Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road (2015) Review

Mad Max Fury Road

Killing for gasoline is now passé in the Mad Max world; the only thing that really matters in this wasteland of scorched earth is survival. Basic humanity has been lost as the desert wretches scavenge off each other for food and water while the few in power rest atop their kingdoms and enjoy the spoils still left in the world. These powerful oppressors look down upon the masses as if they are ants under the magnifying glass, using their pressure points of desperation to wield control over them. But what if someone were to push back against that control? What if someone were to say enough is enough and hit these ruthless leaders in their own pressure points? What if these tyrants were revealed to be just as desperate as the wretches in their futile mission to cling onto dying societal values? This is the story of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Like its titular protagonist, the Mad Max series prefers to leave the past behind and forge new territory in an old world. For the post-apocalyptic film series, this means greater freedom to tell singularly completely tales in a malleable setting without the hassle of continuity weighing it down. For Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), the ex-cop who lost his wife, son, and other companions along the way, this means shutting off all hope for a better future in order to repress past pains and rely on base primal instincts for survival. Human connection is out of the question for Max, and his introduction as a longhaired, lizard-eating scavenger paints him as more animal than man. The muzzle that’s eventually placed on him isn’t just a metaphor for his caged emotions, it’s also to contain the beast within and reduce him to nothing more than a valued commodity.

Max is captured and brought to the Citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) where he’s harvested for blood to keep Joe’s sick Warboy fanatics alive. He’s nothing more than an object to them, just like the prized wives that Joe keeps to himself in the hopes of one day having an heir. Joe, like his patriarchal Warboy society, is slowly dying but refuses to acknowledge this; his body is a festering mess of boils and scars held together by armor and a breathing mask that turns the Immortan into Darth Vader by way of Slipknot. But one leader in his army, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has had enough of Joe’s domineering leadership and takes the wives on a journey to the mythical “Green Place.” With all the pieces laid out on the table, moving at a pace that expects the audience to keep up with the frenetic insanity on display, this allows director George Miller to hit the gas on the vehicular mayhem without sacrificing the integrity of his thematic undercurrents.

Swarms of motorcycle gangs and spiked car rovers descend upon Furiosa’s War Rig while Joe’s military catches up from behind. The relentlessness of the action foregrounds the desperation of Furiosa’s quest for salvation and redemption, and the tentative alliance she forms with Max solidifies as they push through the trials of combat and hardship along their road trip. The potency of Miller’s wasteland vision extends beyond the practical explosions and death-defying crashes performed by real stuntman. Monochrome grays and browns that are visually typical of post-apocalyptic films are replaced by the searing orange heat of the desert sand and cool nighttime blues. The old adage that “less is more” doesn’t apply here, with wild vehicles built out of the scrap heaps of makeshift weaponry and twisted metal. A rocking thrasher with his own stage and flamethrower guitar accompanies the chase with his soundtrack of war, which invisibly melds with the thundering orchestration of Junkie XL’s score.

But amidst all the sound and fury is a human core that remains beating throughout. The extended chase through the unforgiving desert is carried forward by the motivations of the characters rather than contrived plot machinations. Even the despicable Immortan Joe, single-minded as he is, is a compelling presence brought to life by the booming voice of Keays-Byrne and the desires that drive this man to iron-fisted extremes. The action may be big but the emotions behind it are as human as they come. The villain is willing to sacrifice as many men as it takes in this hunt all for the goal of his treasured possessions rather than the continued destruction of the world. But the wives themselves transcend being mere damsels waiting to be saved from Joe’s wrath, and they display strength, weakness, empathy, and cynicism at critical moments.

Tying into Max and Furiosa’s mutual reclamation of their lost humanity is the evolution of turncoat Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux’s development provides the arc that properly expresses Joe’s toxic zealotry as he preys on the desperation of the Warboys’ lives and promises them glory eternal beyond death. But while Hardy and Hoult are strong enough actors to shade in the subtleties of their characters, it’s Theron’s Furiosa that runs away with the film. Sporting a prosthetic arm and shaved head that recalls iconic female action hero Ellen Ripley, Furiosa is a character that has seen and been through a lot in her life and those unsaid experiences shine through in the unshakable verve of Theron’s performance. In a rare scene of extended exposition, Furiosa explains to Max what brought her to this point and what she’s trying to achieve by saving the wives, and Theron plays the scene not with the dramatics of an actor trying hard to sell the emotion but with the haggard calm of someone at the end of their rope. This is her last shot to save the wives from Joe’s lecherous desire and herself from succumbing to a life of war and oppression, and it’s taking every last ounce of her energy to escape once and for all.

Everything that Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris aim for with their story of carnage and female liberation crystallizes into the final mad dash of everyone’s trek. The obligatory third act battle is made purposeful here as the stakes rise and rise with each action beat and the film’s production team continues to push their mad imaginations to the limits. Heroic mistakes are made and the villains overwhelm the War Rig with their sheer numbers, and that’s before the team of violent pole swingers arrive to wreck more havoc. The immaculately choreographed mania of this climatic chase and the concluding scenes that follow provide a message for both the film and the action genre as a whole: don’t run away from the past and give up on a crumbling foundation. Reclaim and rebuild it anew. Forge new paths from old ruins and create something greater and more inclusive than before. Rediscover our better selves through the sins of our past and move forward from there. Live, endure, and live again on the glorious Fury Road.