In 2015, it would seem, the bar for action films is pretty low. The Expendables series, either a love letter to or parody of the 1980s action film golden age, has made a combined 800 million dollars worldwide over three films since 2010. The 2014 remake of Godzilla, largely regarded as a mediocre effort with plenty of flash but very little substance, earned 528 million worldwide. The Transformers series, the most epic example in recent memory of thoughtless, low concept, big explosions, CGI-shlock fest, has made upwards of 1 billion worldwide for each of its four installments.
In other words, it is a very good time to be making action movies with minimal regard for story and an over-reliance on computer generated effects since there is a very good chance you can make a boatload of money doing so. Rinse and repeat with even more uninspired sequels every few years and you have a nice career.
Given that, my expectations for this Mad Max four-quel/pre-boot were somewhat low. 30 years after Max Rockatansky last appeared on screen, George Miller returns to the franchise (sans-Mel Gibson) with the film that had been percolating in his mind for over ten years. After countless production setbacks, casts, re-casts, location changes and security concerns, the film finally landed with the exact amount of fanfare one would expect for a conquering (anti-)hero returning to the spotlight.
Let’s face it, this movie didn’t need to be good. The latest installment in a storied franchise released at a time when a few well placed explosions combined with the gratuitous showing of skin on either side of the gender line can be slapped together, shoved through a CGI centrifuge and become an automatic meal ticket.
Except, for the first time in a long time, a top tier action movie (not produced by Marvel Studios) seemed to actually CARE – or at least come across as if they did.
The first thing that really stands out about this film is the genuine attention to detail of the production design. Every single bit of the post-apocalyptic patchwork society in which the film takes place seems intentionally chosen and meticulously arranged. Nothing about the film seems unintentional, right down to the old fashioned steel shoe-sizer used as a gas pedal for the film’s starring vehicle, the War Rig. I keep coming back to this particular set piece, a throwaway factor to (I would imagine) most people that really encapsulates a lot of the messaging of this movie: that in a bleak future, nothing is wasted and everything has value, even beyond what it was originally intended for.
Much of this film’s message is very straightforward, with almost all of it being laid bare simply in the opening few scenes and followed up with only briefly throughout. In Miller’s own words, the film is “a very simple allegory, almost a Western on wheels.” This could not be more true and, for my money, done more successfully. The simplicity of the narrative makes so that you can interpret the film exactly how you want to. If you want to see it as a riveting, action heavy film with beautiful visuals and nothing else, you can. However, if you want to see it as a deeper commentary on (in no particular order) the role of the patriarchy in our society, our inability to appreciate and preserve natural resources or a siren song to appreciate the small moments in life, you can absolutely do that as well. The film, in so many ways, is a chameleon.
What is indisputable however, is not the core message of the story, but nature in which that story is told. It is no secret at this point that a reported 90% of the film’s visuals were created practically, with CGI being used only to fill in the gaps. The importance of this cannot be understated, largely because (as I mentioned above) it just isn’t done anymore. Ever since computer generated imagery became so easy to produce in film, the industry has become more and more reliant upon it.
Sure, there is some value to the idea of not spending boatloads of money on controlled explosions, destroyable sets and props and stunt doubles to protect your talent and just generating visuals digitally and inserting them into your film alongside the live action stuff. For some films (such as 2013 space opera Gravity), this is perfectly acceptable. However, it wasn’t until Fury Road that I realized how much I missed practical effects. They harken back to a more classic age of filmmaking, when “armchair” direction and visual design were impossible and if you wanted to make something look realistic you actually needed to figure out how to do that without simply writing it out for a 3D designer. Like I said, you can watch some of these scenes and only see what they portray. But thinking more deeply about how they came to be gives this film a totally new dimension to appreciate.
Which, really, is the ultimate gift of this film. I plan to see it again at least once in theaters if I can, and definitely on blu-ray a few more times. I fully expect (and hope) that I will see new things every time. New set pieces that, while largely insignificant to the overall narrative, tell a production story all their own. New nuance to a line of dialogue or nervous grunt from Tom Hardy. New layers and skins on a film with plenty already apparent.
We need more movies made with this much love.