All Fury, No Soul: Why Mad Max Left Me Empty and Disappointed

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Despite its glowing reviews, both by my friends and esteemed critics, Mad Max: Fury Road left me mystified and empty. What did I just see that they didn’t? What did they see that I missed? Because what I just saw was a dumbed-down spectacle of explosion and testosterone guaranteed to thrill any boy under sixteen…but everyone else? A 98% on Rotten Tomatoes? I’m at a loss. Have our standards really sunk so low?

Let me break it down for you: Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives some too-lovely-for-words concubines across an endless desert in a big rig, fighting an endless stream of bad guys with the assistance of Max (Tom Hardy). Other good and bad guys (and gals) drop in on occasion, but they rarely have names, or last more than a few minutes on screen.

I’ll admit the movie looks gorgeous. There are moments worthy of Lawrence of Arabia, breathtaking landscapes, exquisitely colored and perfectly lit. The colors are perfect, the production design and the costumes spectacular.

But beyond that? Plot, character, dialogue, humor, nuance, chemistry (sexual or intellectual), and logic are discarded, like one of the many weapons propelled across the screen. Instead, we’re left with something less substantial than a videogame, a nonstop barrage of violence and spectacle and explosion. Half the dialogue is unintelligible, and what can be understood would have been better off left unsaid. But who needs to talk when you’ve got a big gun?

The part that is most cringeworthy is how little padding could have been added to fill out the story beyond the barebones script that made it to production. We receive no backstory for any of the characters, no context for what is happening and why. And don’t tell me that action movies don’t have story, because the best ones do. And don’t tell me I need to read something else or watch something else in order to understand what I watched today. If I can follow season three of House of Cards without remembering either of the two previous seasons, I should be able to follow an action movie without remembering what came before.

Think about James Cameron’s Terminator II.

Cameron: “As I got ready to write the screenplay, I kept asking myself, What’s the real goal of this movie? Are we going to blow people away and get them all excited? Is that it? Or is there a way we can get them to really feel something? I thought it would be a real coup if we could get people to cry for a machine. If we could get people to cry for Schwarzenegger playing a robot, that would be terrific.”

Not just terrific, but interesting. Thoughtful. Provocative. What a concept!

In an average (emphasis on “average”) action film, action replaces character. Instead of building and defining the characters in Act 1 or Act 2, any needed character scenes are forsaken for action sequences, so the action continues non-stop. There’s no breathing space to get to know the characters because WE CANNOT STOP TO TALK. THINGS MUST BLOW UP.

Unlike Terminator II or Con Air or Die Hard, classic action movies based around rich and nuanced characters who evolve and grow over the course of the film, Mad Max gives us cardboard cutouts surrounded by flames and spikes and pistols.

For those outraged misogynists worried that their precious action franchise would be defiled by estrogen, let me reassure you that you have nothing to worry about. Charlize as Furiosa is utterly desexualized, but still in need of masculine assistance to save the day. She’s just woman enough to be helpless.

Conveniently, it is Max’s advice that leads them to the Promised Land (much as it is Max’s brute strength that saves them approximately 1,652 times). If it were up to Furiosa, the women would be wandering in the desert for 160 days (or until death, whichever came first). And those concubines, fresh off their Vogue spread? Don’t worry, they stay scantily clad for the whole film, their characters utterly undeveloped. They are just as forgettable and unknowable and distractingly lovely as a J. Crew catalogue model. These are not threats to the action hero throne.

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As an excuse for a plot, Furiosa is supposedly searching for redemption, although from what we are never told. Her backstory as conspicuously absent as her left arm. A better pursuit is to understand what is everyone else is seeing on the screen, because whatever it is, I cannot find it.

A quick search of Google images to find an image to accompany this post merely confirms my experience. The film is, in Lawrence of Arabia-style, endlessly full of endless desert. But unlike Lawrence of Arabia, there’s no “there there.” There’s no character, there’s no substance, and, as these screen shots testify, there are no real women there either. Feminists who want to support this movie, who want to throw their money behind an action franchise with some actual estrogen, will have to look elsewhere.

And if you manage to blow these images up real big, and set some fireworks off in the driveway, you’ll have saved yourself the cost of admission.

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