Bubbling up in conversations I’ve had with other critics and film fans recently has been a recurring debate: What is the future of the action movie? Where can the genre go from the bloated, calculated CGI monstrosities it has been vomiting up lately? (Even the mostly enjoyable ones seem to culminate in frenetic cartoons of stuff whizzing around banging into other stuff in ways that barely even register with the eye, and which seems deliberately designed to be incoherent.) Actually, it’s not even a debate, really: no one seems to have any idea where action might move, and most likely, whatever the next step is will hit us out of the blue, like how Lethal Weapon and Die Hard made us realize we didn’t know we required comedy with our action in the late 80, and how The Matrix blindsided us with the possibilities of CGI in 1999.
So: If the genre requires a refreshening every dozen years or so, we’re overdue. Mad Max: Fury Road might not be that refreshening, but if it isn’t, it’s most definitely a reminder than the refreshening is desperately needed, and a hint of what that refreshening might feel like. (It feels good!) Fury Road is astonishing in a way that makes you feel like you haven’t seen a true action movie in a while, by underscoring how sterile and cold what has passed for the genre has been. If it doesn’t represent a refreshening, it’s only because it achieves its grotesque, magnificent brutality in an old-fashioned way: with a simple, straightforward good-versus-evil story set in a carefully conceived imaginary world brought to visceral plausibility through the sheer physicality of capturing on film real people doing real things in the real world.
Even the most lovingly produced and technically accurate CGI could not have replicated the dusty authenticity of putting actors and stunt performers in actual vehicles and racing — and crashing! — them in a genuine desert. (The film was shot in New South Wales and Namibia.) Which is what Australian cinematic maestro George Miller (Happy Feet Two, Babe: Pig in the City) has done for his return to the postapocalyptic, water- and gas-thirsty future he created in 1979’s Mad Max. There are no green screens here, and CGI is used so sparingly that it’s barely noticeable as FX even when your head tells you it must be so, like how it lets an able-bodied actor play a character who has lost the left arm below the elbow. The bulk of the film consists of vehicular warfare carried out across sandblasted landscapes, and it is an assault on the senses in a good way, in the way that action movies used to be before they were disconnected from the physics of how the real world operates, and the sweat and the fear of how the human body responds to danger. (Turns out we feel it more, too, safe in our cinema seats, when the danger human bodies are in onscreen is this palpable.)
And unlike with many of its genre brethren, the story here is not beside the point. It ends up being the actual point along many different and unlikely vectors. Warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) thinks he’s sending his trusted Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Prometheus) on a mission to bring back fuel from Gas Town to the Citadel he rules with an iron fist (he controls the water), but she’s got a secret mission of her own: to free the enslaved “breeders” of Joe’s genetically pure children and bring them to the “Green Place” far away she remembers from her own childhood. (The radiation still hanging around from the time when the world was killed is causing many mutations.) The battles pit Joe’s army against Furiosa, who is more than a match in her “War Rig,” plus she has some previously enlisted allies for her journey. She hadn’t planned on loner Max (Tom Hardy: Child 44, The Drop) being part of her crew, but that happens accidentally when–
Well, I’ll leave that you to find out. When I say that Fury Road is grotesque, I don’t mean only that it’s jam-packed with the sort of nasty postapocalyptic production design that Miller invented. It is that, crammed with biological trophies, spiky armor, and other horrors that Miller has now reinvented so that his film does not feel as if it’s full of easy shorthand clichés like most of the other movies that have borrowed it. No, I also mean that Miller’s vision of this cruel future is monstrous in some almost unthinkable ways, one of which is how Max comes to be caught up in events. (Max, by the way, is not the hero here. This is all Furiosa’s story, and that of the women she is helping. At best, he becomes her sidekick.) Miller’s world employs tropes of sci-fi and particularly of postapocalyptic stories in ways that smack them down, that insist that whatever horrors of human nature that the end of civilization may bring out, those horrors will not go unrebelled against. Immortan Joe, among his many other crimes against humanity, has reduced women to beasts, to farm animals… but that doesn’t mean they like it or accept it. There are no damsels in distress here: there are angry women fighting back and rescuing themselves. (The “wives” of Joe are played by Zoë Kravitz [Insurgent, X-Men: First Class], Rosie Huntington-Whiteley [Transformers: Dark of the Moon], Riley Keough [Magic Mike, The Runaways], Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton.) Miller depicts warlordism as something truly shocking and degenerate, and whatever signifiers of “cool” he may deploy in his massive conflagrations of cars and men — such as the battle “piper” on what could be called an Amplifier Rig playing an electric guitar that shoots fire to egg on Joe’s troops as they swarm to war — will later get a smackdown, a reminder that Joe is the villain here, and that he is not cool.
Shorter Fury Road: Women are not going to be your sexbots in the afterscape, assholes. I fear this is going to upset some fans of the genre. They deserve upsetting.
Miller’s critique of warlordism could be said to extend to the sorts of filmmakers who try to control every aspect of their films down the tiniest detail — the sort of control that CGI allows — instead of letting unpredictable reality rule. The religious worship Joe inspires, by calculated plan, in his young soldiers, such as fervently devoted Nux (Nicholas Hoult: X-Men: Days of Future Past, Jack the Giant Slayer), is of course destined only for disillusionment and disappointment when its absurd promises go unfulfilled. The promises of warlord directors, tweaking every drop of rain onscreen, every splatter of blood, every screech of tires, can tend toward much the same disillusionment. Freedom and surprise are better, and more fun.