Our Burning Skull: The Dark, Brutal Ritual of Mad Max: Fury Road

11089030_660780600694131_276166915544558716_oMention the Movie Summer of ’82 around fan boys of a certain age, and you’ll be met with a mix of ecstatic exhortations and hushed reverence.

Quickly someone will begin reciting the litany, the ode to what is considered the Greatest Geek Summer Ever: Blade Runner, E.T., Poltergeist, Conan the Barbarian, Rocky III, Tron, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Pink Floyd The Wall, The Thing, Night Shift, and of course, the summer ’82 American release of the 1981 Australian action-sequel The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2).

Imagine what that was like back then; getting off work from your crappy summer job and going to the air-conditioned theater every weekend to see another of those films for the first time. (Or later in the summer, for the second or third times.) (Or likewise, the Summer of ’83, as more homes started to get cable TV and premium movie channels for the first time only to find those Summer of ’82 films playing non-stop. A very important alternative for those geeks under 17 who lacked “cool” parents to take them to R-rated movies in the theater.)

If you talk to (mostly male) film critics and genre fans over the age of 35, they’ll effuse rightfully over the amazing quality, or at least daring and influence of those Summer of ’82 films. (The 30th anniversary a few years ago produced a tsunami of gushing blog ink.) They (myself included) will bemoan the fact that, coming as it did in a glorious cinematic DMZ between the fading independent American film spirit of the ‘70s and the coming Rise of the ‘80s Summer Blockbuster Franchise and the Dawn of the Soulless Excessive Blockbuster, 1982 was the last time you could see that many truly impressive, universally enjoyable films in one summer. A seeming last oasis before “popular entertainment” and “box-office hit” didn’t automatically equal “bland, branded, over-hyped and over-marketed commercial studio product.”

MMIOf course, the (yes, somewhat mixed) quality of those films aside, the primary reason they were so important and influential was that when we first saw them, those of us who revere them now were between the formative ages of 10 and 20 years old. That Summer of ’82 landed in the middle of our still-growing, still-shaping, post-Star Wars adolescent brains with a mind-melting whoop wallop and holler. Maybe we—and American studio moviemaking—would never be the same, but also, in this Age of Nostalgia, our taste in movies never grew up much after that.

Jaws and Star Wars gave birth to the Industry idea of the lucrative Summer Blockbuster a few years earlier, but for many of us the notion of Summer being some sort of four-month-long magical movie-going time was born that Summer of ’82. Every Movie Summer since has been looked forward to with a yearning anticipation that is, at heart, simply a desire to be 15 years old again and to get from a summer of terrific films the same heady, eye-opening, world-view-changing rush and buzz we remember from ’82. We don’t mourn and bemoan the loss of decent summer films these days so much as we miss being a teenager and being able to react to, embrace, and both lose and find ourselves in films that really mattered to our raw, excitable, still-forming sense of selves.

Which brings us back to this current Summer Movie Season, which in most respects feels an awful lot like nearly every Summer Movie Season of the past decade. But it also brings, this weekend, the return of George Miller’s (if not Mel Gibson’s) Mad Max with the stunning, all-out, non-stop, pedal-to-the-metal thrill ride Mad Max: Fury Road.

rs_560x415-141211084917-1024.Mad-Max-Charlize-Theron.jl.121114The geeks can (and most certainly will) argue over whether Fury Road is a reboot, a remake, a sequel, or that latest marketing buzzword, a “re-envisioning” of Miller’s own prior, Gibson-staring franchise that included the original 1979 Mad Max, 1982’s The Road Warrior, and 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

Miller himself calls the film “loosely connected” to the prior trilogy, meaning stop worrying about it because it doesn’t matter. It’s enough that Fury Road, with Tom Hardy now in Gibson’s role as Max Rockatansky, is a Master Class in just about everything a middle-aged fan boy—one who still holds hallowed that Summer of ’82—could ever want in a present-day Summer Action Film.

Miller’s Fury Road (co-written with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, gorgeously shot by John Seale out of retirement, and perfectly edited by Jason Ballantine and Margaret Sixel) is crafted with an almost-fanatical sturdiness, satisfying visual and narrative balance and pace, and (finally among action films) some care and attention to creating spatial context and relationships amid even the most crazed and chaotic scenes.

It’s essentially a two-hour car chase, as Hardy’s laconic, grunting, growling Max plays second-hero to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed, bald and burnished Amazon warrior gone rogue to free the broodmare wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, and Abbey Lee) of the film’s villainous warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the heavy in Mad Max 36 years ago).

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Jumping-To-Car-WallpaperDesperately seeking a fleeting hope in Mad Max’s desert world of “fire and blood” (with Africa’s Namib Dessert standing in for the post-Apocalyptic Australian Outback), Furiosa stows Joe’s wives in a massive, shambling “war rig” tanker truck, accidentally picks up Max along the way (he’d been held captive as a literal “blood bag” for one of Joe’s scrawny, pale, bald “war boys,” Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, who’s also swept along for the ride), and off everyone goes across the sand and dust with hordes of Joe’s vehicular forces (as well as other random motorized Wasteland tribes) in hot pursuit.

