Like many people, I had my socks rocked by the epicosity that is Mad Max: Fury Road. This post will be mainly about my thoughts on the film, so I’ll put all the non- Mad Max, nonspoiler stuff at the beginning, followed by a spoiler warning.
So here I am, having mostly finished my last day of relative freedom in Korea. I’m heading back tomorrow, and starting work on Monday. This is not good.
I have had an epic time though, and met some awesome people along the way. I’ve also had a few inspirations for scenes in book two, including a temple-top swashbuckle through the lanterns of Buddha’s birthday celebrations.
I’ve walked up a mountain pushing a baby stroller on a hot day (the beer at the top tasted amazing).
I even got a Korean traditional hanbok for my little daughter to wear.
But anyway, that was then, and this is now. It’s time to head back to reality, and on that note, I’ll now be sharing a few thoughts about the writing of Mad Max: Fury Road (because nothing is more based in reality than the fact that we’re barrelling towards a fiery apocalypse, and for the un/lucky an even fiery-er post-apocalyptic world with feature-length chase scenes).
SPOILERS AHOY! READ ON AT YE PERIL!
So many things I could say just as a review… my purpose here is not to review the film though, but rather to ask: what can we learn from this writer, George Miller? Because without a doubt, there is so much we can learn from this film.
It’s been pared back.
This film is cut to the bone, with every scene serving a multitude of purposes. I’ll use the opener as an example: Max, standing on a bluff, looking out over the Australian outback, a desert panorama. A two headed lizard scuttled into frame, runs forward, and Max stomps on it. He picks up the crushed creature, eats it, and gets back in his car. He starts the car, wheels hurling sand everywhere, and hurtles down into the desert. Seconds later a war party of smoke spewing buggies chase after him, and open fire…
They could have raved about what happened to the world for ten minutes (they do for about one). They could have told us all kinds of expositiony stuff to make sense of what was the come. Instead, everything is shown:
- The two headed lizard: the world is irradiated, dead. This is not our time.
- Max eating it: this world is harsh, and you do what you must to survive.
- The heavily-laden, suped-up old vehicle: people here move fast, and the story is a chase.
- Max’s disheveled appearance: he is insane, a loner, on the run
There’s no wasted space or breath in the rest of the film either, with very sparse dialogue. It works beautifully, because it focuses you on what’s happening, and drags you headlong into the world.
Fury Road absolutely nails its core themes, without strangling you with them, and these are clearly: – redemption > survival, and PEOPLE ARE NOT THINGS. These get repeated again and again, but you’re never beaten over the head with them. There’s no wasted focus that would come from trying to touch on a dozen smaller issues, but rather every character is battling with these same themes, bad guys included.
When we’re talking about the strength of the film’s stylistic motifs, the War Boys are a case in point. If you’ve seen the film I don’t need to explain further, you’ll remember their first impression (and their lasting impression) for the rest of your fiction consuming days. For the rest of you, know that it was mainly due to the combination of strong impressions; not a mish mash of film-set post-apocalyptica, but deliberate stylistic motifs repeated again and again. Each war boy is a fanatic, worshipping their leader, Immortan Joe, and this shows in everything:
- dialogue (they refer to him with such reverence in the sparse dialogue that it’s immediately apparent how they view him)
- actions (they’re happy to die for him, and not in a hollywood negligent henchman way – in a PLEASE LET ME DIE IN BATTLE RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIS MULLETEDTERMINATOR FACE, SO THAT HE MIGHT BE PLEASED AND SEND ME TO VALHALLA kind of way.
- they’ve shaved themselves down and painted their bodies white, in a kind of death-cult uniform emulating their leader’s own appearance (whilst utterly imposing and physically strong, Immortan Joe is not a healthy man, with a kind of sprayed-on white protective skin and overlaying wearable iron-lung [at least that’s what I assume it was, the film is blissfully free of pointless exposition], numerous obvious tumors, and a respirator in the form of a fighter-pilot / Predator breathing mask. He’s like a mix of Rob Zombie and Darth Vader)
The overall effect is one of HOLY FREAKING WHOAH, these guys are scary. And that’s why it’s so fantastically subversive when !!!!!MASSIVE SPOILER!!!!! one of the War Boys comes across to fight for the good guys. The lesson for us writers might be – when designing your big set pieces (factions, etc.) work on the few very strong stylistic details that will stick in the reader’s mind.
