Mad Max: Fury Road **** (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Riley Keough, Nathan Jones, Josh Helman, and Hugh Keays-Byrne
Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris
Directed by: George Miller
If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, maybe you can relate. When I browse art, it’s clear that some pieces are great, and I appreciate them for that. That isn’t to say I’m moved to form an attachment, nor do I care for them beyond a passing glance. I feel much of the same towards Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a very well-made action film, occasionally fun, always weird, and daring, but I certainly don’t care to remember it. Can I consider the film to be a masterpiece, or George Miller to be a visionary? I’m sorry to disappoint, but this franchise’s third sequel never “breaks the mold” or sets new standards for action films. It just happens to be a superb action movie, with superb parts that I’m going to easily forget. Here’s a thought- were audiences ever really clamoring for another Mad Max film? Did the “Thunderdome” really leave us yearning for more? No, but I suppose if an iconic character exists, and the opportunity to unload more tales of apocalypse on an apocalypse-starved society presents itself, why not? Fury Road will certainly give those hungry for a heaping of nihilism a bellyful of joy.
Max himself is basically the same guy thirty years after we last saw him. He doesn’t really want to be a part of the aftermath of civilization. He just wants to survive. That’s fine for us; after all, we don’t need another hero (see what I did there!). He’s on the scene, he appreciates the struggle of the good guy, but he doesn’t have much to say or do. Well, he occasionally hallucinates, but that’s about the extent of his ‘madness’. Max will defend himself to the death, and in the process will likely take out a dozen or so foot soldiers. For a film entitled Mad Max, however, you’d think it would, well, center around that character and his struggle. It’s simply not his struggle, and as wonderful as Tom Hardy can be, a multitude of actors could have played Max. He’s captured by the soldiers of the despot Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the same actor who portrayed the lead villain in the original Mad Max), and held as a prisoner/perverted version of a blood bag. This need for blood comes from Nux (Hoult), a dying “War Boy” doing his best post-apocalyptic Jack Skellington cosplay.
In the meantime, one of Immortan Joe’s warriors has attempted a daring escape with his five wives in tow. I suppose it’s not hard to imagine why Imperator Furiosa (Theron) went rogue- what with the forced malnutrition of most everyone inside the ‘citadel’, the forced milking of childbearing aged women, and Joe’s generally disgusting nature, what’s not to like? Furiosa drives the ‘War Rig’, a mythological beast of a vehicle. It’s like something out of a twelve-year-old boy’s pre-pubescent dream: armored to the nines, equipped with secret switches and compartments, molded from several cars, tractors, and tanks, sucking up all sorts of gasoline, spewing forth oodles of noxious fumes, and eating your Prius for breakfast.
The War Rig is wonderful, but not as much as its’ driver. The hard-boiled Furiosa yearns for the ‘green land’ of her youth, a place where grass grows and water flows. Nothing will stop her, not even a convoy of War Boys ordered to search and destroy. Nux has been enlisted to drive in this convoy, believing to serve a higher purpose, and hoists poor Max on his vehicle like a drip chamber from a nurse’s nightmare. The feverish pursuit of Furiosa across the ‘Wasteland’ sees a legion of muscle-bound psychopaths use every trick in the spiky, armored car playbook to bring her to justice, but will it work? In the frenzy, Max battles with, then finds himself aligned with Furiosa toward a common goal- escape.
None of this plot really matters, though. There are explosions to enjoy, faces to tear off, sharp things to pierce people, and mega-ton boulders that crush cars! In all sincerity, George Miller is due some credit. He’s made a fun film, and despite a lead character that no one cares for, he’s made up for it in other areas. The film is stunning to look at. Miller and cinematographer John Seale shoot the desert as if it isn’t full of bland, khaki tones and lifelessness. Fury Road is also a film with a great deal of odd character, and odd characters, a clear hallmark of the franchise. Think of the catalog of names: Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing, Cheedo the Fragile. Really? Think of the societal norms we witness: the ‘chrome kiss’ given to War Boys on the verge of death, the wives wearing metal chastity belts adorned with fangs, the post-apocalyptic ‘drummer boy’ leading the war cry with his awesome ‘flame guitar’, and even Immortan Joe’s odd body armor.
What I believe the film will be known for most is the creation of Furiosa. Theron plays her like a warrior; not a female warrior, but a warrior. She doesn’t align with Max out of a need for romance, he doesn’t save her, and they both pound on the enemy. She’s an equal, a partner if anything. You could argue that Max needs her. Theron is so good as Furiosa, the clear hero of the film. She’s the best action leading lady I’ve seen in some time, and deserves a place in line with Ripley, Trinity, and other characters I’m likely forgetting. Then again, she’s no stranger to challenging the norm for women on-screen (see Monster, Young Adult, Snow White and the Huntsman).
Let’s go a bit further and state that ‘blurring the lines’ of gender matters, and Miller and Theron have put their best face forward to ensure that happens. As I understand it, Miller enlisted the help of The Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler to shape some of the film’s characters. I suppose that made enough of a difference, as the film’s best characters, the ones with the most moral of centers, are all women. They’ve always been capable of leading an action film, though, and I’d argue women are better at it. Ellen Ripley is still, eighteen years after her last appearance, the best action character. Calm your mind, gents. I’m certain that the feminists are not taking over your action films. However, women can and should be just as efficient at leading an action film as men, and be just as damn exciting doing it.
