18 May, 2015

From the Ashes of the Old World

A review by James Kislingbury

I find it completely baffling that it took thirty years for another Mad Max to come out. That's four presidential administrations. That's longer than my entire life. It's insane. It's even more insane to think that after three decades out of the theaters, we have another one in the form of George Miller's fourth installment in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road. Having watched it, having done the math on this, I've come to the conclusion that the thirty year wait was worth it.

What is Mad Max? What are you, one of those cult kids in Texas? It's Mad Max. It's a series of films that launched an entire aesthetic. What other movies can you think of that can describe an artwork or a song or a jacket in short hand than Mad Max? These movies loom large in our imaginations, in our culture. For a good chunk of time the original Mad Max was the most profitable film of all time. The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2 if you're naughty) is one of the gold standards of action films. Even maligned Beyond Thunderdome lives beyond its flaws in the form of the title alone. As this Warren Ellis brain-projection will tell you, to at least one person on earth it's his Star Wars.

Fury Road's strengths are not so much that it's an excellent sequel, but that it is an excellent film. It's a film that is worth of its name, but also worth of its legacy. It's a film that like the first films, will be recgnozied for the wake of creative wreckage that it leaves behind it.

It's also a bone-crunchingly intense film from beginning to end. Almost the entirety of Fury Road consists of a chase. It's broken up, intelligently into bite-sized chunks. In its fury, it manages to relent just long enough to make us care a little bit more about the characters and get our appetites whetted for the next blast of carnage. In that way Fury Road doesn't seem so much like a sequel to Beyond Thunderdome as it does a strange spawn of Apocalypto.

Now, we could talk about the acting and the directing and the music and how great they are, but to me what i indicative of all of those things is the art design. You look at the design of this film and you understand everything else that went into it. One cannot be separated from the other. This film is details. A team of people lovingly crafted this film. They wanted to make this movie the best movie that they could and it shows. As a viewer you see this movie and you know it's no bullshit. It's clear in each and every frame that this is a movie helmed by a man who loves his subject matter, who respects his audience, and still wants to make a lot of executives happy.

Why does she have a robot arm? Because when you see it you understand everything you need to know about this woman (though her Alien 3-era Ripley hair helps). We're not dumb. We see that and we understand who she is. No monologues, no Basil Exposition. Just cinema beamed directly from the screen to your brain and it's awesome. It's these small things that add up into something much larger. Something much more monstrous and loud and awesome.

God, it's awesome, guys.

As much as Fury Road is a movie about movement and the universal language of aciton, it is a movie that's also about ideas. It's funny, because as loud as the movie is, it has thoughts to spare. Fury Road is a spectacle film that works in a way that something like Interstellar does not. It's themes are as much as part of the story as the story is a part of the themes. Like the design and the direction, the two are inseperable.

Fury Road is fundamentally about genders roles and, as Uhh Yeah Dude would phrase it "The relationaship between man and woman." It's a world of the hyper-masculine and the hyper-feminine, mixed in with pair of the baddest warrior monks this side of Lone Wolf and Cub (actually, is Furiosa a "battle nun?"). The film is about the interplay between all of these factions, between the aggressive male and submissive female, between freedom and oppression. And about, you know, cars smashing into shit. It has me thinking about gender roles in a way that I haven't thought about them since, like, Alien. Maybe that's more a mark against myself than it is a mark for the film.

There's also something personally edifying about the successes of Mad Max: Fury Road. I love the fact that the public seems to have embraced it in the way that they have. William Gibson was re-tweeting about it. So was Patton Oswalt (though, what doesn't he tweet about?). My co-workers are talking about it. Rotten Tomatoes is ranking it as one of the best reviewed movies of the year, aciton or otherwise. To me it proves that people want something to bite into. They want something bigger and better than a movie that is simply bigger and better.

Disney's Marvel's The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron seems like the antithesis of this film. Even the people who enjoyed it didn't really seem to enjoy it. They seemed to vaguely tolerate it. They seemed to aprove of its spectacle in a way that I find to be profoundly depressing. I'm not even going to get into the amount of think pieces this movie generated. While I wasn't a huge fan of the first one (In short: too long, too all over the place, and too safe), that movie had fans the world over. They were people of all religions, races, ages, genders, whatever. People loved that movie. To many it was a triumph of the genre. To its manufacturers, it was a financial triumph, as well.

Fury Road seems to have an energy behind it that DmtA2:AoU doesn't seem capable of. There's something in the air that makes me feel that Fury Road is this movie that everyone was waiting for. They didn't know they needed it until it was here. It's like some sort of violent, cinematic messiah. Like a thief in the night, here comes Fury Road, all eight-cylinders and pumping blood. What is more is that Fury Road is worthy of this energy. People recognize that it is not so much a bill of sale, as it is a work of cinema. It's a carnival. It's cinema. It's what we go to movie theaters to see. It isn't the artifice of spectacle or what we're told spectacle looks like, either. It's pure in a way that people can see. Fury Road is a movie with weight.

I don't know if Fury Road will have the staying power of The Road Warrior, a movie that like Blade Runner doesn't seem to so much have fans as it has acolytes. The Road Warrior is less a film, more of a sacred text in blood-fueled action cinema. It's a cult film in the most proper sense of the word. Fury Road is awesome. . . I said that already, right? It's a great film. It's a both a breath of fresh air and a familiar blanket that you can wrap yourself in. That's a fine line to walk.

Fury Road does what so many big action movies haven't done in what feels like forever: It is as awesome as it is good. It is a film full of creative energy that feels like nothing else I have ever seen. It's pure energy played out on a forty foot screen. I know it sounds like I am speaking in hyperbole, but I feel rather strongly about this film. It is a movie that needs to be seen in theaters, at great speed, and with as many friends as you can muster, because like Max himself, Fury Road is a creature that seems to be increasingly rare in the world it lives in. 

I can't wait to see it again.

James Kislingbury is a survivor. He podcasts about cult movies. He's working on a book. He has a Patreon up if you want to fatten him up a bit.