A critique of Fury Road’s writing wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the gender relations (and sweet jeebus, how good this hath been done), and so I’ll give my thoughts here as well.
The Ladies Are Treated Like People
GASP! SHOCK! WHAT? REALLY? It couldn’t be possible that a film could actually steer headlong, pedal to the floor, straight into issues of rape, sexually slavery, and women’s disparity of power, and somehow come out stronger for it? Game of Thrones (the TV series, not ASOIAF) is always screwing this up, and even Joss Whedon has fallen foul of these issues in certain discussions (I can dig up the references if you like, it only goes to show that awesome dudes who genuinely love women and harbour zero misogynistic tendencies can still sometimes fall foul of this quagmire simply because of the woeful way that we’ve been conditioned to think).
Well this film goes about it with great artistry, and while I’m sure there are a thousand existing articles explaining how this is so (just google feminism fury road), here are the things I liked:
- the girls don’t need rescuing by a dude. They can accept help from him, but he often needs them just as much (HEY, LIKE REAL LIFE!).
- the ladies have agency. As in, they want something, and they act on the story to make it happen. Even the ones that (unlike Furiosa, who is BAD ASS) are simpering princesses certainly find their spines and get stuff done by the end, and they don’t have to go all man-butch and physically beat-down everyone to accomplish it. Yes, highly feminine people can still get stuff done in this story world. It’s invigorating. It’s awesome. It’s… even kinda sexy
- Young hotties don’t have a monopoly on being awesome (certainly bucking the Hollywood norm). There are ladies in their thirties, forties and fifties, even what appears to be sixties plus, utterly being amazing. Seed collector grandma is the bomb. Watch and see what I mean.
- The rapey stuff isn’t actually invited to the party. I mean there is zero titilation value here. The plot is heavily tied up with the escape of five beautiful wives (women raised for breeding) from the harem of Immortan Joe, a rapey sounding plot if ever there was one. Despite this, nothing happens on screen, it isn’t an attempt at fridging anyone (hurting ladies just to make males sadfaced and motivated), and it isn’t even a dude who rescues them (it’s a combination of crazy tattooed nursery grandma, Furiosa, and the wives themselves WHO AREN’T EVEN VICTIM-BLAMED! WHAT IS THIS SORCERY?).The bad guy isn’t a mustache twirling caricature of evil, like all rapists must surely be: Immortan genuinely believes the women are his property, and he expresses a kind of perverse love for them. He’s like a post apocalyptic Menelaus of Sparta, launching a thousand buggies after his Helens of Troy…
But All This Takes Away Precisely NOTHING from the Men
It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film that was at once so fair to women, and so loving to the men it portrayed. Oh boy, that claim is going to need a metric-fuff-tonne of clarification, so here we go…
- Having some people to respect (and later care about) makes Max MORE awesome. He has to show us his amazing survival quick-thinking, because Furiosa will kill him if he doesn’t. Splendid getting a thumbs-up shows that Max sees her as an equal once she proves she too can aid their survival (in this case getting Immortan’s men to hold fire, because she’s standing up front and heavy with his child)
- Max isn’t keeping score. Nobody is throwing themselves at the male lead (and he doesn’t have his phallic catching mitt extended anyway) because why the hell should they? Sure, he spends the movie being awesome, but he certainly isn’t chasing tail. He’s haunted by his past, and trying to survive. Besides, this isn’t Bond, where a simple “hello” can substitute for relationship development.The chemistry that does develop !!!SPOILER ALERT!!! between Furiosa and Max isn’t sexually requited. Hell, it’s never spoken of aloud or acted on at all… This doesn’t make him less of a man, but rather more of one: he’s led by his own will, not by his wang. Max never acts like a douche – he knows, as we do, that life isn’t some kind of BS competition. A man isn’t defined by the amount of action he gets.In the end he leaves rather than try make a life for himself there, and his walking away without glory or lady-action is one of the most awesome manly things a dude could do in film, like Bogart in Casablanca (oh crap, Extremely old movie spoiler alert!!)
