Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road
Grade: A
Genre: Action

I'm not an action movie fan.  I don't particularly dislike action movies, but they aren't my favorite genre.  Which is why, watching Mad Max in the theater last year, I was surprised to notice, about halfway through the movie, that my face ached and I felt kind of stiff because I'd been sitting, literally, on the edge of my seat with a rictus grin of joy, awe, and amazement on my face.

Before I get into the more important parts of the review, there is one thing that stands out about Fury Road that makes it amazing, the severe shortage of downtime.  As Randal Monroe observed in this XKCD strip, most "action" movies are mostly about a bunch of people talking with a few spurts of action in between the talking.

I can't find an actual breakdown of action vs talking in Fury Road, I may try to time it myself one day, but there isn't much talking and there's a whole lot of action.  If, out of two hours of movie there were even thirty minutes that wasn't action I'll be amazed.

Fury Road is simply one long, extended, car chase filled with explosions and gunfire.

It is a movie that grabbed me from the first scenes, held my throat in its fist for the full two hours, and finally left me gasping for breath and begging for more at the end.  I have never, in my entire life, experienced a movie that managed to maintain the adrenaline pumping thrill of a well shot and choreographed action sequence for that long.

And yet, if that was all there was to Fury Road, it'd be a fine bit of action poetry but ultimately (like Sucker Punch) kind of forgettable.

But unlike Zach Snyder, George Miller managed to put characters you care about, characters who grow,  and even a plot and some serious thinking into the poetry he wove out of sheer pulse pounding action.

Miller takes the axiom of show, don't tell, to an extreme and manages to make it work.  The setting tells the story, the costumes tell the story, the characters tell the story by the way they look and how they stand and move and behave.  But they don't tell the story by talking much.

I'd compare this to the way that some very good written science fiction conveys a wealth of world building through only a few lines of dialog or a description that isn't directly exposition.  The exposition, the unveiling of the world, is there but only to the reader willing to invest the time to think it through and figure it out.  Fury Road is much the same.

We know, for example, a great deal about Furiosa.  We know that she believes she has crossed the moral event horizon, that she has done things to survive that violated every moral and ethical tenet she holds.  And we know this not through someone telling us, but simply by who she is, what she is, and the setting she exists in.

She is the only woman to hold any position of martial power in Immortan Joe's society.  Every single other member of his military is a man.  His entire society is based around turning women into property, valuing them only for their reproductive ability, in a way that is a cartoon caricature of the worst of patriarchy.  And yet, in that society, Furiosa, captured as a slave when she was a child, has risen to be one of his most trusted lieutenants.

All this is conveyed simply by the setting, Furiosa being who she is, and, when she was asked what she was looking for, her one word answer: redemption.

Miller writes dialog like words cost money, and the result is beautiful, rich, storytelling done with almost no words at all.  The entire evolving relationship between Max and Furiosa, a relationship that begins with them as bitter enemies and grows to them becoming true comrades in arms, is accomplished with virtually no dialog at all.  Words are almost wholly replaced by action and expression not just there, but through the movie as a whole, and it is vastly better for it.

Unlike the other Mad Max movies, there is no voice over dénouement at the end.  I think Miller made exactly the right decision there.  The movie stands on its own, and it doesn't need Charlize Theron explaining it to us once its over.

All told, Fury Road is well deserving of an A, it is easily two steps up from the average movie in terms of artistry, craft, and sheer enjoyment.  Especially when you remember that they did almost all of it with practical effects, not CGI.  Miller made Fury Road by heading into the outback with a bunch of cars, cameras, and actors, then shooting over 500 hours of material that he cut down to a single, glistening, gem exactly two hours long.

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