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Frenzy on Fury Road: Mad Max faces a post-digital apocalypse

How does Fury Road fit into the continuum of George Miller’s earlier films? © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

A cortege of battletrucks tears across the desert. A muscle-bound maniac roars pretty nothings at the bleak sky. A bald boy, face painted white, scurries around like a cockroach left stranded in a post-apocalyptic world.

There are metal spikes, sadistic implements of torture galore, massive machine guns mounted on the top of buggies, jeeps, motorcycles, and more leather than a Judas Priest concert.

The film, of course, is Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s long-awaited Mad Max sequel.

The story is a melange of the second (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior – 1981) and third (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – 1985) entries, following a series of battles between a gang led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keayes-Byrne), an obese warrior kept alive by a Marilyn Manson-esque breathing apparatus, and a group of renegades led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the eponymous Max (Tom Hardy).

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

In the post-apocalyptic future, Immortan and his cronies control the water in the “Citadel”, with Immortan leveraging this biopower to acquire petrol and bullets. The action begins when Furiosa liberates Immortan’s “breeders”, a group of young desert nymphs, and they head “east” towards the “Green place” of Furiosa’s youth, accompanied by Max.

They are pursued by Immortan, with other gangs joining the hunt along the way.

The desert we’ve seen before

The whole thing looks striking. The supersaturated reds of daytime desert (shot in Namibia, after the intended shoot location of Broken Hill fell through) are beautifully contrasted with the sombre blues of night, recalling the desert tones of Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984).

Several of the sequences have a compulsively hallucinogenic quality, though this, coupled with the hammy performances of most of the cast, seems to verge more often than not on parody.

Nathan Jones and Hugh Keays-Byrne in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

This is a problem that plagues any late-coming sequel, and it is amplified when the earlier films have been so influential.

Having lived through hundreds of Mad Max homages and clones, from Italian actioner Warriors of the Wasteland (1983) to Filipino exploitation yarn Stryker (1983), from Neil Marshall’s medium-sized production Doomsday (2008) to Kevin Reynolds’ big budget extravaganza Waterworld (1995), we are so used to the tropes of the post-apocalypse film that everything in Fury Road seems like unimaginative cliché or worse, lampoon.

Gender renegades

Megan Gale in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

Charlize Theron is strong as the heroine of the film, much more dominant than Max.

Tom Hardy, however, is miscast as Max: Mel Gibson has a face that seems bent on revenge, rugged and Roman, with a hint of mania in the eye. Hardy, in contrast, has a face that seems bent on rowing in an Oxbridge regatta – and it is no surprise that Miller barely focuses on Hardy’s face throughout the film.

Whereas Max in the earlier films was stoic, a reluctant Messiah wandering the wasteland and imbuing the films with a sense of mythical solitude and pathos, Max in Fury Road is simply there – often barely present in his scenes.

Theron receives her fair share of lingering close-ups, though these too seem a little rushed, the camera frequently moving away from her gaze before the full solemnity of the situation can register for the viewer.

Does the shift in focus away from Max towards Furiosa reflect some kind of postmodern sensitivity to gender? Not really: the women who are featured, warriors though they may be, are mostly scantily-clad. The only “naked” body we see in the film belongs to model Megan Gale – proving her acting chops by frowning a lot.

The pace of the action

Miller and crew evidently put a great deal of time and energy into the film’s action sequences, but everything is shot and cut at such a monotonously frenetic pace that the sequences lose any meaningful impact. This is clearly post-digital cinema, and the classical style that made Miller’s earlier films so effective is sorely missed in Fury Road.

Fluctuations of rhythm and fluctuations of tempo are what endow an action sequence with potency, as demonstrated in the work of great action directors like Sam Peckinpah, John Woo and Robert Rodriguez.

The interplay between movement and stasis creates the tension that compels the viewer to engage with the image. If every sequence is developed according to one rhythm and tempo, no matter how “high octane” this may be, the whole thing becomes dull, and the visceral impact of the action sequences in Fury Road is completely undermined by their lack of rhythmic variation.

It is difficult to understand why the film of an auteur like Miller would be so lacking in sensitivity to cinematic rhythm – unless it’s a matter of the medium moving beyond the man. Has the “freedom” offered by digital cinema in fact hamstrung Miller’s ability to create a powerful action sequence?

In the 1964 essay Camus’ Stranger Retried , French literary theorist René Girard writes that every artist revisits and critiques his or her earlier works in his or her new work.

How, then, does Fury Road fit into the continuum of Miller’s earlier films, and what is Miller saying about his oeuvre in this new film?

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). © Warner Bros. Pictures and © Roadshow Films

Mad Max then and now

Mad Max identified the desolate qualities of the Australian landscape and used the landscape as a springboard for an interrogation of Australian cultural mythologies of mateship, masculinity, the bush, and so on. There’s a hauntingly off-beat quality about it that is probably as much a product of budgetary limitations as intentionality on the part of Miller.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior tapped into the anarcho-right tendencies of the time, both affirming and laying bare the advent of neoliberal capitalism in the US and UK, whilst at the same time inspiring a generation of rock bands and filmmakers. Thatcher’s infamous comment that “there’s no such thing as society” certainly resonates in the second film.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome continued in this tradition, amplifying the mythical tendencies of both scene and character and reflecting, in the process, on the earlier films in the series.

Whence emerges Mad Max: Fury Road? Is it, even if, in Macbeth’s words, “full of sound and fury,” a “tale told by an idiot … signifying nothing”?

Further reading:
How Mad Max wrote the script for the action blockbuster

Mad Max: Fury Road opens internationally today.

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