One writer's defense of this award season's most surprising honoree
Seldom has a popular film racked up so much awards season acclaim while simultaneously generating so much befuddled outrage with each new honor. Mad Max: Fury Road was the best reviewed film last year (97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), was named film of the year by the National Board of Review, won more Critics Choice Awards than any other title (nine), and is the second-most nominated film at the Academy Awards, with 10 noms, including best picture (The Revenant led with 12 noms).
And yet, here’s some high-octane Fury Road reactions from the EW comment boards and Amazon:
“Horrible, just non-stop implausible action.” … “It was so uncomfortably boring because there was nothing but pregnant girls and silly car wrecks in it.” … “Noise, noise, noise. Nothing but crash, boom, bang. No acting to speak of. The CGI was cheaply done.” … “The dialogue was primarily grunting.” … “Undoubtedly one of the WORST movies I have ever seen in my entire life…”
With the unnecessary-but-polite disclaimer that every experience of art is unique and my impression is no more or less valid than anybody else’s (okay, maybe a little more), allow me to take a stab at changing the mind of Fury Road haters by explaining why a seemingly plot-free, car-crash-stuffed, dialogue-light action movie deserves every acclaim that has come its way — and quite possibly Hollywood’s top prize too.
Complaint: Fury Road has no story!
Counter: Oh, Fury Road is loaded with story. What Fury Road lacks is plot — there’s a deliberate absence of complicating plotting. Fury Road is one long chase sequence, an act of narrative minimalism almost makes it feel like a silent film. But every character in Fury Road does have an arc — albeit thinly drawn — and each is largely communicated through nonverbal cues. It’s actually pretty ironic: Fury Road is a film that appears empty of substance — a car crash movie! — and yet it’s stuffed with subtlety. And of course, Fury Road is far from silent, too: Junkie XL’s 18-months-in-the-making soundtrack, which supports every beat of the film so perfectly that — like most of the true classic films — you can’t imagine any other score in its place. More than one critic described Fury Road as a “rock opera,” and that’s precisely correct.
Complaint: The hero is a secondary character!
Counter: I’d say Max (played by Tom Hardy) is a co-lead. And as a result of that trade-off, we get something very precious: One of the best female action heroes in cinema history. Plenty of films have shown indefatigable warrior women kicking butt in spectacular (yet dull) ways. Furiosa (Charlize Theron) was credible not just incredible. She was tough and threatening and vulnerable and smart, and her breakdown in the desert, after losing all hope of finding her home, was as moving as anything screened in a theater last year.
Complaint: It’s one action scene after another!
Counter: It’s hand-crafted action. The CGI mayhem in movies like The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Terminator Genisys lacks a sense of reality because even the fundamental physics of many shots don’t make any sense (see this article from Cracked for a terrific breakdown on why CGI looked so bad in most films last year). Mad Max went old school, using practical effects throughout. What you saw in the film is largely what was happening in front of the camera. See:
Complaint: Okay, so they did the stunts for real, so what? It’s still just a bunch of action!
Counter: Action that is also meticulously designed, shot and edited. In other words, comprehensible. The first time watching the film, the pace feels so fast you can just barely keep up with it. The second time, you’re anticipating what’s happening, and more aware of where everybody is, and the action becomes a fluid musical of mayhem — repeated viewings are like falling into the groove of a hit song. And here’s some proof: A film editor did an experiment and sped up action sequences from Fury Road, Domino, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Taken 3, and The Bourne Ultimatum. He ran the footage at 12 times normal speed, and discovered, “The other four films became blurs of incomprehensible images when sped up, Fury Road remains more or less comprehensible. [The editor] attributes this to ‘property planned shots and diligent editing.'” (Credit editor Margaret Sixel, director George Miller’s wife and a favorite to win a best editing Oscar this month at the Academy Awards, for the cutting).
Complaint: It’s not Serious and Important.
Counter: What is Serious and Important anyway? And is Fury Road any less serious and important than best picture winners like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The Departed, or Silence of the Lambs? What might seem most unusual for an awards candidate is that Fury Road is purely an action film with seemingly little pretense on being anything more than a fun time. But making a truly great spectacle is every bit as challenging as making anything else (and in the case of Fury Road, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, arguably more difficult). And there are thematic topical issues in play — the film clearly has things to say about feminism and environmentalism — but there’s just no time for ponderous king’s speeches on these subjects. With its usual micro-economy, Fury Road managed to hit its patriarchy critique and environmental fears with a single repeated question, spoken and written by the rebellious wives: “Who killed the world?”