Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Film Appreciation - Who Killed the World?

Film Appreciation straps on a blood bag as Cody Hamman gets stunned by Mad Max: Fury Road.

There was a thirty year gap between the third and fourth films in the Mad Max franchise, but during that time there were frequently rumors of the series continuing, it never seemed to be fully dead. At one point in the early '90s there was talk of the franchise continuing with a television series, and I even saw an article that suggested Bruce Campbell was being considered to replace Mel Gibson as "Mad" Max Rockatansky. That series never came to fruition, but the idea that would become Mad Max: Fury Road came to the mind of director George Miller in the late '90s. Bringing it to the screen would just turn out to be a nearly twenty year ordeal.

When Fury Road was first gearing up to enter production, Gibson was going to return as Max. But then terrorist attacks and war disrupted the world, causing attempts to film Fury Road in 2001 and 2003 to be scrapped. Miller never let go of the concept, though, and a decade later he did make his film. However, around 2006 Gibson decided that he was getting a bit too old to play Max again, and it was about that same time when public perception of the actor turned sour, so it was no surprise at all when the role ended up being recast. Miller had been hoping to get Heath Ledger into the role, but after Ledger passed away Miller turned to Tom Hardy.

Hardy being twenty-one years younger than Gibson has confused some viewers, making them question where Fury Road is supposed to fit into the Mad Max timeline. As far as Miller is concerned, it still happens sometime after Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Max just hasn't gotten noticeably older because he is the ageless mythological hero. Miller even wrote the story for some comic books that fill in the gap between Thunderdome and Fury Road, showing how Max managed to rebuild his V8 Interceptor between the movies and giving the back story of why he keeps having visions of a little girl he failed to save from the maniacs that inhabit the post-apocalyptic world these films are set in.

Fury Road isn't concerned with strict continuity any more than the previous movie was concerned with it when The Road Warrior's Gyro Captain Bruce Spence was cast as Thunderdome's pilot character Jedediah. It's barely concerned about having a script. While there is a decent amount of character work in the mix, the written words were minimal here. Miller's focus was the visuals, and he meticulously planned out the film through hundreds of pages of storyboards. He wanted to make a movie that was also one long chase scene, and that's basically what this is.

The film begins with Max roaming a desert wasteland alone in his Interceptor. Within minutes he has been captured and taken to a settlement called The Citadel, which is ruled by the sickly, old, militaristic Immortan Joe, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne - the same actor who played the villainous Toecutter in the original Mad Max, but you wouldn't get the two characters confused with each other. Immortan Joe is in control of a large water supply, there's an underground lake below the Citadel, but he only doles out a bit of water at a time to his citizens, warning them not to become addicted to it.

Immortan Joe is served by a group called the War Boys, who basically see him as a god-like figure and have taken car culture to its furthest extreme. The ultimate state of being in their eyes is to be "shiny and chrome", and before sacrificing themselves in the line of duty they'll even spray their own mouths with silver paint. This bunch, like Immortan Joe, have clearly soaked up too much radiation, there are a lot of tumors growing among these characters. They're so sickly that they need people to use as "blood bags", and that's Max's fate, since his blood type makes him a "universal donor".


Then things start to fall apart for Immortan Joe. The batch of "wives" he has locked up as breeding stock as he tries to father a healthy child have found a way to escape. They leave a message on the wall of their living quarters, "We are not things", and catch a ride in a tanker truck / "War Rig" being driven by Immortan Joe's trusted war captain (now no longer trusted) Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. Furiosa was supposed to be making a routine run out to Gas Town, a settlement built around an oil refinery, but is actually seeking to take the wives to the Green Place, the place she came from and remembers living up to its name.

There are five wives on the run: Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), the Dag (Abbey Lee), Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), and the Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Angharad is several months pregnant, so it's especially important to Immortan Joe that she be brought back to him.

Immortan Joe and his War Boys go speeding out across the desert in just the sort of unique vehicles you would hope to see in a Mad Max movie. Miller and his designers appear to have had a lot of fun dreaming up the look of these things. There's even one vehicle that has huge speakers mounted on it and a guitarist with a fire-spewing guitar strapped to the set-up so he can provide live music for the chase. Smoke signals are sent up calling for reinforcements from Gas Town and a lead mine settlement called the Bullet Farm... Furiosa and the wives are going to have a lot of people on their trail.

This is a lucky break for Max, who is strapped to the front of a vehicle being driven by a cancer-ridden War Boy called Nux (Nicholas Hoult) so he can provide blood transfusions out in the field. It isn't long before Nux's vehicle has been wrecked, allowing Max to break free and end up on the War Rig.

Nux eventually gets a ride on the War Rig as well, as he gets to play out his own story of redemption after being deemed "mediocre" by his beloved Immortan Joe.

Mad Max: Fury Road is two hours long. Immortan Joe finds out the War Rig has gone off track with his wives on board within the first 15 minutes. The entire rest of the movie, with only a couple stops along the way, is about the pursuit of the War Rig - first out to the Green Place, and then back to the Citadel. That's a lot of chasing and stunts, and Miller brings it all to the screen with a dazzling visual style.

There is a black and white edition of Fury Road which Miller is quite fond of, but I find the colors in the regular version of the film to be beautiful to look at. Sure, it may be part of the modern "orange and teal" trend, but orange and teal has never looked as nice as they do in Fury Road.

Miller is always adding different elements to the chases to keep things interesting and exciting. One chase goes through a sort of nightmarish electrical sand storm / cyclone. People on motorcycles ramp over the War Rig to drop fire bombs onto it. Spears are thrown at the War Rig. Draglines are fired into it in an effort to slow it down. War Boys swing around on top of long poles to grab people off the War Rig... and Max does get snatched off the War Rig by someone on a pole and has to make his way from the top of that pole back to the right vehicle, all in the middle of the chase. It's amazing, and very clever.

Fury Road was an incredible technical achievement. It was one of the best movies to be released in 2015 and immediately became one of my all-time favorite action movies. Miller's return to his franchise was a triumphant one, resulting in a film that was absolutely worth waiting thirty years for.

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