And that’s the whole film: A short, expository intro; a ridiculously well-done 30-minute car chase with a parade of wild, spikey, stacked together, mutant vehicles; a brief respite; another equally impressive, chase; another few moments of quiet to catch our breath; and then a final, all-out, 30-minute climactic race to the finish, complete with Cirque du Insane acrobatics atop waving attack poles. That’s all, beginning to end, a straight narrative race down Fury Road that almost never stops moving. No fuss, no fancy flourishes. Nobody makes many grand statements or tosses out amusing quips.

Film Review-Mad Max: Fury Road(At one point, Immortan Joe addresses a thirsty, throng of his ragged, damaged dependents with a grand, amplified speech so audibly garbled—in part due to Joe’s ragtag sound system and in part because the aging, ravaged Joe must wear a grotesquely stylized breathing mask—that we can barely understand a quarter of the words.

(Which is Miller’s intent—having created plenty of these kinds of bro-quotable speeches in the past, such as Dr. Dealgood’s “This is the truth of it” intro in Thunderdome, the director knows they’re all really the same pile of self-serving fascistic crap. You don’t need to hear the specifics of Joe’s speech to know what sort of dictator’s demagoguery he’s spewing to his desperate followers.)

Along the way there’s plenty of diesel and dust, steel and stone, iron and rust, skulls and chrome. And a seemingly endlessly creative parade of mostly-practical (CGI-free) fist-pumping, heart-jumping, jaw-dropping action stunts and epic End of the World imagery. Still, the film’s R-rating remains a mystery to me. There’s no bad language (hell, there’s barely any language at all—this could pass as the world’s loudest silent film); no gratuitous nudity, even from Joe’s winsome brides; and relatively little blood, gore, graphic violence or dismembering. I don’t think even a single head rolls, which puts Fury Road a few dozen battle notches below the MPAA-sanctioned Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies, all of which are PG-13.

madmax2If there is a single, spurious reason for Fury Road’s R-rating it’s simply in the film’s relentless, kinetic intensity, revved up and raced across a brutal dead-future landscape where hope is as rare and fragile as green vegetation. And really, isn’t that what upsets us today more than red blood or bare boobies? The notion that we have well and truly deep-farked our future.

Yes, despite its seemingly single-minded narrative track, as it accelerates along, Fury Road does have some things to say about some things. 1979’s Mad Max may have been born amid Oil Wars and fears of nuclear annihilation, but 36 years later, Miller’s bleak hellscape all too easily accommodates our updated dread of a planet maimed by man-made climate change.

“Who killed the world?” Joe’s rebellious brides repeatedly demand, but we know it wasn’t some evil movie villain, a sneering Bond baddie or a hulking Lord Humongous. And yet, in a future seemingly done in by environmental rape and pillage, the gas-guzzling, atmosphere-scorching automobile—even in all its hilariously jury-rigged forms—remains at the center of a civilization that can’t let go of—and in fact, has raised to the level of religious worship—the very thing that helped destroy it.

Fury-Road-Guitar-680x388(But hey, all that ecological hand-wringing aside, the cars of Fury Road are a freaky riot, seemingly welded together in Survival Research Labs out of JG Ballard’s wrecks and Mark Pauline’s mangled imagination. They rumble and rage along, through massive dust storms and under moon-lit nights, like great iron sailing ships on a sea of sand and rock, complete with fearless war boys hurling harpoon-like lances at their fuel-injected prey.

(It’s also a propane-spewing hoot to see how Miller’s Mad Max aesthetic, which once inspired Burning Man’s playa-rolling art cars and its Department of Public Works’ shaved and Doc Marten-shod post punks, now in turn draws its visual inspiration from 20-odd years of Black Rock City’s annual parade of fire-breathing technological and aural insanity. Best in that Burning-Man-fueled fever-dream marriage of music and madness is Immortan Joe’s rolling rock and ruin “Goof Wagon,” sporting a half dozen thumping taiko drummers, a Metallica-sized wall of speakers, and a bungie-dangling guitarist screaming and spitting out both chords and flames.)

mad-max-fury-road-vehiclesFrom a feminist perspective, not only is the plot driven by Furiosa’s quest to free Joe’s brides from their reproductive enslavement as breeding stock, but from a purely dramatic angle, this is the immeasurably terrific Theron’s film, her still, quiet, piercing eyes doing all the heaviest lifting for a character who knows better than to ever show anyone anything.

Though Hardy is a fine actor and his thick, pub-brawl face is perfect for the role, Max spends much of the film (literally) dangling off the side of its plot, his butt saved as often if not more often by Furiosa than the other way around. In fact, Max is partially here to pass a franchise spin-off torch to Furiosa—the next Mad Max film is reportedly going to titled Mad Max: Furiosa.

