Saturday, January 23, 2016

Weekend Movie Night. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max movie poster. Warner Brothers Pictures. 

It's been a LONG time since I posted a movie review on this blog, and it's about time that changed. Though I have seen quite a few movies since last August (has it really been that long?), I have not written any of them up here in this blog. Part of that is because I simply didn't feel like writing up many of them. Some of them were pretty mediocre while others would have been a very short review. For example, I saw the new Star Wars movie and all I have to say about it was that it was a good movie. That makes for a short review so I like to review movies that I have a lot to talk about or in some way relate to this blog. As with all my reviews expect spoilers ahead. Also expect some political commentary as well. 

Mad Max; Fury Road qualifies on both counts. I know that some people are turned off by the name of the movie and the pedigree of the first three films. Full disclosure, at the time of this writing I have only seen the first Mad Max movie and to be completely honest I wasn't a huge fan of it. It's a radically different film then this one, and isn't anywhere near universally acclaimed as Mad Max: Fury Road. Indeed, Mad Max: Fury Road was just nominated for Best Picture along with 9 other nominations as well as a whole host of other awards. It's a high quality movie and if it doesn't win for special effects then Hollywood has completely lost its collective mind. 

So if you haven't seen this movie, why should you? Well for one there is this (minor spoilers):

If that clip doesn't make you want to see this movie then I don't know what I can say to you. Obviously you have a completely different concept of awesome then I have. And keep in mind that most of that is practical effects. They actually built a giant vehicle with dozens of speakers on it with an actor wielding a flamethrower guitar, and a bout a dozen guys playing the drums in back. Almost all of the stunts and vehicle effects were done with practical effects, and CGI only plays a small part in the movie. Most of the time it isn't noticeable, and even when it is, it still manages to look cool. 


I'd go further to say that you should see Mad Max just for the special effects. From a technical standpoint this film was a joy to watch. It is just an extremely well made movie. For example, the opening scene at the citadel where Immortan Joe, the main villain is introduced. In many movies there would be a voice over telling us every little thing about the Citadel and it's leader. Not so in Mad Max. Instead of telling us George Miller shows us. 

Just from that opening scene we can tell that Immortan Joe isn't who he claims to be. He's riddled with cancer or sores and wears plastic armor that makes his body look strong and healthy. It shows his minions, the War Boys, acting with military proficiency, obviously well trained and scary. It shows that he has control of water, a critical resource in the wasteland, and withholds it to keep power over the common people.  And it shows how even though Joe is treated like a messianic figure by the people, he still treats them terribly. That usually isn't how it goes in action movies. A lesser director would have had someone, probably Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, deliver all the exposition, but showing it directly means that George Miller respects his audiences intelligence. 

The world building in the movie was interesting as well. I loved how the movie answered one of the easiest plotholes that could be anticipated in this kind of movie. How, after the end of the world, is there enough gas, food and ammunition to go around? Well, Immortan Joe has control of oil derricks, hydroponic bays, and a huge ammo dump, which are clearly shown during the movie. Again, most movies would have either just ignored the obvious problems with resources or gloss it over with some half-assed excuse. It makes sense that the Citadel exists and that the people there are able to do what they can do. 

Some have called Mad Max a feminist movie. I guess that's true depending on what your definition of feminism is. I don't think it is really and most of the praise it gets is mere projection on the parts of certain feminists. There is the tendency for feminists to take any film that is even slightly pro-women and claim it as their own. Make no mistake, this isn't a anti-woman movie. Far from it. But it isn't what I would think of when I think of feminist film making. If you consider a movie to be pro-feminist just because it has decent female characters and shows women fighting then I guess it counts. I don't think it really matches what I think a feminist movie would look like though. 

Many of the super annoying "girl power" tropes are missing here. You don't see a 90 lbs ballet dancer beating the crap out of dozens of men three times her size for no realistic reason. Women do win fights in this movie but almost all of the time they do it through using guns, not by beating the crap out of someone they should have no chance of beating. Indeed, it's important to note that when Furiosa and Max fight, it's a lot closer then it should be because Max is drained of blood, chained to an unconscious man, and has to confront the wives as well as Furiosa. And he still wins! Had this been a "feminist" film Max would have been completely defeated by Furiosa (who would be played by the tiny Summer Glau instead of the statuesque Charlize Theron) along with Immortan Joe's entire army using nothing but her bare hands. 

And it's not like all the women in this movie came off all that good either. Furiosa isn't exactly a nice person. After all she had ended up as a military commander for Immortan Joe and it's implied that she might be the reason that the women were captured in the first place. She had to do bad things to get where she was. And she was more then willing to kill both Max and Nux before circumstances forced them to work together. 

