Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road: A Review

In Egypt, in one of the museums, is a stone palette carving of King Narmer, the first pharaoh to unite and rule the upper and lower Nile. In the picture, Narmer is seen inspecting the corpses of his fallen enemies, who are decapitated and emasculated.

I don't know where the heads and genitals are.
image courtesy electrummagazine.com

So, Narmer is a great man. He has, through arms and force of will, created an empire where none existed before. The same could be said for Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, who conquered the five warring states. Or Alexander the Great. Or Napoleon.

Assholes all. Parasitic assholes every one. Why? There are any number of cases where great things have been done and built by people who are not assholes.

So, clearly, being an asshole is not a requirement for great things to occur. So, why does the parasite asshole niche exist, and why the continued mythology of the Asshole Cult that worships the likes of Steve Jobs, etc? My thought is that the myth is propagated by assholes who wish to rationalize their own feculent behavior. Funny thing is, a lot of these assholes think they are doing right by society.

Another interesting fact: you can kill off as many parasitic assholes as you care to, but, like a game of Whac-A-Mole, they just keep coming back. You've got to eliminate the niche, which is nigh on impossible.

But why the niche exists (excluding the supernatural cause that the Almighty must dearly love parasites), I suppose we must look to game theory. In the game of the iterative Prisoner's Dilemma, there are cooperators, there are parasitic rat fink cheaters (otherwise known as Ayn Rand fans), and then there are what Michel Serres calls jokers. Jokers are unpredictable random connectors that break up the status quo between cooperators and parasites. One thing is for sure, game changers are rarely produced by the parasitic assholes who give us disruptive innovation. Game changing belongs to jokers.

What does all this shit have to do with Mad Max Fury Road?

I submit that Mad Max is a joker. More on that in a minute.

Short version of my review: Go see this movie!

Slightly less short version: To Mr. Miller? That'll do pig! That'll do!

Slightly lesser short version: Go see this movie while you can see it on the big screen! This movie will not be diminished by viewing on home video, but you really, really need to see it on a big screen to appreciate it.

Least short version: When I first saw the trailers for this movie, I went out of my skull with joy. I knew that I would be disappointed, and, if anything, my expectations were splendidly surpassed.

This is a fucking fierce, relentless gem of a movie, destined to become a classic. If Mr. Miller creates the promised second two movies of the trilogy of this franchise, and maintains the same level of quality, these will be legendary.

Mr. George Miller is no slouch when it comes to movie-making, and given the variety of films he has made, is multi-talented. Put Babe and the original Mad Max trilogy under any other director's belt, and you have an accomplished film maker.

But, apparently, when you have thirty years of the right kind of simmering stew-making going on, back stories and notes, you could potentially end up with a carbonized mess of a movie sticking to the bottom of your pot (clue: never make a movie you developed and wanted to make in adolescence. examples: The Abyss, Interstellar), or, in this case, you make an action movie that basically goes out and crocks and curbs almost every other action director's movies.

(The likes of Michael Bay's, Joss Whedon's,  JJ Abrams', James Cameron's, etc. movies have got to feel like they are hobbling around with a swollen, bruised nutsack and a mouthful of missing teeth).

Honestly, there so many themes to explore here, I wish I had more time. I'll pick the themes I've thought most about.

Well, first of all, I was asked to list the four Mad Max movies in descending order. I find that this activity really doesn't identify the quality or merit of the films, but rather provides insight into the psychological makeup of the list maker. But, here goes, and prepare to disagree.

1) The Road Warrior
2) Fury Road
3) Mad Max
4) Thunderdome

Now some people will say, what? Fury Road not at the top of the list? Thunderdome at the bottom? What's wrong with you?

True, Thunderdome has lots of charm, humor, good scenes and characters in it, but it's just too weighted down with its own mythology. Mad Max has a lot less action, but the action is far more raw, visceral, earnest, and sincere - something that comes from doing something for the very first time with no rules or restrictions - or rather with Road Runner and Coyote Rules the only inviolable restrictions.

And I put Fury Road behind The Road Warrior because in many ways RW was the template, the heart and soul, for the franchise. (Although pound for pound in intensity, FR is head and shoulders above the rest).

Miller is smart (I'm not the first to point this out) to make sure that all of these movies within the franchise are stand alone and not necessarily consistent with each other. Why get weighted down in chronology and canon when you can fun doing different stuff? Why worry about minor inconsistencies when you can play with a little reimagining each time? Does anyone complain about the Adventures of Sinbad? Or the fact that contradictions abound in the Norse Myths?

So, in Mad Max, civilization is just decaying, and resources are running out. Miller doubles down in Road Warrior with an explicit mention of war, but not nuclear war. It is only in Thunderdome that we are told there was a nuclear exchange (between whom we can guess, it was 1985, but the scenario is more likely a limited nuclear exchange, rather than full-on WWIII).

