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Mad Max: Fury Road and the Movie-Going Experience

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As I’m always gently nudging my Netflix-subscribing, BitTorrent-ing peers to make the effort to see more movies in theaters and help keep the big screen experience alive, there was a small, ultimately harmless but bitter irony for me a few weeks ago, when seemingly everyone I knew wouldn’t shut up about Mad Max: Fury Road on the rare weekend that I couldn’t make it out to the movies. Reading my friends’ reactions to this movie – their experiences equal parts religious and sexual ecstasy, it seemed – I thought “Well, no movie can live up to that, right?” even as I was dying to find out. I was tempted to bring my two young kids to the theater with me before deciding against it because of the small chance that doing so might literally be a form of child abuse (they’re tough kids, but my friends’ descriptions of the way the movie sexually penetrated their eye sockets gave me pause). I reminded my sulking inner child that grown-ups can be patient and decided to wait.

The next Saturday, the only convenient showtime was at a megaplex that I haven’t visited in a couple of years; it had undergone some changes that I found quite jarring. The box office counter, which had previously been staffed with multiple clerks, had been replaced with two clerks and a line of automated machines for purchasing tickets. Ticket kiosks on a movie theater floor in addition to the human-staffed box office is one thing, but the ticket machines inhabiting box office space once populated by human teenagers was genuinely unnerving. It’s bad enough that jobs are being lost to robots, but must we make the people who have held on to their jobs literally work side by side with the robots?

In addition, there were less clerks at the concessions stand, thanks to the long line of automated soda-dispensing machines – the newfangled kind with several dozen different options. They’re admittedly kind of neat, but still, the effect of seeing them at at movie theater was different from at a Wendy’s. Watching people shuffle from the ticket robots to the soda robots with nobody commenting on how weird this is freaked me out, and that my ticket carried a bar code that the ticket taker (a human, at least) scanned as we passed sent me over the edge. For years, I’ve been arguing to my friends about the importance of keeping the theatrical experience alive, but seeing all of the romance of going to the movies reduced to a literally mechanical experience was the first moment I asked myself if “the big screen experience” is really worth fighting for. As we sat down in our assigned stadium seating – oversize, leather barca loungers with electronic controls that adjusted both the height and angle of our butts – I wondered if this horrible, antiseptic, coddling theatrical experience, designed to make people feel like they’re at home on their couches while drastically reducing even the briefest forms of human interaction, was a sure sign that we’re headed towards a Wall-E future.

And then an even scarier thought occurred to me: Maybe I’m just finally becoming a grumpy old fart.

These possibilities remained in the back of my head during the trailers, including one for The Last Witch Hunter, a supernatural thriller starring Vin Diesel, that played like a parody trailer from a satire about show business. Most of them weren’t so hilariously bad, just instantly forgettable, and I sat there wondering if I was reaching an inevitable turning point where, like many of my older cinephile fans and acquaintances, I’d start feeling like Hollywood just isn’t making movies for me anymore.

Then Mad Max: Fury Road started, and within about two minutes, my grumpy mood had completely vanished. It completely lives up to and possibly even exceeds all of the breathless, all-caps hype that I’d been reading for the previous week. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in six months, and the best blockbuster since…I don’t even know when. Jurassic Park? Terminator 2? As much as we grumpy old farts bemoan Hollywood’s decline, the truth is that grumpy old farts were complaining about the exact same thing during the years that my generation and others now hold up as the good old days. Truly great blockbusters have always been rare, largely because of the rise of high-concept, marketing-driven thinking in Hollywood, but also because it’s just really, really hard to make a big, expensive, action-packed crowd-pleaser that retains a personal vision and a distinctive sensibility, even when the filmmakers involved have the best intentions. Having just gone through a challenging experience making a movie with a handful of characters, few locations, no action or effects and only my friends to justify my choices to, I can’t imagine how any movie can be made with the kind of headache-inducing logistical problems that director George Miller and his crew must have faced on a daily basis with Fury Road, with a multinational corporation’s worth of cooks in the kitchen, and come out even halfway decent. When they’re as legitimately great as this one is, it’s something of a miracle.

What’s especially gratifying about the movie working as well as it does is that Miller and his director of photography, John Seale, are both in their seventies. The first two Mad Max movies put Miller on a shortlist of directors who wrote the book on action and genre filmmaking that young new directors are still cribbing from today. The other directors who would be on that list have are either retired, seemingly more interested in making other kinds of movies or have lost their way in favor of computer-generated spectacle. So it’s gratifying to this old-fart-to-be that, after a couple of decades of directing nothing but family films – albeit ones that are thematically of a piece with the rest of his work (seriously, Fury Road and the Happy Feet movies have a surprising amount in common) – Miller returned to the subgenre he helped define and schooled every young hotshot filmmaker out there.

That’s the ironic thing about people going nuts about Fury Road like they’ve never seen anything like it – they absolutely have! Putting aside the bigger budget and all of the technical advances that Miller now has at his disposal that he didn’t when he made The Road Warrior, and from a point of view of visual storytelling craft, the two movies – made over 30 years apart – are remarkably of a piece. The movie works as well as it does because of the director’s gift for spatial continuity across multiple planes of action; basically, what this means is that, no matter how much crazy car-related mayhem is happening at once or how fast it’s edited together, as long as we can understand where characters and objects are in relationship to each other and the space they’re occupying, the audience can keep up remain invested in what’s going on.

