It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a two-hour heart attack that rolled into theatres in 2015, grabbed audiences by the throat, and has been holding on ever since as the best summer blockbuster to grace the (shiny and chrome) silver screen. Sawed-off shotguns at dawn for anyone who disagrees.
George Miller’s post-apocalyptic vehicular ballet sees Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), allying with the fierce and appropriately furious Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has spirited away the sex slaves of the dictatorial Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) with the help of 200 horsepower of a nitro-boosted war machine. What follows is a feature-length car chase through the deserts of a soured land. Fury Road is part “western on wheels,” part silent film, part comic book adaptation, but always at its core, a bonafide, high-octane action spectacle.
Truly, the first thirty minutes of Fury Road might be the most incredible thirty minutes of cinema I have ever experienced in a theatre. When Nux’s flare finally fizzles out in the sandstorm and we are mercifully granted a moment of pause, I felt as though I’d been holding my breath for half an hour. I exhaled audibly. My whole body was clenched. I can’t recall ever feeling so physically ensnared by a movie, before or since. It was fucking fantastic, and it certainly didn’t let up after thirty minutes. After all, Fury Road is center framed for your pleasure, boasting a litany of practical “how the fuck did they do that” effects and an eye-popping, washed-out-apocalypse-genre-defying palette. Witness: Fury Road has such wonders to show you.
Stripped to a basic syntax of movement, sound, and vision, Fury Road is the cinematic gold standard of “show don’t tell.” This kind of economic, elemental storytelling is key to a good summer blockbuster: no one speaks unless they must; each set-piece feels justified; every detail enriches the world. You could call this restraint, minimalism, or simply damn fine filmmaking. It’s the kind of simple genius that colors only the very best cinematic summer classics.
And nothing says summer like thousands of miles of hot, flat, barren desert; like unending, cloud-starved sky and a landscape defined by sand, sweat, and steam. Fury Road is a summer blockbuster that feels hot. I get dehydrated watching this film the way I crave an extra blanket when I watch The Thing. Even the cool nighttime blues that offset the scorched reds and acid yellows of the day have an inexplicably summery feel to them. The lurking menace of heat, held at bay only by the rotation of a planet.
Rewatches are a must for any summer blockbuster worth its salt-flats, and Fury Road is a film that begs infinite, enthusiastic rewatches. When your pals wanted to spend the evening at the local multiplex on a warm July night in 2015, there was only one answer. Sure, you’d seen Fury Road five times already (no small financial feat), but damn it if you weren’t game as hell to strap back into that rollercoaster.
As they say, the post-apocalyptic devil’s in the details, and tiny, rust-kissed calling cards of survival, character, and mythos litter the frames of Fury Road. Every vehicle an ossuary. Every hood ornament a relic. Every nook, cranny, and dashboard filthy with the thumbprints of a human desire to sculpt beauty and care out of a shitty situation. Welcome to the future: there’s no water, but we’ve hot glued skulls and doll heads to everything, so at least we’ve got that going for us.
The longer you stare at Fury Road the more Fury Road stares back. From the People Eater’s nipple clamps to the cell phone cum military badges on the Immortan’s breastplate. During a recent rewatch, I paid attention to how the beating of Furiosa’s wrench against the sand-filled war rig melted into the pounding of Junkie XL’s score. This moment signaled the approaching war party on the horizon and reanimated the momentum of the forthcoming chase as if to say buckle up, the party’s just getting started.
Each and every stylish flourish of Fury Road serves a purpose. And one of those purposes is the sub-dermal eco-morality tale that haunts all Mad Max films. We know this is a world that is like our own, and Fury Road, more than any other film in the franchise, asks us to make a bigger leap: that this is a world we might very well end up in. Water scarcity, resource-wars, precipitous human cruelty and all. Early in Fury Road, The Splendid Angharad demands to know who killed the world. She shouts her question at Nux before launching him out of the moving war rig. It’s the same question Hayao Miyazaki asks, albeit more gently, in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (“I don’t understand—who could have polluted the entire earth?”). It’s a question that’s meant for us, not as a patronizing tut, but as a solemn invitation: to reflect and to imagine, perhaps even beyond the confines of the theatre.
This is not to say that there aren’t other big things going on™ in Fury Road, for they are legion: the film is steeped in themes of forgiveness (when time allows), objectification, commodification, gender, illness, and adaptation, to name a few. You can’t throw a thunderstick at this film without hitting a big, gaping 21st-century capital-t Theme, a fact made all the more impressive when you consider that the script clocks in at under 1,250 lines of dialogue. Show don’t tell indeed.
Many a sequel/remake/reboot summer blockbuster has peddled the seductive promise of “recapturing the cinematic magic” of an earlier cinematic experience (*cough*). This is, obviously, a very hard thing to pull off. To be mystified in the way we were before we all got crusty with cynicism demands a grandeur that can soften hard hearts and shave the scales off well-trained skepticism. With Fury Road, George Miller found a way of renewing cinema with a sincere sense of wonder; with a slack-jawed, gushing sense of being utterly transported. And for this, Fury Road deserves a place among the greats in the summer blockbuster hall of fame.