by Vaughn Swearingen
"Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?" - The First History Man
Mad Max: Fury Road is George Miller's 120 minutes of proof that anything can work with the right person at the wheel. Two hours of blood pumping, flame belching, nitro fueled majesty, the action film to end all action films. Some may come close, but it’s hard to imagine anything overcoming the perfection and grandeur of Miller’s work of art. There’s no detail left untouched, no practical effect unexplored, not a single bolt, screw, wheel or exhaust pipe missing. Every frame immaculately filmed, staged, populated, and colored, every second of sound filled with the perfect amount of roaring engines, angry grunts, gunshots, Junkie XL’s flawless soundtrack and iOTA’s manic electric guitar. There’s not a whole lot new to say about Fury Road, but while I’ve got some projects on the backburner, I have admittedly not been writing as much as I’d like to be, so I thought today, on its fifth birthday, I would write just a little bit about how much I love this incredible movie.
In the foreword to “The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road”, George Miller states his main philosophies he stuck to on his 15 year journey to create this movie. First, that 45 years after society has failed, there is no honor and no law, just everyone trying to survive and find meaning in a world gone insane. Second, that this timeline is the core of all the design in the movie - if the world failed 45 years ago, every item that anyone is using, whether it be a car, weapon, or piece of clothing, must fit in with that. “There is no production - just found objects, repurposed,” he says. This led to their final design principle, which was “even in The Wasteland, people make beautiful things.” These basic rules that Miller sets to create his world are what drives the believability of such a bizarre world. Immortan Joe, and by proxy his children Rictus Erectus and Corpus Colossus (if you weren’t aware, yes those are their actual names), is a believable character despite his cartoon villain appearance and demeanor because it all serves a purpose. Miller shows us Joe’s diseased body, and the procedure he undertakes each day to don his protective equipment, which gives him precious clean air while also providing a menacing appearance. With Miller’s dedication to making Fury Road as practically as possible, with minimal CGI, it meant that his team had to physically craft and put together each vehicle just like anyone would have to in The Wasteland. This process allowed them to create vehicles that felt real because they were real, and there’s no reason to question how any one of them would work when they were all on set filming in real time. These practical creations also allowed the team to turn the vehicles into living, breathing things, allowing for secrets like the knife in the War Rig’s shifter. All the time and dedication that was put into each thing, from the War Rig to the Gigahorse (Immortan Joe’s car) to the spiked cars driven by the Buzzards, creates one of the most intense and lived in worlds on film in the 21st century. Miller’s dedication to practicality ended only at the impossible, and the only impossible was the grandiose, sand and lightning filled “Toxic Storm” that the War Rig and the war parties drive into during their early chase. Everything else was explored practically, including both the flame spewing guitar wielded by Coma the Doof Warrior (that actor iOTA called ‘the shittiest guitar I’ve ever had the misfortune to have hanging in front of me’) and the acrobatic, violent, swinging “Polecats” who act as boarding parties during the final assault on the War Rig. In Miller’s world, there are no shortcuts, no easy solutions. There is no faking it, no phoning it in, no letting a lazy design slip through the cracks. By the time Miller’s crew turned the cameras on, The Wasteland was barely a figment of his wacky, penguin loving imagination - it was real, a desolate world under the thumb of a madman with an elaborate breathing apparatus, whose friends included The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater, a world where warriors with expiration dates worship the god of V8. By putting such immense effort into the creation of the world, Miller was free to explore any story and the audience would accept it as believable.
While the design is a paramount reason as to why the world of Fury Road feels so real and lived in, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. The secret to Fury Road’s action is its kineticism, an underlying energy that’s always flowing in the background both of the action and the lulls between. It lives in the tiniest places, whether it's the sound, framing of shots, or just the way things transpire between characters. Even the smallest moments feel electric. The moment of Furiosa first turning off the road only lasts about 20 seconds, but within that there are a million tiny things that make it a really thrilling point early on in the movie. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but it cuts to a shot of Furiosa in the cab. Her eyes dart back and forth as she struggles with the weight of her decision, knowing what her actions will cause. As she starts to turn the wheel, we get these great sound effects of the War Rig spinning up, and as the rest of her war party squeals off the pavement, the soundtrack starts to pick up. There is zero context for what’s happening, we don’t know why this matters or what it will cause - but in 20 short seconds it feels like the stakes are immense. Of course, I could go on for days discussing why each moment of this movie is perfect, but that wouldn’t be fun for anyone but me. So I’ll briefly talk about my favorite sequence in the entire film, the canyon chase that takes place right in the middle, that starts with incredible tension and ends with a brilliant chase. As Furiosa exits the War Rig, silence blankets everything. It sets the stage for what’s about to unfold. Max and the wives are hiding, unsure of what will happen next. Then sound erupts into the scene as the Rock Riders come into view, and then the drums begin, building the tension, including the amazing and unique sound from Junkie XL’s music that I don’t know exactly how to describe. Then, as Furiosa shouts to Max, the music all kicks in at once, and the best song of the movie, “Brothers in Arms”, begins. The sequence is perfect because there’s never not something going on. As the Rock Riders drop the rocks on Joe’s war parties, they pursue Furiosa, and once the crew of the War Rig has dispatched the Rock Riders, Joe has caught up to them. The Rock Rider battle is especially brilliant as we watch Max and Furiosa utilize all of the tools and weapons at their disposal to survive. There’s a short moment where Furiosa climbs out of the roof of the War Rig, and while she climbs there’s a great shot of Max loading her gun one handed while driving and handing it to her while she proceeds to spectacularly eliminate a Rock Rider. After dispatching two more, she hands the weapon to the women in the back for them to reload. And so on and so forth. The action is constantly moving, unrelenting.
Fury Road is often reduced to simple notions of “just a two hour car chase”, but it’s much more than that, and to say that this movie is all action and no substance is almost upsettingly incorrect. Miller’s storytelling ability is just as strong as his directing ability. Each moment serves a purpose - even within Furiosa handing her gun to the women, a moment that lasts all of 5 seconds, we get to understand a lot about their dynamic. Splendid is unable to use the weapon, and is also uncomfortable with doing it, while Toast recognizes the gravity of the situation and quickly grabs the gun to do it herself. Collectively, the five wives have very few lines, and aside from a few choice scenes, namely featuring Capable and Cheedo, there’s very little that tells us about them, and yet we just understand who they are by the end because of little moments like this that worm their way into our brains. The reality is that Miller, in many ways, is a better storyteller than a lot of contemporary filmmakers. There is a very complete and rich story, with character arcs, world building, and emotion, told with very few lines, and existing mostly in fleeting moments between action sequences. Max has only 63 lines of dialogue throughout. In fact, the whole script is only about 5,000 words. Compare that to Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network which is a staggering 30,000 words. This is in no way meant to indicate that either one of this is better than the other - I adore The Social Network. More than anything it’s a credit to how powerful the story of Fury Road is with so few words. Every major protagonist has a traceable arc, one of my favorites being Nux’s story, struggling with a “half-life” and a world that has been constructed entirely by a maniacal warlord. Each of these arcs is told mostly through actions with dialogue to fill the gaps, and by the end of the movie, as Furiosa and Max exchange knowing nods, you’re filled with emotion. Any movie that’s “just a car chase” wouldn’t get you to that point.