People are going to tell you that Mad Max: Fury Road is a non-stop adrenaline thrill-ride with strong female characters and an excellent reboot of a beloved franchise whose time has come again. They are going to exclaim that it is an action-movie game changer that gives filmmakers permission to revel in the art of car chases and non-CGI stunts. They are wrong. It is a video game disguised as a movie, a terrible, terrible movie that doesn’t meet the minimal standards of science fiction. The female characters are neither strong nor feminist, and the story makes no sense, even on its own terms.
There is an important difference between good and popular, and while I can’t argue that this film won’t make lots of money, I can explore its lack of quality. Ultimately then, what I offer here is a meditation on what makes a defensible movie plot. I’m going to focus on four criteria: the plot must serve its purpose in the genre, be consistent in the world it sets up, be well-crafted, and respect its characters. These are not the only requirements for a good movie, of course—acting and cinematography are tremendously important, too—but plot is complicated enough of a subject for one blog post.
I recognize that many will reject plot as irrelevant in a Mad Max film. “It’s just a fun movie,” they’ll say, or “Mad Max, is just a living comic book.” But giving up the ghost at the outset is inexcusable. Movies are art; they must be done well. The best escapism is good escapism and there is no reason why entertainment should not be as well-made as all the other things we need to have a truly valuable human experience. The first two Mad Max films were both well written and interesting. The third was dumb but campy. There is no reason why this one had to be so bad.
Oh yeah: spoilers.
Fury Road joins Max as he is captured by albino alopecia sufferers who dream of dying and going to Valhalla, an afterlife they believe in solely to avoid any accusation that the movie’s writer is anti-Muslim. The albino fanatics, who never sunburn despite living in a cloudless desert, live in a gender-segregated world and dream of becoming suicide bombers, proclaiming that killing others will open the gates of the afterlife.
While the Norse albinos are focused on keeping Max contained, they don’t notice that Furiosa, the only woman in the community who has marketable skills, has stolen their supermodel breeders. She has hidden these lanky waifs in her gasoline tanker and tricked the Alopecians into allowing her to turn left, instead of following the single straight road in the entire region. The Norse Alopecians and their leader Bane, team up with another gang to give chase, but they all get stuck in the desert mud, prompting the well-dressed leader to condemn Bane for wasting their resources and getting them stuck in a quagmire. (Quagmire? Do you get it? You know, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Pretty subtle, huh? But again, the albinos are definitely, absolutely, not allegorically Muslim in any way shape or form.)
This is a world without gasoline or water, despite the desert mud. But Max catches up with the beautiful women because they stop to hose themselves off, moisten their thin muslin bikinis, and rinse the sand off of their feet, despite standing in a desert and running for their lives. As one reviewer remarked, every women’s prison movie must have a shower scene; Fury Road is no exception.
The plucky group eventually escapes to a salt desert, meets Furiosa’s many grandmothers, and then decides that, because they have even fewer resources this time, and because the motorcycles they are now driving are terrible weapons against the Mack trucks they must battle, they will drive back the way they came and liberate the masses. They do so and the Norse albino alopecia sufferers greet them as liberators. Once everyone is safe Max leaves, even though he claims that his only concern is survival and this newly liberated Alopecia is the best and safest place to live within 160 days of travel.
The plot must serve its purpose in the genre. The first problem with the movie is that Max is a superfluous character. He is unimportant, unlikable, and bizarrely inarticulate. The writers are trading on his reputation from the previous movies, but since Mel Gibson is too old and too antisemitic to be in a major motion picture, the audience has to feign loyalty.
We live in a world of reboots. Hollywood has given up on original ideas, but in order for a reboot to work, the movie has to make you fall in love with its characters again. J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek has largely succeeded in this, as has Christopher Nolan with the first two Batman films, at least, but the Spiderman and Superman franchises have failed miserably. In fact, in many ways, Mad Max suffers from the same literary problem as the Star Wars prequels: Lucas’s main characters, Luke, Leia, and Han, are off-screen for episodes one, two, and three, and Darth Vader and Chewbacca make only cameo appearances. Only R2D2 is there for continuity. Why, we should ask Lucas, should we care about characters on spec, especially when they are all so boring? We can ask this of Mad Max as well. Nothing happens to make him matter at all.
A plot must be consistent in the world it sets up. The second problem for the film is that it doesn’t follow its own rules. The beauty of science fiction is that you can suspend normalcy. Math can go awry, history can be toyed with, physics can be adjusted, and technicians can reverse the polarity of anything. But for science fiction to work, it has to be internally consistent. For the philosophers in the crowd, science fiction moves from a correspondence theory of truth to coherence. Science fiction does not have to depict reality; it only has to remain true to its own narrative.
