If you’ve been around me for the past two months you’ve probably heard me talk about Mad Max Fury Road. I’m no attempt at hiding this Fury Road is not only now one of my favorite movies but a film that I consider a masterpiece. Since I love a lot of movies that people don’t like, and dislike a lot of movies that people do, I wanted to give the film a larger breakdown of why I love this film. There are spoilers to Fury Road and other movies used in the discussion.
The State of Action Films: Franchises, Super Heroes, and Special Effects
I would like to set the stage for my review by discussing the modern action film genre. For almost the past ten years by Super Heroes, the “Big Budget Action” movie franchises, and the increasing use of special effects. These trends are a problem for the genre and heres why:
The franchise effect or “The decline of Die Hard”
Action movies by their very nature rely on tension to tell the story and drive audience engagement. The viewer is present with the possibility that a character is in some sort of mortal peril, and react to this possibility. You have to have some sort of stakes involved. In the world of the franchise characters are no longer in danger because you know the existence of sequels. Case in point, when Die Hard first came out and really revitalized the action movie, the audience was presented with multiple instances of John McClain being vulnerable and this vulnerability was central to the advancement to the story. He was just an everyman trying to survive. Now in the latest film in the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard we have seen John McClain survive four movies increasingly bizarre action situation. Because we’ve seen him survive time and time again the tension required for a engaging action movie is not there. At no point are you concerned about Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear blast, Superman destroying a city, James Bond in a trap, or any number of alien invasions.
Some of the more well regarded action movies of the past few years have bucked the trend of franchise. Notables example are John Wick, a quality action movie, and Kingsmen a unique take on a spy movies. However, budgets for films are bigger now and Hollywood is risk averse so we will get many more sequels and reboots.
George R. R. Martin doesn’t write super hero movies.
Related to the previous point; Super hero films lose drama and engagement because intimate aspects of the characters themselves, that they are better than average people, make the uniquely suited for survival. At no point are you worried about Batman losing, because Batman is Batman. Superman doesn’t die because he is Superman. Because of the lack of real stakes for the protagonists in the Super Hero movies, films have to rely on side characters to provide the stakes, which is hard. In The Dark Knight we’re told to worry about Batman’s love interest (you know, Whats Her Name) and in fact she is killed off in the film. Her death would normally be a big deal except the film have very limited time to develop Whats Her Name’s significance to Batman/Bruce Wayne.
Imagine you’re a filmmaker making a super hero movie. You know you have a tension development problem and you can solve it in a multiple ways but due to constraints of time and money you only have two options, you can write a better story or you can ignore characters all together. Most super hero movies and action movies in general have chosen the Ignore Characters option and seek to drive tension by increasing the stakes of collateral damage. Examples: You know Batman won’t die but you can threaten blowing up a city. You know the Superman won’t die but you can threaten to kill all humanity. An upcoming super hero movie’s threat is the destruction of all reality. Now You’re in a war of escalating stakes with other movies seeking to derive the most tension and drama from the threat of mass destruction (which may be a sad aspect of post 9/11 culture). Welcome to Hollywood.
In film one of the hardest things to do is to significantly develop character relationships, it requires skill and time. Television has an advantage over films in that stories can be given significantly more time for characters, helping develop the audience engagement. We see far more drama driven be character deaths in series like HBO’s Game of Thrones or Netflix Daredevil. Only the Avengers films have be interested in killing side characters on screen. In the skill department only a few super hero films have managed to pull off engaging characters, the first Iron Man comes to mind as a great example as well as Guardians of the Galaxy. Prior to Guardians could you have imagined caring about a talking raccoon and tree person who can only say “I am Groot”.
Special effects are now less special.
This is a pretty simple critique, effects are so common now that they have diminishing returns as tools for story telling. In less than 20 years we went from “We have the special effects to destroy cities now!” to “Well in this scene I guess we’ll destroy a city.” The movie magic of special effects has now been diminished which means films can either double down, regurgitating the same stuff over and over again, or be inventive and new. Alas as we all know inventive and new is hard and risky.
Now that we have discussed the sad state of action films I will make the case that not only does Fury Road have inventive fixes for all the problems of modern action films, but that it may be great enough to be enshrined among the greatest action films of all time.
This movie is a masterpiece of editing, pacing, tone, action, character, and world construction. It’s visual ecstasy on film, and a testimony to what modern films can be, oddly coming from such an old school film. George Miller is a 70 year old filmmaker, yet has created a film so inventive you couldn’t possibly imagine it not coming from some young renegade filmmaker looking to reinvent the genre.
It’s action packed and violent, and while touching on many levels. It captures the horror of a punk/heavy-metal post apocalyptic wasteland, and the hearts of those just trying to survive. It’s feminist in its treatment of women. The female characters are just as resourceful and utilitarian as the men, they are not objects to the film. It’s ruthlessly logical, and beautifully insane all at the same time.
Characters behave logically within the film’s established world and they can only do so because of the detail built into the world. There’s a commitment to physicality that you don’t see in films these days (Shia Lebeouf just fell 30 stories out of a building but it’s okay because he was caught by a giant metal robot!)
Above all it’s a film that trust the audience. It let’s you put together the pieces of the plot and its world as you see it and at no point babies the audience with expository dialog. You are thrown into the world, like the characters themselves, and are left to figure everything out in the race for survival.
I don’t know how a film this good got made in modern global Hollywood. Damn am I glad it did. It came roaring in from the desert with hope.
Bonus Round: How to Make a Title Card.
Above is the title card for Fury Road. In film, title cards are art elements that can be ignored or embraced to benefit of a film. You can have minimalist title card meant to not detract from the immersiveness of the film, or they can be tone setting (ex: Star Wars) and given their own place within the film. What a film chooses to do with a title card says a lot of how the film was made.
Few title cards lately have had the detail put into them as Fury Road. Entire scenes were created to lead to the title card to intimately connect it to an actual moment within the film. The type was physically cut out of metal in a desire to match the physical world Miller created for the film. It’s tactile and has weight to it’s movement, and more work went into the sound design for this one scene, than what goes into most films. I would list it as perhaps the third best title card in all film (precceded by 1. Star Wars, and 2. Alien).