And the all-women Vuvalini aren't saints either. They not fit the typical female bad-ass tropes mentioned above because they shoot first and ask questions later. They know in a strait up fight they would lose, so they use sniper tactics to fight. And it's directly stated that they kill anyone that they come across. Indeed, in the scene that we first meet them, they are laying a trap with a naked and seemingly distressed woman to lure in any wastelanders that could come by. Though efficient and probably smart in a world as messed up as the Mad Max universe, that still isn't the action of good people. And they get called out on it too by one of the wives. 

The willingness to portray women as something less then perfect angels who are good at everything makes me think that this is far less of a feminist movie then certain people like to think. In the end, it turns out that the Masculine society of the Citadel and the Feminine one of the Vuvalini had to work together to create a better life for everyone. And neither Max of Furiosa would have survived without the help from the other. Though many feminists would probably disagree with me, the idea that men and women could work together to solve problems that effect them both is almost completely absent from the current wave of feminism. It may have counted with the earlier waves, which were much more about actual equality, but with today's hyper-sensitive, blame men for everything wave, the movie almost comes across as anti-feminist. It certainly shouldn't be labeled as anything other then a very good action movie, which happens to have good female characters. But that won't stop anyone from projecting what they want to see. That's half the fun of watching movies, naturally. 

If feminists can project their beliefs onto Mad Max then I can too. And my reading of the movie is probably just as biased as theirs is and my reaction to theirs, so keep that in mind. I saw Mad Max as a clear condemnation of radical Islam. It's clear as day for me. 

Why? Well for one the way women are treated has some obvious parallels how women are currently treated in the Middle East. In the movie a powerful rich man has multiple wives, who had little or no choice in the manner. Other women are treated like cattle and treated like second class citizens. Clearly women are subservient to men in the Citadel and Furiosa is the exception to the rule, not the standard. The comparison to ISIS is almost to obvious to write and Saudi Arabia could be an obvious influence as well. And locking up a bunch of women in a vault and giving them chastity belts seems an awful lot like keeping women at home and making them wearing burkas and hijabs...

But it goes beyond the treatment of women. The War Boys are locked up in a martyrdom culture that would make ISIS proud. They blow themselves up, with no regard to their life, on the promise of paradise in the afterlife. Could the comparison be anymore direct? Jumping off of a moving vehicle to throw exploding spears at cars isn't quite how ISIS would do things, but it really isn't that different then strapping on a suicide vest and blowing yourself up for Allah. 

They also have a fairly strong propaganda wing. It's clear that the other War Boys recount the tales of their fallen brothers. Men that die well are exalted in praise and story while those that fail are called "mediocre". How is that different then ISIS releasing a martyrdom video and executing people for cowardice? 

I think the parallels are obvious, and I have to think that ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups were in the back of the minds of the creators of this movie. I think that Mad Max takes a clear stand against such belief systems by showing how terrible they are. Under this interpretation of the movie, the Australian Outback turned into Syria and Iraq...

With all that being said I do have some criticism for the movie. For one, how did Earth become as screwed up as it was in this movie? Yes, the background is that there was a series of wars over resources and that nuclear weapons were used. But that doesn't explain how the environment was as screwed up as it was. Perhaps it was explained in the two other Mad Max movies I haven't seen, but I didn't see any reason for the world to be as messed up as it was.

Contrary to popular belief, a nuclear war wouldn't create the kind of conditions seen in this movie. Even in a full scale nuclear engagement, most of the world would be intact. There would be a lot of radiation for a couple of weeks and a lot of people in the target area would die. And there would be massive instability, disruptions in commerce and probably a lot of starvation. But the biosphere would recover. Not right away, but on the time scale that Mad Max is set in, the recovery should have begun.

Mad Max implies that even the oceans have dried up. Traveling 180 days over salt flats would have gotten you anywhere in Australia with a vehicle, so I am guessing that they meant to imply that the oceans are simply gone. If that is the case then the whole movie is pointless because humanity is doomed anyways. Without the oceans, our environment is destroyed, and conditions would quickly deteriorate to the point where whatever resources were at the Citadel would be meaningless anyways. That kind of inferred holocaust kind of brings down the otherwise happy ending.

I also have to say that the world seemed to have fallen apart way too quickly. Max was young enough to have been a cop in the first movie, set before the end, and he isn't really all that old. I just don't understand how Australia could have gotten to the state it is in in that kind of time frame. Indeed, in the first movie, things are basically intact, even though society is starting to collapse.  Maybe all the vegetation could have died, but even in the outback there would be buildings, power lines and other signs of civilization. I mean look at the area around Chernobyl in Ukraine. Though the area is ruined, buildings still stand. Part of that might be because of the huge storms shown in Mad Max, but that just begs the questions how are those storms even forming?

Still, these are minor complaints implicit in the setting. It's hard to blame a film for problems that have been in the series from the beginning. And the film is otherwise excellent. The film making alone makes up for any problems with the setting. Does it deserve to win Best Picture? I am not sure, but it is certainly one of the better action films I have seen. I highly recommend watching it and I am looking forward to more movies set in the same universe. 

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