Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s directorial career, the impressive action spectacle cast by his initial Mad Max trilogy aside, seems borderline random. Miller, not to be confused with the for-good-reason less celebrated director of The Man from Snowy River and The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter, could probably have conquered Hollywood if he had so wished. If he’d just stuck to making action movies. But Miller went his own way, taking in black comedies, true-life dramas, and family features. A meagre five features in 30 years. Miller will turn 70 next year. The character that made his name turned 35 in April. And now Miller’s come back to Max. The warrior Max.
The director has said he has lots of stories to tell, and the reason he left Max at the end of the first trilogy was because he was done with him. Following Beyond Thunderdome he made his second biggest hit The Witches of Eastwick, which, aside from sharing a devilish sense of humour, couldn’t have been more removed from the brutal elemental force of Outback autogeddon. Lorenzo’s Oil, a little seen story of a self-taught curative treatment drew on Miller’s own training as a doctor.
After that, his credits would relate to family features, a reflection of the preoccupations of fatherhood, but with a pronounced dark edge. Chris Noonan, the director of Babe (which he and Miller wrote) professes to have fallen out with Miller since, unhappy with the credit he perceives Miller for the film. He no doubt sees it as justice that Babe: Pig in the City, which Miller steered himself, tanked. It may not be the classic that the original is, but it is a fascinatingly twisted descent into urban nightmare territory for the poor pig.
I don’t know how fair Noonan’s view is, but, purely on the level of physical credits, Miller has officially co-directed three of his nine features, which doesn’t suggest an egomaniac. First with George Ogilvie on Thunderdome; Ogilvie concentrated on the actors and Miller on the stunts It’s been said that Miller’s interest in the project waned after his producer-friend Byron Kennedy died during pre-production, but the real problem with the picture is that Max has been grafted onto another idea (the tribe of children). Miller then co-directed both Happy Feet; like Babe, the first was a big hit and the second fizzled.
Miller’s career could have looked very different at this point; he was in the director’s chair for Contact until issues with the producers saw him replaced by Robert Zemeckis. A few years later, the first iteration of Fury Road couldn’t get off the starting line due to a combination of political sensitivities and the value of the dollar. With its demise went any chance of Mel Gibson returning to the role. Then, in 2007, Miller attached himself to Justice League, which we will finally see, like Fury Road, about a decade after it was first planned. That one created unease due to its clash with the Nolan Bat-verse, but was mainly scuppered by a combination of the planned Australian shoot proving prohibitively costly and the writer’s strike.
Any concern that all this not making of a live action movie in 15 years – or any movie with humans as the principals in 20 – or worry that, without Mel (even given all that has happened in the past few years) Max just isn’t Max fell away when the Comic Con trailer hit last summer. This has only been reiterated by the one released last week. This is a world apart from the down-and-dirty exploitation (Ozploitation) picture of the first Max. Yet that trilogy became progressively cleaner and more stylised as it progressed – until we got Mullet Mel and Tina Turner in the final one. But for all its relative finery, Fury Road feels like it is of the same post-apocalyptic universe as Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior.
Miller had said his idea for Fury Road just wouldn’t go away, adding that there are possibly two sequels waiting in the wings. He’s referred to the picture as a western. Max’s clearly defined origins are, on the face of it, very different to Leone’s The Man With No Name, while Miller’s high-octane action is an opposite to Leone’s luxuriant expansion of time to the point where twitchy tension takes a hold. Yet there is common ground between them; arid settings; bold, cartoonish and grotesque imagery; a ghoulish sense of humour; the same actors playing different characters in different instalments; a (anti-) hero defined by minimalism and a mythic/iconic presence who can be dropped in to a story.
The plot consists of one long chase, taking place over three days, and has
Max fall in with/get rescued by (and no doubt do a bit of rescuing himself) Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Reportedly there’s very little dialogue, but the radio announcements introducing the trailers give us the gist. While we are told, “They are killing for gasoline” the keynote is that everything is dependent on water, and “Now there’s the water wars”.
Max is clearly reticent, on his own (no faithful hound, but that would be too much of a repeat, and I think it’s more fitting that this is a sideways, non-beholden reimagining (after all, as note above, anyone attempting to marry the previous pictures has problems such as Bruce Spence in two completely different roles). His world is “fire and blood” but he needs to be told “Everybody’s out of their mind. You’re not the only one Max”.
As with both Thunderdome and Mad Max 2, there is the suggestion of a reluctant path back to humanity for Tom Hardy’s lizard-stomping Max (he looks like a straggly hermit when we first glimpse him). Both trailers appear to be focused on the same section of the movie (although, given that it’s an extended chase, I expect that’s not the case), with many of the shots showing Max captured, chained and muzzled – and rescued. It’s an effective decision, creating anticipation for his character, but predictably provoked complaints that Theron (who looks great, even with a mechanical arm, and reportedly has a juicy character to dig into) seems to be taking the lead role.
If pushed I prefer the teaser trailer, but both are deliriously effective pieces, doing a great job of selling a movie without letting everything out of the bag (Confidential Music’s atmospheric, scene-setting version of Wild World segueing into Ninja Tracks’ The Module Remix, with its engine sounds, gear changes, and revving, is quite exhilarating). They also both show a welcome sense of humour. It’s there in the editing and the choice of music; Verdi’s Requiem is used as quirky punctuation, set to clear, precise visuals. It’s clear Miller knows exactly where he wants the camera and the effect he wants to achieve.
One of the un-Baned shots of Hardy in both trailers completely sells his charisma; his little smile, looking back from the cabin of a truck, and tiny thumbs-up. This is going to be epic and brutal, but also enormous fun. Nicholas Hoult’s bald, chaff-lipped Nux seizes his moment with “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!” Fury Road gives him the chance to stretch himself with something bigger and bolder than we expect from him.
The design work is persuasive, from big drums and big guns and big pole-vaulting, to the expected designer savages (Hugh Keays-Bryne, Mad Max’s Toecutter, cuts an imposing semi-visage as Immortan Joe). Big hair and shoulder pads may be out, but the cannibal-opulence chic suggests what Road Warrior’s punk marauders are wearing this summer. There are also abundant skull motifs, inventory tattoos, curious dashboard toys and steering wheel totems. And what looks like an auto from Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris.
One might exercise a note of caution concerning a plot that seems to partly revolve around stealing beautiful women straight out of a lingerie catalogue (albeit with toothsome chastity belts), as that seems more in line with the grand fantasy of Thunderdome, and the whirling CGI sandstorm that surfaces seems like a stark betrayal of the promise that all the car stunts are real.
But really, doesn’t this just look great? That shot of Theron kneeling on the sand. I’m yet to be convinced by the announcement that George Miller is a mastermind, but he’s an enormously accomplished filmmaker. I just wish he’d been making more of this order over the last 20 years. 15 May 2015 will indeed be a lovely day.