On what a blockbuster should be: Mad Max: Fury Road

I don't like contemporary blockbusters. Or more accurately I don't like the contemporary blockbuster machine or the films it produces. The franchising of vapid, comic book worlds reliant on weightless CGI, overwrought with incomprehensible plotting and undramatic drama, and populated by superficial ciphers for the most egregious stereotypes. Perhaps most of all I hate the unquestioning fandom, not that fans don’t criticise (my word they do) but the belief that such opinions carry a weight that somehow transcends their economic obedience is, for me, at best naïve, at worst, cultural dupery in the extreme.  Fans, in investing in the trans-media universe, which may once have been considered the realm of geeky outsider, have helped entrench the new mainstream corporate hegemony. In this context ‘creativity’ has the patented framework of videogame repetition, ‘uniqueness’ is sandblasted by the laser precision of digital effects forging a ‘reality’ without any danger of the ‘real’. Critical judgement reflects this sanguine narrowness with the apologetically harmless 3 star review extolling the ‘great action sequences’ and bemoaning ‘lack of character development’. Thankfully, perhaps even accidentally within this environment, Mad Max: Fury Road restores faith in possibility that an overwhelming, viscerally cinematic experience is still possible.

But hold on isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road a remake/reboot of an existing franchise? Technically yes. But it’s a film that succeeds spectacularly by rejecting prevalent mantras that afflict the majority of its contemporaries. Firstly, it creates a world that is preposterous yet wholy believable in its own terms. It does this by almost entirely foregoing pseudo-technical exposition, which almost always creates gaping plot holes, and stripping the narrative to its minimalist requirements. Instead, intricate subtleties of visual storytelling create layers of meaning, which are not definitively explained but build an immersive, believable cinematic fabric. The post-apocalyptic milieu is beautifully grotesque reducing ‘civilisation’ to a barbaric, sickening totalitarian machine within which humanity is barely recognisable.  It is at once disturbingly alien and unerringly familiar but the film requires the viewer to work to actively bridge the gap. Mad Max is bursting with the quality most mainstream blockbusters lack: imagination.

The action is quite simply incredible. This is primarily because it retains the weight of live  filming while appropriately amalgamating CGI via the increasingly lost art of good editing. Unlike the obfuscatory visuals of many action films the frenetic pace does not hamper the ability so see what is going on. In a clear allusion to Mad Max 2 the action centres largely around the chase of huge truck which metaphorically becomes the lifeboat to freedom. A pursuing army of customised vehicles look like pieces of industrial artwork which come to life as monsters without any need to ‘transform’. The action thus treads the fine balance of being totally ridiculous while retaining believability in the boundaries of its own world. Furthermore, there is a self-awareness here, and welcome lack of pious, Nolanesque darkness. Case in point is the riotously over-the-top flame throwing guitar player, accompanied by a phalanx of drummers mounted of on the back of one of the trucks, who had the audience in uproar but actually served a purpose in inserting a diegetic sound accompaniment to the chase sequences.

In amongst the visual mayhem there is a full sense of cinematic subtlety and intellectual awareness. The film manages to simultaneously sit in linear progression with the previous Mad Max films, retaining certain stylistic and thematic motifs, while unashamedly rebooting for the uninitiated viewer. The film’s central section slows to allow a painterly depiction of the empty desert symbolising the human frailty and battle for survival. These sections are as mesmerising as any of the action sequences and serve to build camaraderie between the central protagonists and empathy in the audience. An underlying feminist sensibility emerges that actually takes one by surprise. There are cues of gendered spectatorship, which set up traditional representational expectations, but these are pointedly undercut in a way that sits coherently within the story. Central to this is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa whose represents the central journey of the film while Tom Hardy, the eponymous Max of the title, remains is a psychologically anchored in his own personal hell. Not to mention how the film reinvents motherhood as the underpinning to a violent action bad-assery. 

There are some of the problems seemingly inherent to the contemporary mainstream blockbuster. The action sequences (and therefore the film as a whole) goes on too long, the ending is the patented sentimental celebration with the potential for a sequel left open. Tom Hardy is stoically monosyllabic, which is fine, but when he does speak his accent is Russell Crowe level unfathomable. Yet the film epitomises what blockbuster cinema can and should be, using cinematic visual language to transport you to another world, but one which is self-contained in its own textual boundaries. Mad Max: Fury Road gives you the space and the credit to be able to actively engage with its aesthetics and themes and it does't assume you are a naive consumer or a cultural infant.