(The following post presupposes knowledge of the plot of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)and therefore may spoil some plot points and worldbuilding details.)
In a rare inversion, critics have been super-excited about a big action blockbuster—Mad Max: Fury Road—but audience reactions (according to my totally unscientific observations) have been mixed. (I don’t consider Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score to be scientific either, because of self-selection biases.) The people who like this movie really, really like it, but many are just lukewarm about it, or disappointed.
I am in the underwhelmed camp; in fact, I considered walking out of the film several times. (This might have had more to do with my generalized anxiety than it did with the actual film. But for reasons discussed below, I think even under ideal conditions, I wouldn’t have been fully engaged with it.) I went in with expectations lifted by critics’ exuberance. I haven’t seen the original Mad Max films (yet), so I wasn’t comparing the film to its predecessors. I can enjoy crazy, over-the-top, and even cartoonish action (e.g. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Dredd, the Evil Dead trilogy, and the MCU). But for some reason, I never really clicked with this film. I think it might have had to do with the radical shifts between over-the-topness and realism.
On the realism ledger, I very much liked how Max’s trauma was portrayed. Unlike many portrayals of PTSD, Max’s trauma wasn’t just an inert character trait that manifests itself only in brooding. Instead, it was a tangible impairment that asserted itself an inopportune times. Moments of danger, distress, and even loneliness trigger Max’s flashbacks and hallucinations, violently tearing him out of moments which demand his full attention. In just a few seconds of screen time, it is established Max has real anguish; we don’t know how he can possibly carry on being wounded as he is, and neither does he.
There was also an internal logic to Immortan Joe’s slave society, and his death cult was enlivened by fascinating details. (As a friend of mine pointed out, when the War Boys spray silver paint over their mouths and noses, they’re not just alluding to the “shining and chrome” bodies they expect to wear in the afterlife—they’re also huffing paint fumes, getting themselves high and driving themselves into a berserker frenzy. The significance of this ritual—conveyed in images, not words—and dozens of other details made the world of the film feel deep and intriguing.)
However, the central chase scenes themselves had an atmosphere of unreality about them. This is ironic, given how much they they involved real stunts, and how little they involved CGI. The practicality of the special effects, much-trumpeted by critics, was one of the film’s chief attractions for me going in. However, knowing the logistical difficulties of making the chase scenes happen didn’t enhance my enjoyment of them when they were onscreen. The stunt choreographers did their jobs too well, and everything looks too effortless. I think it was after Furiosa climbed to the underside of her war rig to make repairs while it was still moving at top speed that I realized that the chases were taking place in a cartoon universe, and the main characters would never be in danger when they were scrambling and fighting on the outsides of racing vehicles.
Additionally, just beyond the margins of the screen, there are lots of questions unresolved by the film.
Even fans have expressed confusion about how the timeline of the film’s universe is supposed to work. A quick audio montage of fake news broadcasts establishes that the movie takes place after some political and ecological catastrophe that reduced the world to an anarchic desert wasteland. Max, played by an actor in his mid-thirties at the time of the film’s production, remembers being a police officer before the collapse of civilization. This implies the collapse happened within his adult lifetime. However, Nux, a twentysomething, doesn’t know what a tree is, and only the most elderly characters still have an interest in preserving seeds. This suggests generations have passed since the world was green. So…when did the apocalypse happen? Within Max’s lifetime, or decades ago?
Even those who aren’t continuity nitpickers may have been disappointed that many of the most interesting character moments happened off-screen. We don’t know how the wives came to rebel against the man who enslaved them. We don’t know why Furiosa decided to abandon her life as Immortan’s lieutenant to seek redemption. We’re told about these defining choices, but not shown them.
Hopefully, Mad Max: Fury Road will receive some technical awards, for all the real peril its stunt people put themselves through to make many genuinely impressive shots. I also don’t deny that it has a solider moral center than most action movies, or that its’s able to give depth and arcs to central characters with comparatively little dialogue. It just wasn’t much fun for me.