Thursday, June 4, 2015

Madness is Beautiful: "Mad Max"

***spoilers follow***

It's a rare action movie that will survive without snappy dialogue and cheap one-liners, or thrive without buxom babes falling head over heels for handsome heroes. It's a rarer action movie that can transport its audience to a truly complex world, spur reflections on our cultural obsessions with war and power, and carry a feminist message in its blood-soaked hands to the hearts of a new generation of young people.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" does all that, and I haven't even mentioned the freakin motorcycle stunts.

Technically not even a reboot, the Mad Max franchise is continued here by director/writer George Miller (who also, um, wrote both of the Babe films?) following another chapter in the life of a mentally-damaged survivalist keeping himself alive in a deep-orange post-apocalyptic wasteland. In "Fury Road", the survivalist (named Max) finds himself embroiled in a feud between a water-hoarding warlord named Immortan Joe and his five wives, who attempt to escape the malformed tyrant's clutches and find the Green Place, a mysterious land where the fabled Many Mothers live.

Though the film moves so quickly that you hardly notice this strength, Miller makes short work of attaching us to Mad Max. Within the first five minutes, the bearded wanderer is taken captive by chalk-covered War Boys who serve Immortan Joe. They shave him down, gag him, tattoo his back with important details (blood type, genitals intact, high octane) and he feverishly attempts to escape, all the while haunted by the skulls and faces of people whose deaths he inadvertently caused. (Also he eats a two-headed gecko.) But despite a thrilling chase scene (fast forwarded for added manic energy) Max's leap for escape only gets him a glimpse of the towering citadel of stone where he's kept before he's dragged back.

This is a man held together by tenacity and guilt, and there's no one better to pull off that role than Tom Hardy. No longer inflated to play Bane, only a few shades of the Batman villain's voice come across in Hardy's muttering, frantic-eyed portrayal. Under a grated muzzle, in bulky costumes or toting strange weapons, it's nice to know that there is a powerful actor underneath the effects.

While Max is imprisoned, we get a long, hard look at the world he lives in. And it's a hard look. Immortan Joe is an oversized warlord encased in white powder like his followers, transparent plastic armor, and a toothy mask that doubles as breathing apparatus. What's beneath that mask we never get a good look, but the double chins and wild yellow eyes communicate enough.

While his followers communicate in a mixed garble of what might have once been english, Joe is eloquent as he speaks to thousands of deformed and pathetic subjects. While they club each other to death over the light spray of water from what seem like infinite tanks, he chides them, "Do not become addicted to water. You will grow to resent its absence."

As part of this routine of despotism he sends off a War Rig on a supply run for the all-important guzzoline and bullets, driven by one of his highest-ranking servants, the one-armed cyborg Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). But as he sends her off, something appears to be wrong. He sprints through his thriving gardens, contrasted sharply to the drought of his people, opens the vault to his grand-piano-and-pool-equipped bedchambers, and finds the words "Our Babies Will Not Be Warlords" painted on the floor. It turns out that Joe's wives have stowed away aboard the War Rig and Furiosa is underground-railroading them the hell outta dodge.

Furiosa is a wonderful character with as much complexity as Max. Her rig is an example of her own planning, full of secrets that Max and the others explore. She has been engineering this kind of opportunity for years, and it shows. Charlize Theron has a tough job being the most talkative character in an alien wasteland, and sometimes she seems a little too normal, too contemporary. But these faults are easily forgotten.

It is in Immortan Joe's retaliation that Max, still a slave, has a chance at the narrative, because a young War Boy, too dehydrated to fight, decides that joining the search party and driving a pursuit car might be his chance at Valhalla, and to have the energy for the chase, he straps Max to the front of the car and uses him as a human IV. When the resourceful wives and Furiosa take down the War Boy's vehicle, Max takes control and joins forces with them in their escape.

