My 2015 movie summer (part 3)

So what is the best movie of the summer?

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In a world that’s chock full of regressive sequels and reboots, Mad Max: Fury Road is a breath of fresh air.

Wait, that’s not quite right.

On paper, leading into the year, Fury Road seemed like yet another sequel for a long dormant franchise. True, Mad Max was never a blockbuster series, but it has fans and has carved a rather enduring niche into the public consciousness. “Two men enter, one man leaves!” is regularly quoted, even by people who haven’t seen the film. (Ironically, the line is from the oft-maligned Thunderdome film.)

There are at least seven franchises that are seeing their fourth or later film this year. Three of those are hitting at least seven installments. One hit twelve. Established IPs are the name of the game, and Hollywood has begun to trawl around for anything with some name recognition to slap on the screen.

So in that sense, Fury Road is another of the pack. If Hollywood had a formula, you could foresee how it would go: string together enough recognizable references to the original films, slap on some prettified computer effects, and amp up the bass line of the soundtrack. $150 million later, and you’ve got a brand spanking new film.

The big question with these sequels is whether there’s an audience. Or rather, whether the fans of the original won’t be alienated by the changes while younger viewers are intrigued enough to come along for the ride. And going into the summer, it seemed that it might not work. Much like Terminator franchise, Mad Max was one of those that had seen its time come and go, with only older fan nostalgia to keep it going.

Except it wasn’t QUITE the same. Terminator had seen creator/director James Cameron move onto (much) bigger things. Steven Spielberg had stepped back to executive producer duties for the dinosaurs. George Lucas sold off his entire company to Disney has nothing to do with the new film (for good or ill).

In the case of most of these franchises, the IP are held by studios or passed around between holding companies or somesuch. Thanks to our frankly absurd copyright laws, they will remain as such until the heat death of the universe, so we’re going to be subjected to franchise iterations until then, with only a few exceptions. (One notable: Back to the Future. Zemeckis and Gale got a good contract there.)

But Mad Max is an exception. The rights aren’t held by Warner Brothers, but by Kennedy Miller Mitchell. The Miller in the name refers to George Miller. The same George Miller who wrote and directed the original Mad Max films. So if a new film was going to happen, it was only going to be with his involvement.

Actually, Fury Road pretty much only got made because Miller had an interest. Hollywood’s normally gung-ho franchise mining nature was unusually tepid about another post-apocalyptic car chase. Miller spent over a decade pulling together the story and doing the storyboards before he got a green light.

That time taken is apparent on the screen. The thought that went into the construction of Fury Road is meticulous. Not just the sublime choreography of the action sequences, but also the details that were considered to build the world and characters without getting didactic with the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue is largely irrelevant to the film. Miller has in effect married the planning and foresight of Alfred Hitchcock with the visual presentation of classic Hong Kong. The story is one that is perfectly told in the visual, filmed medium, and not any other.

It’s a bit disappointing that much of the narrative surrounding the film has been harping on the practical stunts. They are amazing, to be sure, but it somewhat misses the point. It’s not as if Miller came in to show how things were done better, old-school style. There are numerous computer effects in the film as it stands, and it was shot digitally. Originally he wanted to shoot it natively in 3D. Plus his two previous films were completely computer animated.

Rather, what Fury Road shows is that to get a great film, the director needs to know his tools and to use them properly. It’s entirely possible for a director to return to a franchise well after the fact and to stumble. George Lucas did that with the Star Wars prequels, which even if you accept that he planned everything ahead of time were not especially well executed. Lucas possibly tried to push things too far, too fast, and it didn’t work.

Miller, instead, has shown that he’s comfortable to get any piece of technology to do what it can for his needs. Fury Road works in ways that many other films don’t because it is immersive. With few words and actually little explanation, the world on the film is fully believable. It’s one of the greatest examples of “show, don’t tell” ever put together.

While there are small nods to the previous films in the series, Fury Road is remarkably forward thinking. Too often franchises will rest on the work of previous films in the series. Whether because of continuity, limited vision, or just plain laziness, later entries will feel like empty husks with bigger budgets. Perhaps because of Miller’s desire to build a mythological figure rather than a cohesive plot, he’s made a film that stands on its own. Connections to the past provide enjoyment, but are not required.

By freeing himself from the constraints of the past, Miller instead has managed to craft a remarkably subversive and innovative film. Even as Furiosa joins a list of spectacular female action heroes, the entire craft of the film is cutting edge feminism.

Whatever genre you apply to it, whether action or science fiction or what have you, it isn’t hyperbole to claim Fury Road’s near the best in that genre, if not the best. In fact, while it’s surprising to consider, a film with a flame-throwing guitar is among the best the medium has ever produced.

Even if there is no such thing as a perfect film, Mad Max: Fury Road is close enough that we can say that it’s perfect in every way.

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