The Brutal Symphony Of Mad Max: Fury RoadPosted: May 15, 2015
When I consider the art of opera, I think of a very broad and elemental story being told in a very beautiful, stylized fashion, something that stirs the heart because despite being aesthetically unmoored from reality it is ultimately about something very human. Now, imagine Mad Max: Fury Road as an opera. It’s an opera where the orchestra plays death metal and the costumes are all made of leather and chrome and grease. It’s an opera that takes place on giant cars made of scrap metal, hurtling along at 100 mph and the audience is required to take meth before the performance. It’s an opera for punks and gearheads that’s really about the power of women. Mad Max: Fury Road is a brilliant, absurd, visceral opera, one where the arias and musical movements are replaced with explosions and guitar solos, but where the human core remains to guide it all.
The human core of this particular pulp extravaganza is a multi-tiered one, with many layers of it tying back to the same idea of redemption. In Max, we see a man who has let his failures define him, and discovers on this journey a chance to atone for those failings. In Nux, the aspiring suicide-bomber Warboy, we find someone who is desperate to give his life in the name of his psychotic master Immortan Joe, but learns there are better things to live and die for. And in Furiosa, we see a committed warrior hoping to balance out all the horrible violence she has done over the years for Immortan Joe by saving some of the only undiluted innocence left in the Wasteland. All three of these violent, damaged people is given a chance over the course of the story to redefine themselves, and find a more righteous and more human path after being twisted into animals and weapons by the overlords of the apocalypse.
Furiosa also ties into the other major thematic concern of the film, namely the optimistic strength of women versus the entitled aggression of men. Furiosa’s mission is to save Immortan Joe’s wives from his awful control, and deliver them to a Green Place that has not been ruined by the end of the world. Furiosa and the brides represent femininity that will no longer be oppressed and controlled by man; they set out to live on their own terms rather than be treated as property. The women here represent life and the hope of a world rebuilt, while most of the men represent destruction and the maintenance of the status quo that has given them power. At the beginning, the wives’ hope is to escape the dominion of these awful men and live away from them. But by the end of the story, they’ve realized that what they really have to do is tear down that dominion, and take not just their own destinies but the destiny of the world in their hands. They don’t just have to save themselves from the worst tendencies of men, but they have to save men from their own self-destruction as well… starting with Mad Max.
These character & thematic concerns are not presented subtly; they are loud and direct and emphatic from beginning to end. And yet George Miller still maintains a sharp focus with them, in a way that keeps them broad and plain without it feeling like he’s beating you over the head with his point. Indeed, many of these arcs and messages are mixed seamlessly into the surface-level aesthetics of the film, in a way that not only adds depth to the overall absurd style and tone but also makes the themes easier to connect with as well. The minimalist storytelling style Miller uses here serves both the deep philosophy and high-octane action, and when the plot is so bare-bones, there is a lot more room for both theme and violence. In this way, Fury Road should serve as a lesson to arthouse films and studio tentpoles alike: you can make a theme-heavy movie that is still entertaining, and also make a huge spectacle film that isn’t obnoxiously shallow.
And speaking of high-octane spectacle, Fury Road accomplishes some of the best I’ve ever seen, in ways that had me laughing hysterically at the sheer audacity of it all. In a world of increasingly impressive CGI effects, Miller’s film drives home the unparalleled impact that comes from practical stunts (especially those driven by real emotional stakes). Those practical stunts are made even more awe-inspiring by the absolutely insane aesthetics of this world. The cars, the costumes, and the limited non-vehicular sets are all absolutely bonkers, and seeing these crazy designs doing through equally crazy action makes for an almost hallucinogenic experience. All of this is further punctuated by Junkie XL’s intense score, some of which is personified in the film itself by Immortan Joe’s bard The Doof Warrior (the crazy dude in the top image of this article). If there is one great way to summarize the tone of this movie, it is to emphasize the dude playing a four-foot guitar that shoots flames out the end while riding on top of a truck in a massive fleet of scrap metal cars. It really captures the perfect blend of audio/visual insanity that Miller has wrapped his themes and characters in.
Mad Max: Fury Road is almost impossible to keep up with at first glance. There is so much going on just on the visual plane that you can easily get lost in it all. But once you’ve immersed yourself in this world, there is a great deal of depth and heart to go along with the unapologetic insanity. I’m not gonna lie though: while many other critics have seen Fury Road as a movie that no one could dislike, I can easily picture someone being turned off by the aggressive and intense stylistic choices that Miller has made, and combined with the frenetic tone it could very well be too much for some. But that should be true of any strongly-defined piece of art. If something was that effortlessly accessible, it wouldn’t be worth as much to us. For those who are willing to go along with George Miller on this latest expedition to the Wasteland, you’d best buckle up, because Mad Max: Fury Road will be one of the wildest rides you take for a long, long time.