Miller continues with this premise in Fury Road, that some type of post-nuclear-holocaust scenario has occurred. But I believe he also asks the question, so, what if the barbarian biker gang managed to take over an oil distillery, but with a leader smarter and more far-sighted than the Humungus? Thus, the Citadel of Fury Road, and the leading trio of elderly ex-military types in the form of god-king Immortan Joe, and his warlord allies the Bullet Farmer* and the People Eater.

The problem with the future dystopia story is that it has already been told. It is a story about the past. The squalid, brutal, shit-covered past. What the future dystopia provides is anachronism, as in the long slide back down in historical chutes and ladders, an attempt is made to preserves some aspects.

There are warlords, and god-kings, and zealots and fanatics, and downtrodden peasants, and victims, but with cars, flame throwers, radiation and automatic weapons. Dieselpunk stuff. Dieselpunk elaboration and displays rivaling or surpassing anything found in nature. This is not simply ostentatious display and waste. If you can scare your foe with display, rather than the next step up of actual combat, so much the better. So you want to have amplified music and drums. Flamer-throwers and rockets.

Or steam boilers, wires and gears, and telegraphs if you fall back too far. Steampunk stuff.

The anachronistic technology preserved is a matter of carrying capacity. How many hands and brains can support the technology you want? Mathematically, the post-apocalyptic society problem is exactly the same as the space colony problem, or the robot farm problem. If you don't have universally programmable robots to hand, then your limiting factor is the number people that can possess and perform the skills and tasks required for the level of technology you wish to persist. Or if your bot network is not sufficiently broad and deep, your robot farm can produce only the most basic commodities from the ground.

But there better be pageant, and there better be transformation, or at least the promise of progress - even if it is at the misdirection of rancid assholes, which, of course, is what Immortan Joe and his crew are.

But you'll notice things are improving. He has a sufficiently advanced society that they can identify blood type. Joe realizes that the real cash crop is people. Not oil, but people. So he needs food and water.  That was always kind of a puzzle for me. Excluding cannibalism, where do they get their food? Have scavenged enough canned goods to get by with the limited population?

Which leads us to the Wasteland. The principle actor, the ground of the painting for which all else depends. Things are getting worse. The fertile soils are disappearing. The gardens of the Vulvalini have been rendered infertile. One can assume that some spots are still good. (We are told by the Feral Kid in RW that the Great Northern Tribes of the Mad Max future are thriving, so not everything is laid waste, or at least some areas have made a comeback. But without the hard times, there is no struggle, and without struggle, there is no drama and entertaining action.

I would note, in a rather haunting and lyrical nighttime scene, that one of the elder Vulvalini notices a satellite passing overhead. I never seen a satellite blink the way that one did, which suggests it is Chekhov's gun. Either some remnant of advanced civilization survives (New Zealand maybe?), or Miller foreshadows a future return to advanced civilization. If so, it may the final of the trilogy. But I can't see him ending the series like this.

Air power. That you will see in future movies. There's just much action-packed goodness with strafing and bombing, dogfights and aerial attacks on baddies not to bring that back.

Matriarchy. Much has been made about the feminism of this movie. I rather think too much. For one, the historical records provide numerous examples of matriarchies that are just as crude, brutal, stupid and vicious as any patriarchy. Although... I think a movie should be made about Furiosa. Perhaps there will. Warboys do need a mom.

The character of Nux has been called the most compelling one. He provides the redemptive trope we ask for. One character that changes, rather than an archetype. But Nux is just a rehash of Pigkiller from Thunderdome, and The Gyro Captain from Road Warrior: a soft-hearted human character that allows us to empathize with. Not that he isn't compelling, but he is not a new character, rather a fleshed-out archetype of the redeemed.

And Max? Many have called his character the archetype of the Man With No Name. Wrong. Max is the Warrior Monk. He's Kwai Chang Cane from Kung Fu, but ten times the badass. He's the joker that changes the whole game. And I look forward to more folktales about him from Mr. Miller.


  1. * I don't know why, but I have a great liking for the Bullet Farmer. Perhaps because, if the time came, I'd prefer to be him. Single-mindedly bent upon the mindless destruction of the foe, regardless of the cost. Must be my berserker heritage.

    On a different note, I point out the amazing massive parallelism of our present society, in that I, at about the same time, along with several thousand other time-wasting jerkoffs, did a little bit of research on Valhalla spray, the chrome paint applied to teeth and lips by Warboys, came across Wilton Silver Color Mist food coloring spray. Those kids aren't huffing spray paint. They are getting a taste of something more precious, a candy treat. Huffing is bad morality in surveil situations. But a sweet taste of Valhalla? (even thought the actual food coloring is tasteless).

  2. It finally occurs to me that the Wasteland is an ocean, and these are all maritime tales. Sahel is Arabic for shore.