And that's the first half an hour, minus some amazingly-choreographed action sequences and beautiful nuances. Some images slam into your brain as if they'd always been iconic: War Boys pulling skullish steering wheels off an altar like Crucifixes and kissing them, Max coming around the side of the truck and finding five beautiful, exhausted-looking women in white taking a drink from a hose like some greek painting of naiads. Motorcyclists vaulting over the truck and tossing down grenades seems more like ballet than war. It's just a gorgeously depraved story in a richly-depicted world.

A lot of people are praising Mad Max for its surprising depth, its feminist messages, and for its strong characters, while some think it's a glorified car chase. So what is it?

It's fantastic science fiction.

Science fiction is very rarely escapism, as Marvel and its subsidiary brothers would like us to believe. Following with tradition, the film's world is full of symbols and touchstones that are not only commentaries but a sort of prophetic warning of what our present actions mean. This is not a genre for the thoughtless or isolated. The fact that it happens to have enormous action scenes (one too many, in my opinion) and to be largely enjoyable doesn't take away from how deep it is.

Our protagonist is a nameless wanderer, haunted by the dead and devoid of any dietary scruples, and in that sense he's a symbol of post-apocalyptic man: built only for survival, full of personal dissonance, but largely incapable of changing it or facing it. The world around him is a harsh and dramatic allegory which, of course, asks us to take sides. The War Boys, Joe's servants, are desperate to please him, filled with hope of Valhalla, selfish and self-deprecating. The wives are the oppressed women of the world, hoping for a life free of the violence and objectifying society they come from. It is, as has been said in many places, a massive feminist anthem.

Whatever one may say about its message, seeing the feminist agenda in this light helps one recognize its gravity. Immortan Joe's world of imprisonment, chastity belts, and disregard is not far from many past societies, and the war-and-power-mongering insanity of his people is frightening to compare to our own. In this story, who do we want to be as men or as women? Are we fighting for our personal Valhallas, or scavenging for survival without thinking of others? Are we holding ourselves back by allowing others to see us as objects when we could make positive difference, or be a part of a society that will recognize our contributions? Is it easier to just be beautiful, or just be strong, rather than to be truly selfless?

The other aspects of the film's lore require more attention and add their own thematic questions. The Gasoline-traders and the Bullet-Farmers are mentioned early on, and in good fantasy fashion each have their own twisted, beautiful moments and shocking visuals. The Many Mothers, when they appear, are welcome and wonderful--old women full of wisdom and experience but not all that much hope.

(As a side note, the Many Mothers are a good reminder that feminism is not new, even in this genre. Science fiction and fantasy's history of feminism stretches back long before the contemporary wash of facebook articles. Look at Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" or "Tehanu". Today's sci-fi & fantasy magazines are overflowing with fabulous women and feminist writers. Before descending into vitriol, opinion, straw men and argument, we should remember that feminism has a strong hold among intelligent, kind people of all political and moral walks.)

My short answer is, of course, to go see the film. It is disturbing in many ways, and violent. Its fight and chase scenes are excellently-choreographed, full of gasp-worthy moments, and its visuals are stunning.

My only major qualm with the film is about its ending. The story is a reflection on power as much as it is on women, as most of its characters obsess over cars and guns because they are representations of power. War is, in its basest sense, a testosterone-fueled competition about pride and victory. Thus it strikes me as sad that, in a way, the film's conclusion is that in order to save humanity, all you need is the right regime change. The final images of the film show its new victors being pulled up to the heights of the citadel by the same slaves who hoisted Immortan Joe. Will anything change. or will the cycle of tyranny begin again?

In my experience, equality of the sexes does not involve one person stepping out of a throne and another stepping in. The future I hope for is one where we change the way we see power.

True power in "Mad Max" is shown in both feminine and masculine ways. Of course there is the stoic killing of bad guys, but real power is the scene of forgiveness in the back of the rig where one of the wives touches the lips of a wrecked War Boy, showing him the futility of his search for Valhalla. Real power is the scene where Max tries to use his mumbling medical knowledge to save Furiosa's life. Real power is self-sacrifice, not in hopes of salvation, but because of real love.

Also, guys, that scene with the spiky cars. Dang, I loved that.

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