Friday, May 22, 2015

How Mad Max: Fury Road Succeeds by Embracing Genre


            Blessed is she or he who watches Mad Max: Fury Road and can write coherently about it. The latest entry in George Miller’s gasoline-fueled, apocalyptic series unfolds as a fever dream, an extended action sequence so relentlessly kinetic that the few periods of quiet and stillness feel downright unsettling. Even now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a real film that I experienced while conscious, let alone one that’s legitimately good.

            By all rights, a movie involving an electric guitar that literally spews fire should fall into the “guilty pleasure” category at best; to tell the truth, there were a couple times when I wasn’t quite sure if I was laughing with or at it. Yet this eagerness to revel in the ridiculous is ultimately why it works, along with the abundance of distinct female characters; the quietly riveting performances from lead actors Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult; and the mind-blowing commitment to practical effects over digital trickery.

If stuff like this doesn’t make you appreciate stuntmen and women, you’re hopeless.

I tend to be skeptical of the idea that there’s inherent value in deliberately over-the-top art. White House Down may be aware of its stupidity, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid or more fun to watch. Fury Road, however, is not over-the-top just for the sake of being over-the-top. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s highly interested in exploring the concept of madness, on both an individual level (see: the main character’s name) and a societal level (the dystopian community led by villain, Immortan Joe, revolves around a manipulative cult). The first ten or so minutes put us directly in Mad Max’s head, using various aesthetic techniques, such as rapid edits and sped-up motion, to produce a sense of mania and disorientation. As a whole, the exquisitely grotesque production design effectively captures a world in disarray, where there are no rules and nothing makes sense.

            At a time when Hollywood churns out big-budget spectacles like assembly-line products, the passion of Fury Road feels not only refreshing but vital. Here is an action movie that unabashedly adores action, staging scenes of destruction and mayhem with the mischievous glee of a kid experimenting with fireworks. Explosions, shootouts and armored cars collide in a frenzied, hypnotic ballet, set to the grand, cacophonous score of Dutch instrumentalist Junkie XL. It’s light-years away from the self-conscious irony of such flicks as 21 Jump Street and Guardians of the Galaxy, which seem faintly embarrassed by their own existence, and the slick yet soulless tedium that plagues so many tent-poles, like The Amazing Spider-Man, whose novice director Marc Webb was clearly more interested in making a sweet romance than the flashy extravaganza he was obligated to deliver.

            With superhero, science-fiction, fantasy and action-adventure pictures now serving as the life-blood of the film industry, it can be easy to take them for granted and forget that not too long ago, such fare was largely consigned to the margins of cinema. In many ways, Fury Road feels like a throwback to those earlier B-movies, which may have lacked their current glamour and commercial viability but were unafraid to be outrageous and provocative. Many of today’s best genre films share this instinct, celebrating rather than shirking their less reputable roots: in Gone Girl, the femme fatale and existential cynicism of classical noir coalesce with the lurid plot twists and domestic paranoia of ‘80s and ‘90s erotic thrillers; Super 8 pays homage to not only Spielbergian coming-of-age tales but also ‘70s-era monster schlock and conspiracy potboilers; the gorgeous cinematography of Black Swan only enriches the trashy horror melodrama that lies at its core; and so on. On TV as well, there’s something uniquely pleasurable about seeing The Mindy Project borrow liberally from old-school rom-coms, Boardwalk Empire indulge in pulpy violence, or Justified evoke Western tropes, particularly in its triumphant final season.

Who cares if it’s cliché? This shot is straight-up breathtaking.

Despite achieving mainstream popularity, genre films still struggle to be taken seriously. Critics routinely dismiss them as shallow, mindless drivel manufactured to placate easily distracted juvenile audiences, bemoaning the supposed dearth of movies “for grown-ups”. In the age of Transformers, it’s tempting to succumb to such skepticism and fatigue. Yet when done properly, not only are genre movies just as capable of addressing mature, relevant subjects as highbrow dramas, but they can also be, in some cases, specially qualified as vehicles for moral, political and social commentary, uninhibited by the constraints of realism and keenly aware of the way myths and storytelling shape human experience.

            The Dark Knight, for instance, remains (arguably) cinema’s most searing, complex exploration of 9/11 and its aftermath. Contrary to popular consensus, it doesn’t disdain or seek to transcend superhero narratives but simply respects them enough to recognize that they can accommodate a variety of tones and structures. It’s fun precisely because it doesn’t feel the need to constantly draw attention to or apologize for the absurdity of its premise. Then there’s Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s flamboyant, chilling portrait of capitalistic exploitation; District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s alien actioner that doubles as an allegory about prejudice, violence and institutional authority; and, to venture a tad farther back, Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow’s under-appreciated dystopian noir gem whose critique of virtual media and urban race relations has only become more resonant over the years. What these movies lack in subtlety, they make up for in sheer, visceral power.

In an ideal world, Lornette Mason would be as iconic an action heroine as Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley.

            For its part, Fury Road uses its escapist trappings to convey a surprisingly bold female empowerment fantasy. While its feminist credentials should not be overstated, its take on misogyny and gender relations rather simplistic, the film nonetheless packs a potent punch, as demonstrated by the fact that a high-profile contingent of MRAs (aka Men’s Rights Assholes) actually called for a boycott of it. As pathetic as it sounds, for such a pure, aggressive action movie like this to a) include female characters of varying races and ages who make meaningful contributions to the central plot and b) treat women like a worthwhile audience without pandering to them is, in itself, a radical act. Whether the industry takes note remains to be seen (history and the trailers that preceded my screening do not provide much cause for optimism), but either way, Fury Road is blockbuster filmmaking at its most thrilling. It puts the rest of Hollywood to shame.


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