The Death Opera of Mad Max: Fury Road

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There’s something liberating about seeing an advance screening of a film without needing to file a review. The need to form an instantaneous opinion is no longer present; after the film winds down, you can spend the next few days lazily flipping through positive and negative reviews, judging them on the internal coherence of their arguments rather than their relation to your own opinions. Give a movie time to breathe and sometimes you’ll find yourself agreeing with interesting parts of other reviews.

This was my experience with Mad Max: Fury Road. I had the opportunity to see it a few days early and, rather than worry about tidying up my own thoughts for a review, I simply kicked back and enjoyed other people’s responses. One review, written by Chris Nashawaty at Entertainment Weekly, caught my eye. The part that stuck out:

The reason I bring up this backstory is because you won’t learn any of it from Fury Road. Miller either expects his audience to be fluent in the Maxverse, or he simply doesn’t care. Either way, if it’s more than just a demolition-derby high you’re chasing, it helps to know a bit about the character or you might walk out a little hungry.

It is true that Fury Road has little interest in telling you much about Max or Furiosa; it is equally true that not much is needed. I am one of those who was largely unfamiliar with the narrative going in, having only seen the original Mad Max. I’ve never seen The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome; what little knowledge I have of Miller’s fully realized Wasteland comes from its influence on pop culture. Only I didn’t find the film lacking in character information. In fact, I was surprised at the amount of time Fury Road spent developing its characters within the action sequences.

It’s not exactly pushing the envelope to say that exhaustion is the new staple of the modern action film. In a digital landscape where fight sequences can be rendered down the very last 1s and 0s, audiences are drawn less to the technological perfection of action set pieces and more towards the imperfections of prolonged fights. Fight scenes expand, characters become fatigued, and bits and pieces of imperfection tell the story. Fury Road is no different, preferring to avoid CGI wherever possible and allowing exhausted stuntmen and women to tough it out onscreen for our enjoyment. But whereas before action sequences could be seen as a pause in the narrative – or at best, the culmination of a character’s onscreen development – director like George Miller are finding reasons to cram their narrative into the spectacle.

There were times that Fury Road reminded me more of classic Hollywood musicals than any American action films. It is often said that musical numbers allow characters an opportunity to sing things they may not be able to say; when Gene Kelly bursts into song into the middle of a rainstorm, it is the perfect synthesis of emotion (he is too happy not to sing) and spectacle (he was, uh, a pretty good dancer). At the height of the genre, musical numbers could bring the best of both character development and visual appeal, allowing characters to explain who and why they loved and hated, all without the need to fit big emotions into the tidy confines of theirs films’ non-musical storyline. And Fury Road does that too, using action scenes to get to the heart of their characters without slowing down for exposition.

Who the characters fight – how they fight – becomes just as important as the knowledge of Max’s personal back story. Rather than save Max’s hallucinations of his family for the quiet moments in the film, Miller chooses to mix them directly into the fight sequences, causing Max to struggle against War Boys who suddenly share the faces of the people Max has lost.

Likewise, in an early fight between Max and Furiosa, we are given practically everything we need to know about Joe’s wayward brides by how quickly they react to the struggle. Do they freeze? Do they fight? By the time we identify which of the brides serves as their leader, it is due as much to her prowess in the fight as the ongoing dialogue. Each of the film’s many fight or chase sequences form the music of the film, allowing characters to step downstage and share their worth with the world.

Is there any need to explain how Furiosa came to be the leader of Joe’s armada as we watch her drive and shoot her way through her enemies? Do we need to show the trauma Max has endured as he claws at the lock on his mouthpiece, more animal than man? Each of Miller’s characters show their mettle through the film’s many action sequences, and those that survive are given the opportunity to measure their growth by how they fare in the next battle. Violence is the new musical number, with character information coming fast and wild (and often anything but subtle). And by saving his important character beats for the moments with the biggest explosions, Miller has created a death opera that emphasizes the word ‘opera’ just as much as the word ‘death.’

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.