That probably sounds pretty simple, but it can be surprisingly challenging, and it’s become something of a lost art – in most big action movies, the emphasis is on big, loud moments strung together with little thought of how they relate to each other, which quickly becomes incoherent to the point of battering away at any real engagement an audience might have in the story. Audiences have actually become inured to having our senses assaulted – we pay to see the latest megabudget movie in a franchise based on a comic book or action figure even if the last one sucked, we might remark on one or two cool effects shots or whether the movie was better or worse than the last one, but we don’t feel anything. So it’s exciting that people are responding to classical visual storytelling – Miller draws from classic Hollywood westerns, David Lean, even as far back as the silent film era – that, because it’s been so long since they’ve experienced anything like it in a theater, feels revolutionary.

This is where the true grumpy old farts would cut me off and point out that, for all of the practical effects in the movie, it’s still filled with CGI and other digital trickery and, therefore, can’t compare with The Road Warrior, where they literally did everything for real. And it’s not that a person is wrong if they don’t dig Fury Road or any other movie, but when I read people my age and older dismissing the mind-boggling practical effects Miller and his crew pulled off by shrugging and saying “Meh, CGI sucks,” it says way more about them than it does about the movie. Putting aside the fact that, had the cast and stunt team done everything in the movie on-set, there would have been multiple fatalities, anyone who adopts a knee-jerk anti-digital pose is making a pretty lazy argument. It’s the cinephile’s equivalent of the guy who loudly proclaims that nothing sounds better than vinyl; it’s not a response to the movie as much of an affirmation of the person’s self-image.

The reality is that tools available to filmmakers are only as good or bad as what those filmmakers do with them, and it’s true that a lot of CGI-heavy films lack the imagination and restraint that their makers might have been pushed to rely on in the days of matte paintings and miniatures. But while there are barely any shots in Fury Road that haven’t been digitally manipulated, Miller uses the tools at his display in ways that are both bracingly inventive and completely of a piece with how he was making these movies thirty years ago. This is most evident in the way he and his editor, Margaret Sixel, digitally manipulated the frame rates of probably hundreds of shots in post-production, slowing down a shot to emphasize particular details or speeding it up to maintain the movie’s frenetic pace (sometimes within the same shot). Usually when a filmmaker attempts this, it looks gimmicky and lame, but Miller was doing much the same thing in Mad Max and its sequels, trimming individual frames out of a shot to create precisely the effect he desired. A tool that becomes a lazy shortcut for many directors, in the hands of a director willing to use every tool at his disposal to realize his vision, becomes something far more exciting.

Beyond all of the ways that Mad Max: Fury Road impresses on a technical level, it’s the rare blockbuster that actually earns our emotional investment; better yet, it does so by upending the formula for these kinds of movies. Think of the countless blockbusters – nearly all of the superhero movies share this – that are pure Joseph Campbell-inspired fantasies about a “chosen one,” usually a young white guy that caters to the white male nerds in the audience and their fantasies that they’re similarly special (and deserve a hot girlfriend, usually). But as good as Tom Hardy is as Max, this is a Mad Max movie where the ostensible hero is rescued early on by the movie’s true hero(ine) – boy, Charlize Theron is amazing in this – and, from that point on, is basically along for the ride. It’s a big summer movie that is telling the white males that make up a large part of its audience not only that they’re not the center of the universe but they’re actually part of the problem (“WHO KILLED THE WORLD?”). It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t have to be.

Stories about a reluctant hero who eventually joins a greater cause are nothing new, of course, and both The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome had Max go through a similar journey. But in both of those movies, he was still the one leading the good guys to safety; here, Furiosa and the motorcycle-riding grannies who help her out (dubbed the Vulvalini – I love typing that almost as much as saying it) can more than fend for themselves. Miller making the archetypal rogue male hero he created essentially a supporting character in a larger story about women being freed from sexual slavery and, ultimately, reclaim it as their own borders on revolutionary. This is a $150 million movie that is blatantly about blowing up the patriarchy – how great is that?

For any kind of mainstream movie to tackle these themes is unusual, but for a movie to be this odd and specific to its director’s vision while still appealing to a broad audience is truly remarkable. Not to mention how Miller achieves this almost entirely through action rather than dialogue; some have complained that the movie has no story, but these people don’t understand the difference between story and plot, and they shouldn’t be trusted. While other tentpole movies are overstuffed with exposition, Miller has faith in the power of action, his performers and purely visual storytelling to engage us and earn our emotional investment. The stunts and explosions that are Fury Road’s major selling point are remarkable, but the movie communicates deeper, more emotionally resonant ideas through the simplest of gestures is just as astonishing. There’s a shot of a character wordlessly reaching for and clutching a bag of seeds that, for everything it implies, is one of the most moving moments in any film in recent memory. Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with the movies in the first place; I went in feeling like an old curmudgeon and left feeling like a kid again.

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