Mad Max: Fury Road is a beautiful film. It’s fast-paced, high energy action with stunts, practical effects, and tasteful CG galore, and an absolute beauty to behold and experience, and leaves a wonderful aftertaste.
One of the most interesting aspects of Fury Road is in the film’s wide, varied use of cinematographic language. The entire film is packed to the rafters with information: every detail, transition, stance, and shot has something new to say. The entire film is effectively three very well-choreographed, big budget, car chase scenes, but that doesn’t invalidate just how many details are hidden in the crevices, and very little time is wasted in service of known information. Mad Max: Fury Road is an incredibly dense film, in terms of information, yet still plays like a summer action blockbuster.
The film stages itself quickly, monologuing very briefly with relevant information before the action takes off at break-neck pace, with a car chase ensuing immediately following the monologue. The titular road warrior, Max, is already fleeing from a group of bandits, and is promptly captured by the overwhelming number of blanche white motorists. He is awakened in their lair, and flees only to find himself promptly captured again when cornered, out of luck and out of places to hide. The following scene establishing the setting of the towering, cavernous citadel, the sparsity of water for the outside world, and the stranglehold the leader has on all resources.
The bleak picture of the wasteland, what wasn’t illuminated by the film’s starting monologue, comes to focus quickly as the shots open to the wild, untamed wastes. As the audience focuses outward, the film introduces Imperator Furiosa, and stages her character’s credentials as a powerful figure among the white-painted War Boys. She quickly rolls out in the War Rig, a densely armored 18-wheeler, and the film begins the first of three enormous chase scenes without dramatics or pre-amble.
As the various characters are brought into play, the film is slipping in details of the world and its needs. Although scarcity is highlighted in several scenes, any pretense of necessity for the entrenched gangs is vastly understated. Car chases become massive, grandiose affairs, where entire fleets of gas-guzzling V8 engines and massive flame-belching weapons are deployed in mass quantities, where the acquisition of each one ounce of gas is actually heralded by the expenditure of fifty gallons. The rest of the world weeps and claws for every inch, but the gangs throw their power and weight around effortlessly.
Thanks to the reckless abandon with which resources are used for violence, the chases are beautiful sequences of stunts and effects peppered with enormous gouts of fire, explosions, and gunfire. Without sacrificing any depth, the language of summer blockbuster explodes forward every scene. The camera is constantly in the midst of the action, putting the audience in the thick of it with every shot. The threats are constant, the heroes are always teetering dangerously close to failure, and success is never guaranteed. Even the introductory monologue betrays consequence, as though pausing long enough to bring the audience up to speed puts even the most talented road warrior into mortal danger. In the action scenes, this means no one and nothing is sacred. The score of main characters are at constant risk, and the movie can barely go half an hour without a fatality shuffled into the mix somewhere.
To counterbalance the ever-present narrative tension, the actual shots themselves are as decadent as they are visceral. The audience’s perspective never shies away from an opportunity to breathe in the beauty of the shots. The citadel’s walls, massive slabs of stone surrounded by a sea of dunes and dust is glorious. The wasteland, with the infinite possibility of being a vast ocean of featureless dust and ruin, is shown with an almost loving gaze. It’s shown both with the beauty and majesty many films reserve for oceans rather than deserts, and also the terrifying splendor of sand storms’ terrific power. Character and vehicle designs are painstakingly detailed in their execution, down to the rigging of their armor, and vehicles are featured for their modifications. Even weapons, one of the most disposable aspects of the film, are often shot with enough care to detail their beauty. The wide shots and the close-ups both: all aspects of design and decor are given dedication in screen time to proudly display the film’s richness.
Around the beautiful art, a rich mythology of indoctrination, patriarchy, feminism, power struggles, apocalyptic ruin, and bountiful excess are built up and canonized in every story beat. The mythology of valhalla that empowers the War Boys is omnipresent, representing the wild, untamed force of testosterone and explosions, and also staging deep tugs at the heartstrings in the second act. Throughout the percussive power of men leading armies, women silently struggle constantly for their own agency, a power struggle that is in constant flux. Despite the constant reframing of power, Imperator Furiosa is never idolized for her abilities, nor is she shamed for her flaws. She is presented without commentary, and left to her own devices, proves herself among the most interesting characters in the film.
For all of its excellence, though, the film’s flaws seem to settle in the mind far more than they should. Random acceleration and deceleration of the film harken back to silent film era techniques, but feel abrupt and out-of-place in a majority of the sequences they’re used. When the film pauses to illustrate aspects of its mythology, it feels unnecessary and a little overstated. In a film where everything crashes through at a lightning pace, expositional moments that come without accompanying character beats or narrative progression feel overlong and overstay their welcome. When the film slows down, as it does three or four times over its running time, the lack of nuance in the details can’t help but slow the frenetic pace. Despite being necessary to give the scenes appropriate gravity, the tonal shift from the rest of the film feels wrong. However, the gravity of these scenes are still necessary, and are difficult to fault.
Most tellingly, the film is profoundly human. Despite the almost supernatural religious iconography, the sheer force of explosive adherence to blockbuster cinematography, Mad Max: Fury Road is heartfelt. For an action film that wastes no time, and makes little effort to burden itself with dialog, it is still an astoundingly personal look at human fallibility and everyone’s search for humanity in a vast, uncaring wasteland.
Mad Max: Fury Road is an amazing film. At once slowly decadent, frantically explosive, deep, heartfelt, fast, and childish. It speaks the language of cinematography, poetry, humanity, and action without making significant sacrifices to any other aspects. A high-speed, V8 non-stop thrill ride more thoughtful than it appears at a glance, and a blockbuster worth seeing for all sorts, gearhead, action buff, and philosopher alike.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer and editor, chasing after his next projects with the same passion as the War Boys, just with slightly fewer fireballs and explosions. His work can be seen on multiple sites, and his words can be found on Twitter.