I, with more curiosity than excitement, went to see Mad Max:Fury Road this past weekend with my husband. Something very odd struck me almost immediately with this film–this wasn’t like most modern post-apocalyptic tales. The setting was developed, subtly understood without character exposition. The characters themselves were bends on tropes, both embracing the audience expectations, while smashing it to bits. The plot was familiar, echoing toward something I knew intimately, yet couldn’t quite put my finger on.
The writer in me became curious, deconstructing the film as it rolled. That deconstruction continued until one, seemingly unimportant scene. I thought it was a typical Hollywood scene at first: a bunch of super-models bathing in water, splashing about playfully. My eyes rolled to the back of my head…then something happened. The super-models, along with Furiosa (the one armed, female road warrior), proceeded to beat the protagonist’s ass in, and not incompetently either. One took a gun shot to the leg without flinching. These weren’t beautiful women for the sake of having eye-candy on screen–these women were the campaign party. It occurred to me in that moment that George Miller didn’t construct a simple post-apocalyptic action flick with Mad Max :Fury Road. (Though full of action, it was.) He was presenting a fairytale. The child in me squealed!
This wasn’t a story of some muscle-headed, diesel-guzzler, saving beautiful women in high octane action sequences. It was instead a cleverly veiled tale of a reluctant hero, roped into helping a disenfranchised party of capable warriors, journey-ho to reclaim their home from a sadistic, water-hording, overlord . Classic plot, with classic tropes. Those beautiful women could have easily been Dwarfs, Immortal Joe a tyrannical gold-hording Dragon, Furiosa a know-it-all wizard, and Mad Max a reclusive Hobbit. (Not sure where the flame spitting, bladed duel-guitarist, with the array of analog amps, fits into all that–some f’ed up Tom Bombadil maybe–the inherent visual bad-assery of the film can’t be ignored.)
One of the major triumphs of this film, for me, is the expanding theme. As it was written boldly in the Harem’s abandoned gilded-cage, “WE ARE NOT THINGS”, was more than a sweet sentiment. It was the moral code of the whole fairytale.
A prevailing moral code is a genre expectation of almost all high fantasy, and is a definite give-in with a fairytale. It is a rule, that can not be broken, by all characters. Mad Max: Fury Road did not disappoint. Every character, no matter how evilly portrayed, or nameless, are not just canon fodder. Take the half-life boy, Nux. He is initially introduced as an antagonist, towing Mad Max around as a “blood bag”, heading out on what he assumed was his last mission to achieve glory, and Valhalla, as promised by his supreme God-King, Immortal Joe. He is not a monster. He has depth. A dying, sick boy, who fails to redeem himself in glory left and right. No matter how hard to tries he can’t win…for one very good reason. No one sees him! More so than failing at war, he’s failing to have meaning and purpose. To make him even more pitiable they gave him a sweet, completely innocent, love interest with one of Immortal Joe’s wives–A doomed love story. You know Nux is near death, and by the arch of the classic story setup, you know he’s going to die, and you know to adhere to the underlying theme of redemption, that death must be glorious. (And it was…everyone, finally, saw him!) So, the romance can never be.
In this story, despite the super-model level beauty, the harem was NOT things. They smash the assumption of incompetence with profound bravery and character depth. Nux was not a thing for a God-King to use for war, then abandon. He was a warrior, due a glorious death that he ran virtuously into it, like the vikings of old. Furiosa wasn’t a flailing love interest for the protagonist to use. She was the competent party-leader, some one the protagonist didn’t even dare cross. And, Mad Max wasn’t just a blood bag for other people, he was the reluctant hero. When he had his chance to run off, he returned to guide the party home. (Good Hobbitses.)
And if that wasn’t enough action flick rule breaking, the party stumbles upon a road bandits (the Vuvalini). Instead of a bunch of gnarly dudes busting out, they are greeted by motorcycle riding, musket wielding old women. This in itself is beautiful characterization. Can you say “Bullet Farmer”! Brutal and beautiful, all at once–planting bullets in men, to grow a new future. For goodness sake, an old lady punched a bullet into a guy’s neck…these old ladies are bad-ass! I giggle with childish glee just thinking of it.
Another point, as a writer, I need to take my hat off to the world-build and character-build of this film. There was no character exposition, no introduction, or cheesy voice-over prologue. The film simply threw the characters into their world, and allowed them to live in it. The audience picked up on how the world worked, and on its inherent depth through character interaction. You didn’t have to be told Nux was dying, you could see him name the tumors on his shoulder. You didn’t have to be told Mad Max was an insane bad-ass, the screen opened with him eating a two-headed lizard. You didn’t have to be told the Vuvalini were competent, one of them only used a musket, and felt perfectly chill about her ability to match one bullet to one man’s head at a time. The world and characters are so outrageously unbelievable that they are epic. If George Miller had dialed it down even a little bit it all would have fell flat. He took the advice of so many high fantasy writers: exaggerate!–make characters so large you wish you could be them, but would never want to meet them….make worlds so alien that their similarities to our own go from being common, to a greedily loved lifeline to sanity.
And, of course, in proper storybook fashion, in the end, the reluctant hero leaves to resume his life. I don’t think there is a Shire in Mad Max’s future, but maybe another two-headed lizards or two.
(all photos/media courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures)