Mad Max: Fury Road is a distinctly “genre” film. It’s a post-apocalyptic vision built around an extended chase structure. It’s the sort of film that naturally suggests a limited audience of, well, the kind of people who watch post-apocalyptic films. It feels like it belongs in the same limited cultural niche as Transformers or Jupiter Ascending. It seems like it should be a film where basically teenage boys love it, but which will never be subject to serious critical attention, or make lists of all-time favourite films. It’s, how to pick, not Casablanca. It’s not in any sense “worthy”, it’s a high-Octane B-movie that gets in and does it’s genre tropes perfectly and we can all enjoy the “Think Geek” line of merchandise that venerates its cultural ghetto in due course. A couple of years ago, my social media inlets were similarly cluttered with ardent praise for Pacific Rim, with a certain percentage of people who just thought it was the best thing since Betty White.
What has struck me about the love being directed toward Mad Max: Fury Road is that it is unusually well articulated and unusually philosophical. There have been numerous pieces embracing it’s gender politics, for example, and at least one heartfelt piece about the power of seeing an amputee in a central role. The equivocation seems to derive almost entirely from the attire of the fleeing wives – should they be dressed so “hot”, in skimpy white flimsy? Is there a hint of betrayal in feminist-structural terms from the one wife who gets cold feet? Does the Vuvalinan bait need to be a completely naked woman? There’s a case to answer there, but I think that on the whole, Mad Max: Fury Road is less open to criticism than some films – I don’t think I’d have to work quite so hard to justify its inclusion in the all-time canon of great genre films as I had to for Fast and Furious 7.
I think for me, the positive criticism coalesces around only one or two really fundamental design principles for the film, which are often somewhat submerged below enthusiastically cited examples. The least controversial example is probably Furiosa’s missing hand and arm. This receives no explanation because it would have no bearing on anything that happens in the story. It sounds ridiculously simple when put like that, but it’s a storytelling principle that often gets lost in large Hollywood productions. The unexplained lose end bothers the tidy minds of producers, so that we get plenty of genre films which are very very heavy on exposition. The most egregious examples in my mind are the opening monologue to Dark City or the voice-over for Bladerunner. I’m sure you can conjure your own examples without much help – you could start with the afore-mentioned Pacific Rim and Jupiter Ascending, both of which devote a huge amount more time to exposition than can possibly be justified by the complexity of events on screen.
The lack of exposition or, really, explanation, reveals a basic design assumption: that the audience wants to positively engage with the story. Another way of looking at this fundamental principle is that the creator has confidence in their product, so doesn’t need the hand-holding that most genre pieces seem to feel is required. My main complaint in this area is the constant string of super-hero origin stories. There are rumours of yet another Spiderman reboot – and I can’t think of anything more pointless that you could do in cinema right now. Even when Raimi’s film came out, there could only have been two or three people in the worldwide audience who genuinely needed to see Uncle Ben die to understand Spiderman’s ethos – let alone the actual spider bite. Can’t we just accept that super-heroes are a thing now and just start out with Iconic Heroes engaging in their Iconic activities? I mean, we watch detective stories without having to spend the first half of the mystery seeing how the detective became interested in crime, right?
The one small thing I think has not received as much praise as it should is the wonderful creation that is Immortan Joe. Immortan Joe has an amazing theatrical sense. It is obvious he sustains his empire as much through a sense of drama as outright fear. Everything he does projects his identity, and hence the identity of his servants. His public speeches are brief, but the rhetoric is wonderful: “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence!” When his troops ride out into the desert with a war guitarist and slate of war drummers, you know that appearances count as power. There’s a parable there somewhere, about our modern world.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a wonderful genre exercise that takes itself just seriously enough, and has a palpable respect for the audience. I’m not actually convinced it will become a true genre classic, because I think the basic chase story may not be robust enough to hold attention in repeat viewings. I remember loving The Cannonball Rally and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – but I’ve never bothered to re-watch them, because there’s just not enough complexity to hold my attention. For all that this film does what it does perfectly, the interesting things about it are all peripheral to the basic story activity.