives. They often make remarks and one-liners during the movie that are out of place and give a feeling that their back stories, personality traits, and other characteristics were not fully fleshed out before they were brought into the script and onto the screen, an error that Orson Scott Card noted (see How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy) is sometimes made and can detract from the overall narrative. Lastly, at the end of the day, it is Max (male) who suggests/leads them to safety and it is Nux (male), Joe's warrior whose defected to Mad Max/Furiousa's team, who ultimately sacrifice his life to save them.
Further, one of the wives (Splendid) dies during the chase scene and her sacrifice is a combination of doltish decisions and out-of-character actions, especially when you realize that she's partaking in unnecessarily risky actions while pregnant that eventually leads to her death. There is this misguided notion floating around that having a strong, in the male sense of the word, female lead and a story that revolves around the actions of female characters somehow means a movie is empowering for females. What actually comes across is that this was a convenient way to rope in an Oscar Winner (Theron) and have a handy MacGuffin that allows the movie to become one long car chase.
Beyond the poorly executed attempt at female empowerment is Mad Max, the title character cum sidekick. Max's motivations throughout the movie are never quite clear and his character left somewhat of an empty vessel, an issue the movie never quite resolves and attempts to use as a strength. This is amplified by the flashbacks. Here they never seem like anything other than distractions and they could have all been condensed into a short, 30 second dream sequence during the short breather in the middle of the film. The biggest issue is that they seem to assume some familiarity with the past movies and if you haven't seen the original, The Road Warrior, or Beyond Thunderdome, it doesn't quite make sense. Further, they give an odd sense of Deus ex machina near the movies Ordeal-like moment in the middle, when Mad Max changes his mind from abandoning the crew to helping them get back to the Citadel. Given the character's seeming desire to survive at any costs, this reversal of attitude is hard to swallow and seemingly is there to allow us to enjoy another hour of car chasing.
The world is as much a character in movies as the living beings. George Miller takes a more minimalist route and doesn't give the audience every detail, allowing them to build their own impressions and fill-in the blanks. But for some reason I never quite get the feeling that we are really in a desert or a post-apocalyptic world. There is never the oppressive, ever present heat ala Lawrence of Arabia. Further, it is never quite clear where they are able to obtain resources necessary to build all the cars and maintain a stead supply of oil to power them. But these are details that can be forgiven amidst the visual spectacle on display.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a good film, one that many are surprised could get made given the current climate in Hollywood. It is not great nor is it transcendent. The frenetic pacing and kinetic action is a slight deviation from the CGI laden world of modern Hollywood films, but that does not mean the movie is fresh or revolutionary. In some sense, the movie is very conservative in that it is mostly taking a style from the late 70s or early 80s and updating it. Hardy and Theron do as good a job with their roles as is expected considering the spartan script, but given all the hype surrounding the film, I was expecting to leave with a 'that was balls-to-the-walls amazing' impression rather than a a distinct sense of one 'hmm, that was enjoyable'. That is not a bad thing, but not the stuff of a classic movie that Mad Max: Fury Road has been touted to be.