If we can separate ourselves from the need to consider an excellent action film “groundbreaking” or “legendary”, or from calling George Miller a “master”, we can enjoy Fury Road for what it excels at. It’s a 120-minute playback of an adolescent’s dreams, complete with just enough violence, explosions, nudity, language, and cool stuff to keep it fun and not depraved. Just enjoy the Doof Warrior, as he shreds his flame guitar into battle. Enjoy watching monster trucks collide across the plains of desolation. Enjoy Furiosa’s mad dash to reclaim her childhood and restore something pure about this future world. Then, like I have already done, forget about it, and move on to something that does warrant more than your Saturday afternoon’s attention.
“Divergent” ** (out of 5)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort,and Kate Winslet
Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor (screenplay), Veronica Roth (novel)
Directed by: Neil Burger
divergent [dih-vur-juhnt]: diverging; differing; deviating
If you find yourself lost in the apparent endless sea of similarly themed young adult novels & movies these days, please allow me to join you in your malaise. Sifting through the titles can easily become annoying, as it is chock-full of semi-colons and non-sensical word pairings (i.e. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”- huh?). Imagine my relief when I first learned that “Divergent”, based on the first in a trilogy of novels, only had one word to remember for each book. How refreshing!
Combined with the dual casting of young Shailene Woodley (brilliant in “The Descendants” but restricted here) and Kate Winslet (trying her best to keep a straight face), I allowed a modicum of hope to creep in my head for this project. Perhaps this would be the one young adult adaptation up to the task of legitimizing the genre, thus allowing discerning audiences to take it seriously. Try as it may, “Divergent” struggles mightily to make logical sense, drags on for an eternity, and leaves us scratching our heads in befuddlement. Ironically, this offers very little in the way of deviation, or divergence, if you will, from its’ genre predecessors.
Please allow me to illustrate, for it is the crux of the film’s failure. Strong, free-spirited heroine that can’t be held back by the constricts of society? Check. Token description of a brutal, world-changing ‘war’ with no resonance or background? Check. Dystopian future with a factionalized society convinced to the point of law that human nature is the enemy? Check. Mysterious absence of babies or seniors? Check. Initially misunderstood, controversial hunk turned sensitive, wounded lover? Check. Hushed references to life beyond a ‘wall’ that is never explored, much to our bewilderment? Check. Young people required to perform adult actions without the film lending the gravity that those moments require? Check.
There are more, but I’ll spare the reader additional sarcasm. What I mean to point out is the film’s sincere lack of any fresh ideas or believability, despite its’ protestations that the ideas it presents are clearly a big deal. How can we take the ‘test’ seriously when we aren’t given the slightest dose of scientific reasoning behind it? Shoot, even if it’s an awful “Jurassic Park” half-hearted version of an explanation, at least give us something. For that matter, how can the ‘test’ be so important in determining where one belongs, yet the individual still has the ability to choose their destiny? Is the plot telling us that free will is an illusion? Does the plot know what it’s telling us? How can we buy that heroine Tris (Woodley) is able to wake from an unconscious stupor to catch up with a speeding train thirty minutes after Four (James) tells us she has “no muscles”?
It would be preferable to take the film on its’ own merits, and not allow silly things like logic, science, or cynicism to cloud my judgment. After all, it does appear that films like this are critic-proof; they simply need to satisfy fans of the source material, quality be damned. For fairness purposes, please consider that I gave the film a shot to impress. In fact, one particular scene struck my fancy, nudging me in the direction of satisfaction. On the eve of “Choosing Day”, the Prior family (Tris, her twin brother Caleb (Elgort), and her parents) shares a few quiet, tender, tense moments as Ellie Goulding’s entrancing “Hanging On” plays into the next scene. In this, I sensed the filmmakers deciding to elevate the source material and create a more human film.
Alas, ’tis but a fleeting moment, for the film nosedives into the typical immediately afterward. Tris goes against the grain and chooses “Dauntless”, quite possibly the most awkward-sounding, goofy name for a faction ever created. We’re treated to scene after scene after scene of training, training, training, with nothing particularly cool, noteworthy, or original to speak of. All the while, this Chicago-based society (where is the rest of the world???) is trying to eliminate ‘divergent’ minds. Conveniently (lazily), divergent Tris is tested by the one government-sanctioned tester that’s sympathetic, or we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose. Think about this, though- murdering someone who doesn’t conform is a cold, ruthless, interesting, albeit unoriginal science-fiction premise. This isn’t the type of film that wants to understand or explore those big ideas, unfortunately.
In the time that has passed since viewing “Divergent”, I’ve actually grown more weary and less accepting of the film. Maybe I’m just tired of the genre’s attention. Perhaps I’m raw that the far superior weekend release (“Muppets Most Wanted”) will garner less box office and less audience affection. The likely truth is that I’ve grown more weary of ‘products’ marketed as films, especially in this particular genre. When there’s nothing new to take from the experience, and I feel like I’m simply contributing to the greenlight of a sequel, it’s an empty feeling. Whether it’s Gryffindor, District 12, or ‘Dauntless’, it’s all starting to run together for me.
“Divergent”, like others before it, and presumably more to follow, simply offers a structured way to package an entire entertainment experience in a consumable bundle, masquerading as a moving parable for our time. In the end, I feel less like having just seen a film, and more like I just got swindled by a used car salesman. It’s confusing, illogical, lacking in chemistry, and just doesn’t mean anything. Presumably, those familiar with the novels but somehow not bewildered by this film will inform me that I shall ‘understand’ by the end. Frankly, I can’t imagine caring less what happens to these characters. Give me the story of those living outside the wall, or the likely interesting and complicated series of events that lead up to the film, and I might just be on board. This? There’s nothing remotely ‘divergent’ about it.