Yet for all her action-film bad-assery, Furiosa’s more important contribution to Fury Road is as the story’s sole torch-bearer of even the smallest seed of hope, a thread also woven through the film’s running commentary on gender roles in this most desperate and deadly survivalist future. The hope Furissa clings to is that of a “green place” somewhere out there where she and the ex-brides can not only escape the merciless world ruled over by Immortan Joe and his warlord peers but where they can begin to re-grow a saner civilization.

Mad-Max-LadiesAgain and again, even as he races his war wagons down the deadly Fury Road, Miller makes a point to brush up (sometimes viciously, natch) against the theme of childbirth as societal rejuvenation (not Joe’s subjugation), of females ultimately as creators, not destroyers, of the future. (If that’s not on the nose enough for you, the film’s heroes eventually meet up with a group of tough-but-friendly older biker women, one of whom is literally carrying a box of heirloom seeds as she searches for earth clean enough to plant them in.)

Compare that to Hoult’s character of Nux (as in “null” or “nil”). Nux and his fellow male teenage and young-adult war boys adorn themselves and their rides with real and stylized skulls. (All are tattooed and branded with Joe’s death-head skull logo.) They’re raised only to drive and fight and die in glory for their warlord Joe. Given the suicidal chance to sacrifice themselves, these lost boys ecstatically spray their mouths with silver (to represent the “shiny” chrome of their mythic dreams) and embrace their greatest hope: that as they hurl themselves into battle, they die a warrior’s death and find their reward in Valhalla.

Mad-Max-NuxThus, the world according to Mad Max: Women = life, Men = death. (Warrior Furiosa is, like her counterpart Max, the outlier.) Miller’s dirty, dusty dystopic says, “We’ve seen what men made of the world…” (“Who killed the world?” the brides cry, their biological futures once controlled by men), “Maybe it’s time to let the women try to fix it.”

Equally as rich as Fury Road’s feminist themes (with a script consult from Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler) and its ruminations on both redemption and rebellion, is the film’s heady overload of ritual and religion. Not only do war boys like Nux live under the belief-yoke of a totalitarian warrior theology constructed to keep them willing to die for someone else’s cause, but even more than in Road Warrior and Thunderdome, Miller seems fascinated by the rigid tribal belief systems that hold together his post-Apocalyptic world’s desperate civilizations. Everything is ritualized, so much so that a good portion of the film’s otherwise spare dialogue seems to be filled with characters’ recitation of the mantras they cling to in order to face each new day in a life of pain amid the otherwise hopeless Wasteland.

Mad-MaxConversely, Max, ever the nomadic loner, is considered “mad” not just because he’s a berserker fighter or because he’s haunted to the edge of sanity by flashback visions of what and whom he’s lost, but because he’s rejected all the cruel, merciless attempts by people like Lord Humongous, Autie Entity, or Immortan Joe at holding tribes together with blood-soaked ritual and war-mongering romance. Nor can he afford to indulge in the sort of near-delusional hope that Furiosa clings to behind her hard, stern armor. Instead, Max puts his faith only in pure, selfish survival–and his “Pursuit Special Interceptor” jacked-up muscle car–and tries to keep moving.

All that ritualization and familiar repetition isn’t just interesting and entertaining world-building—in a way it’s also weirdly comforting to us film fan boys who’ve been wandering the summer cinema wastelands for decades in search of something to give our inner-teenage fan boy selves meaning and purpose. Now in his 70s, Miller, like John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Romero, is something of a geek patriarch, a Moses in the wilderness.

mad max fury roadIn this age of endless ‘80s remakes (in fact, the Poltergeist redux is coming up in just a few weeks), to finally have a new Mad Max film that takes us directly back to that 15 year-old agog at the dark, glorious wonders of that Summer of ’82 is almost Bradburyian in its sweet, dangerous thrills. (For more meditations on how the Road Warrior’s macho mythology warped a generation of young men’s sense of manhood–all of which makes Fury Road’s Furiosa all the more impressive and important—check out 2011’s brilliant, beautiful, and often baffling micro-budget indie Bellflower.)

Decades ago Miller’s Mad Max films almost single-handedly birthed a genre and an aesthetic. Too often when creators come back years later to the tropes they helped shape, they find themselves lost behind the culture, trapped by the formula they pioneered, unable to keep up with where the genre went over the years without them. But returning to Max’s world after nearly 30 years, Miller feels completely in control of not just the clear-eyed ferocity of his action, but of his messages, chained as they may be under all that propulsive iron and rust and wacked-out, napalm-snorting excitement.

Mad-Max-ExplosionUnlike so many action franchises and remakes these days, there’s no sense that Miller has returned to his Outback Wasteland to fill some marketing department’s demographic ledgers–he made Fury Road because he wanted to, because he felt he had something to say and still felt he knew how best to say it on the screen. Yes, of course Mad Max is cranked-up entertainment first and foremost, often drawing cruel humor from the desperate, demented mishaps of its antagonists. But dark (and perhaps prophetic) as it may be, Miller’s ritualized, survivalist future makes sick, simple sense in its single-minded savagery—it’s civilization burned down to its bone.

1 Comment to Our Burning Skull: The Dark, Brutal Ritual of Mad Max: Fury Road

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf