This weekend I had a chance to go see Mad Max: Fury Road with my father-in-law, something which he prepped for by watching Creature From the Black Lagoon. Where to start on Mad Max though? I’ve seen a couple posts around the internet since watching, specifically this one. And it makes me feel like maybe I went into the wrong theater. Maybe the one where they were playing Thomas the Tank Engine’s Post Apocalyptic Adventure instead. I want to make one thing clear. I enjoyed the movie. It was a decent movie. It fulfilled all the promises that its trailer made and it was worth the price of the ticket.
Where I’m careening madly off the beaten path is that I don’t really have a lot of praise to lavish on the movie. I don’t think it was truly exceptional in any of the things that it did well. It didn’t do anything poorly, but I didn’t come out of the theater clamoring about this amazing scene or that amazing scene. It didn’t leave me pumped full of high octane and ready to burn rubber in my car. For all of its over the top action it failed to make me say “FUCK YEAH! THAT WAS AWESOME!”
Arguably I could just be jaded at this point. I mean, we’ve had seven, soon to be eight Fast and Furious movies that consistently attempt to do more over the top things with vehicles. Those movies have a tendency to make you think “Holy shit, that was fucking awesome,” despite their increasingly bloated ensemble cast. So where is it that Mad Max and Fast and Furious diverge from each other? They’re both about crazy, over the top car action ostensibly, right?
I think part of the difference is the narrative. Pick any one Fast and Furious movie and the plot is fairly simple and mono-line. It’s not aspiring to build a world because it doesn’t have to. The movie only has to do two things: Have completely ridiculous action and have great action shots of cars doing things that we wouldn’t normally see them doing. Mad Max: Fury Road actually does a fair bit of world-building, despite Chuck Wendig’s contrary statement. It seemed obvious to me that the three main leaders, including Immortan Joe, had a great system going on. Immortan Joe controls the water, Gastown controls the petrol, and the Bullet Factory controls the guns. The “supply run” that Furiosa seemingly sets off on at the beginning is nothing more than a delivery of Joe’s water supply to Gastown in exchange for the petrol to fuel Joe’s fleet. Throw in a manufactured war between the three factions reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and bam, the world explains itself almost entirely. All these things are there if you’re watching and they get in the way of enjoying. The action gets delivered in between the slow bits that build the world up.
I’ve also seen a lot of critical praise for Mad Max for creating strong women. This is something else that I disagree with. The female characters are certainly capable over all in the movie. But they seem strong compared to weaker portrayals of female characters in other pop culture. Looking at you, Game of Thrones. Furiosa essentially takes a back seat to our titular hero for most of the movie once they have their little brawl. Sure, he lets her use his shoulder to steady the rifle to fire their last suitable bullet for it, but most of the driving is done by either Max or the erstwhile Immortan Joe acolyte that falls in with them after one of the other female characters comforts him like a mother. Even the older women that they eventually come across have failed miserably compared to their male counterparts, becoming little more than scavengers in the wastes. Yes, all these characters are stronger than what we’re used to from women in popular media, and all very competent to whit. But it still falls into the same masculine hero narrative that we always have when Max points them away from the sure folly of crossing the salt falts (aka a bone dry ocean) to go back and steal Immortan Joe’s throne out from under him.
The short of it is, that despite being an enjoyable post apocalyptic romp with decent action scenes and spectacularly subtle world building, it’s failing on the points that some people seem to think are its strengths. I would’ve gladly traded some of the world building for more over the top action sequences than cars crashing into each other on a flat expanse. There were a shit ton of explosions, but most of them felt inconsequential, up the anti, have a suicide car with a MOAB on it that blasts the tanker forward after some crafty maneuvering from one of the drivers! Let the women continue to be strong through the end of the movie, for chrissakes!
Basically it was a good movie. Nothing more, nothing less. I just felt like it could have aspired to greatness.