I went to see “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 3D with no other intention except to kick back and enjoy some mindless entertainment. Mindless it was—entertaining, not so much.
Fifteen minutes into the film, it began to dawn on me that nearly the entire film would consist of Mad Max behind the wheel of a truck fending off the bad guys to the accompaniment of a film score with the same percussive phrases being repeated over and over again like a needle stuck in a record groove. The combination of the roar of the automobiles, the gunfire and the bursting bombs, and the insistent music that was meant to remind you of how exciting the whole thing was made it impossible to hear the dialog—such as it was. In an interview with the NY Times, director George Miller was asked about the near absence of dialog. His reply:
I was very influenced by a book written by the critic Kevin Brownlow called “The Parade’s Gone By.” He said the main part of the parade has gone by the advent of sound in cinema. This new language that we called cinema had mostly evolved in the silent era. What differentiated it from theater were the action pieces, the chase pieces. And I really got interested in that. Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: “I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.” And that was what I tried to do in “Mad Max 1,” and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with “Fury Road.”
With all due respect to George Miller, I don’t think that Alfred Hitchcock should be taken too seriously on this. While nobody can gainsay the visceral pleasure of watching Cary Grant fighting with James Mason in Abe Lincoln’s nostril, that scene from “North by Northwest” hardly stands on its own. It was the dialog between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint that gave the film its panache:
Eve Kendall: How do I know you aren’t a murderer?
Roger Thornhill: You don’t.
Eve Kendall: Maybe you’re planning to murder me right here, tonight.
Roger Thornhill: Shall I?
Eve Kendall: Please do.
Violent clashes such as those that take place in this film and others of this ilk made by J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay and just about any other based on Marvel comic books are exciting but only in small doses, functioning in a way like sex scenes. But who would want to have watched Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider fucking for 90 percent of “Last Tango in Paris”? That’s the problem with “Mad Max: Fury Road”; there’s too much of a good thing.
George Miller’s first installment in the Mad Max series was made in 1979. Despite his reputation for making post-apocalyptic films with some kind of message about gas and now water disappearing, his main motivation for using a future world as a backdrop was his worries that an audience would find all the road kill unbelievable. As it turns out, Miller—who was a doctor in an emergency ward in Sydney at the time tending to exactly the kinds of accidents depicted in the film—decided to set it in a dystopian future in order to make the story more plausible. Like the most recent film, the first one was pretty much unrelieved highway mayhem with very little character development (none actually) and dialog.
It was with the 1981 “Road Warrior” that Miller began to hit his stride. Mad Max becomes a kind of mercenary fighting on behalf of the good people defending a small-scale oil refinery against marauders after the fashion of “Seven Samurai” that his talents as a screenwriter and director begin to emerge. What I remember most about the film was Mel Gibson’s interaction with the feral youth and his deadly boomerang. Watching his joyous reaction to the music box that Mad Max gives him was worth the price of admission.
The masterpiece, of course, was “Beyond Thunderdome”, which once again had Mad Max interacting with children and was justifiably celebrated for the casting of Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, the chief of the bad guys.
In doing some research on Miller, who is just about my age, I was startled to discover that he is not limited to the Mad Max series. He directed “The Witches of Eastwick”, a witty tale based on a John Updike novel about the devil—played to a tee by Jack Nicholson—seducing three women. He was also screenwriter and director for “Happy Feet”, one of the finest children’s movies I have ever seen.
Just a final word on the politics of the film. The Internet has been abuzz over a controversy about the film’s “man hatred”. Apparently some idiots from the “men’s rights” movement are upset with the supposed feminist message of the film. Since Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues”, served as a consultant on the film, we are led to believe that it was a statement about gender equality. Since Charlize Therzon’s character fights side by side with Mad Max with about as much effectiveness and has antagonized the bad guys’ chief by attempting to rescue a group of women forced to bear his children after the fashion of ISIS, we are led to conclude that this is a film with a message.
I do think that Miller is capable of making a film with a message. “Happy Feet” was sort of a penguin’s version of “Billy Elliot”, making the case that there’s nothing wrong with a boy wanting to dance. The only message I got out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that a fool and his money are soon parted.