- Max gets to contribute, AND HOW. At one point their war-rig (an armored big-rig) is overheating, and they can’t risk blowing the engine, but there’s a mob of War Boys on their tail. Furiosa is contemplating leaving the truck and fighting them off, but Max steps up.He doesn’t need to do this for his own survival, he does so because he’s best suited for the role (although Furiosa is the better shot, and Nux the better driver/mechanic), he’s the most expendable, and finally because he’s begun to care about the others. Furiosa stays with the truck, because she and Nux have the best chance of getting it moving again. Max goes to slow the War Boys down, alone, having told the others to drive off without him if he’s not back by the time the truck engine has cooled.A few minutes later he comes back, drenched in blood, not his own, with a duffel chock-full of scavenged ammo. It’s glorious. He does it so they can all survive. It’s such a ballsy, MANLY MAN thing to do, I don’t know what all the MRA “bros” were even complaining about this film for…
- The main story arc is actually Max’s. What’s that? I thought we’d already established this was a feminist flick about girls escaping sexual tyranny? Well yeah, but the main character development arc is still Max’s.Furiosa is on a journey, yes, but she is already a complete character by the start of the tale – she knows what she wants, and she heads after it. Her arc is shallower, in that whilst she struggles through adversity, and eventually finds her redemption, her realisations are of lesser magnitude. She needs to realise that redemption is not in running away but in fighting back, and she needs to learn to trust, to accept (and even ask for) help, but these are small character developments in an already exemplary human bad-ass. Something tells us that she’d make it on her own, as she is.Max on the other hand is, as the name would suggest, mad. He’s so lost that we know he’s not headed anywhere good, and the only thing left to him is explicitly stated at the start of the film: to survive. Hope begins to ensnare him, and he pushes back to save whatever’s left of his sanity. At the films climactic turning point, it’s Max who makes the choice to go back on everything he’s stood by and dare to hope. To dare to chase redemption.The saddest part of him walking away at the end (rather than staying to embrace their victory) is that it shows us he’s still not quite there yet. That his tragic past can’t be escaped quite so easily…
So like I said, the ladies in Fury Road don’t take anything from the men. They stand together, as equals, and everyone is uplifted in the process. Everyone shines. It’s freaking rad.
If you haven’t seen it yet (WHY DID YOU READ THIS!?) go immediately, and take your significant other of either gender. My wife loved it, and she isn’t even an action movie kind of girl.
Ha, spoiler alert, Bogart doesn’t walk away in Casablanca. I mean, yes he does at the end, but that line about “she did her best to convince me she was in love with me, for your sake she pretended and for my sake, I let her pretend” means that the earlier fade-to-black scene was where today’s Hollywood would have put a sex scene. So he most definitely had the lady-action.
Anyway, the kidlet looks adorable. That is the sort of picture that makes all the stress of travel worth it.
Thank you! Haha yeah, it was definitely worth it 🙂
As for Casablanca, I’ll have to watch it again, with a more critical eye for how much of a sly dog Bogart is. That’s a brilliant line…
Oh man, now that I finally saw the film, I can appreciate what you said about the whole ‘ladies treated like people’ idea. The film was refreshing in that they didn’t perpetuate gender/damsel in distress stereotypes despite the VERY compatible premise (the wives/Immortan thing). Like you, I loved the inclusion of older women in the film, and ironically, it’s important to note that these older women weren’t stereotyped as being invincible.
I’ve seen various films/TV shows characterize older women as steel-plated, butt-kicking forces of nature who will not go down despite all the torpedoes you throw at them, but the Vuvalini of Many Mothers were anything but invincible. There was a vulnerability to them that made them accessible and even relatable. The way to write a character that defies stereotypes is not to write them as the opposite of said stereotype, but rather as a believable human being.
Excellent review, David!
On a different note, what you said about the grannies made me think of ways that we use tropes in fiction, for good or for bad. I think with tropes they can be done, overdone, subverted, and sometimes even done for effect: the Belgariad is a perfect example of ALL of these things, since Eddings was actually experimenting with whether a good fantasy tale can be written by just throwing every single genre trope into a giant mashup… The result is awesome, and even delivers some excellent female characters despite all expectations.