The first three Mad Max films are pretty good about this. But Fury Road has no rules. No one needs to eat or drink, even though access to resources is the key to power. Women are the scarcest resource, but Furiosa is left to roam free (more on this later), and everyone, despite having no access to new technology, pimps their ride. There are little silver skulls everywhere—either the Alopecians have a secret metal skull factory hidden under their butte or every character spent their teenage years working for Hot Topic. Harpoons explode on contact and for reasons that baffle even the most generous suspender of disbelief, there is an electric guitar player with an eight foot high Judas Priest-esque amp stack that rides along on every battle. Is this an allusion to the destructive power of heavy metal on the American psyche? Is it a reference to the medieval quest and Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin? Is it the only moment of comedy relief in the entire film? No one knows, but what it does do is take the viewer outside the action at every sighting. It is impossible to remain enthralled when this idiocy is on screen. As my very non-violent wife remarked after the film, “every time I saw that stupid fucking guitar guy on screen I wanted to punch the director in the head.” And she has a Ph.D. in English.
The plot must be well crafted. Now, people are going to respond to my complaints by celebrating the action and excitement of the film, but this too is problematic. I would forgive all the sloppiness and infantile catering to the adolescence male if the action were good. It isn’t. There is no escalation, nothing novel happens. The car chase is exactly the same from start to finish. The stunts are identical.
Consider the classic car chase movies: Smokey and The Bandit, Convoy, The Blues Brothers, Thelma and Louise. In each, the story starts with one car in pursuit, then adds another, then more. The damage escalates, the stunts become more absurd (Thelma and Louise is the exception in this category), and the tension mounts. But Fury Road does none of this. The number, types, and nature of cars remain constant. There is one moment of genuine tension that involves a winch and a tree, but this takes up about three minutes of the two-hour film. There are no surprises, no new tech, no insight or clever invention on the part of the characters. It is just driving, weaving, explosion, and wounds that have little effect.
I would be open to a single car chase movie, if it were done well. It would be fun to experience a real-time escape that borrowed from 24 and Speed, but this movie still edits away from the action, compresses time, and changes points of view. It can’t claim to be only about the car chase if it is also about other things. I wasn’t enthralled; I was bored. And since we know Max will survive and strongly suspect that Furiosa will too, the only thing that makes us want to watch the chase is cool innovation in the action sequences. Yet, there was almost nothing in them that we didn’t already see in The Road Warrior. The movie is a two-hour rehash.
The plot must respect its characters. My final complaint is about the women in the film. There are many who celebrate the film because of the supposedly strong female characters and, in fact, Charlize Theron is the most compelling member of the cast. This defense is made all the more vehement in response to the manufactured pre-movie outrage depicting the movie as anti-male (my wife wonders whether this was a paid guerrilla advertising campaign orchestrated by the movie’s producers). Further, the film, despite its problems, passes the Bechtel Test, which is itself a pretty low hurdle. What I want to argue though, is that the female characters only appear to be strong at the outset; they aren’t at all. The audience is being duped.
First off, the movie represents the holy trinity of adolescent male fantasies: guns, tricked-out cars, and scantily-clad sex objects. The only women whom Furiosa wants to save are the traditionally pretty ones, breeders who have so little body fat that they are the least likely characters to be fertile. The fat women who are used as breast-milk sources are ignored and the older, wiser, capable women are disposable. Of course, the breeders are rape victims who understandably want to escape, and we justifiably sympathize with their plight, but they are not scarred, they are not angry, they have no agency of their own. (The fat lactating women are also, no doubt, rape victims, but they are pictured as content to sit on their asses and pump out milk, because that’s what Hollywood thinks makes fat people happy…sitting.)
The supermodel breeders have been raised in a vault surrounded by books and the (probably) one remaining grand piano in the world, but they show no signs of intelligence, represent no concern for lack of culture, and do little to help anyone. (If only they had read Fahrenheit 451.) They are Elle-magazine diverse: two blondes, a brunette, a Run-Lola-Run redhead, and a braless light-skinned black woman. But there is no actual diversity here. There are no South or East Asians, nor dark skinned women, nor, most troubling for the Australian context, no aboriginal women. [Edit: Actually, I was wrong about this. According to Wikipedia, Courtney Eaton who plays Cheedo the Fragile is of Chinese, Maori, Cook Island, and English descent, so the filmmaker has all those groups covered fairly efficiently.] They have catwalk bodies which suggest that the only reason why Charlize Theron is not herself a breeder, is that she’s too fat. Imagine a world where Charlize Theron is too fat. And why is Furiosa allowed to drive a truck anyway? What makes her so special?
Fury Road has been called a feminist action film, but it is nothing of the kind. Yes, it holds to the most superficial reductionist form of feminism–women good, men bad; women non-violent, men destroy the world—but these distinctions fall apart the moment the women have to actually fight. Furthermore, the women in the film have no expertise. Furiosa is great at driving her truck, but Max and the Alopecian can do it just as well when called upon. Her prosthetic arm allows her to hold Max up by his ankle, but all the men can do superhuman feats with their natural food-and-water-deprived six-packed bodies. And while Max can lose blood for days, get an arrow through his hand and his forehead without making the slightest sound of displeasure, and still fight off an army, Furiosa gets stabbed once, screams and almost faints at the wheel of the truck. One of the wise women has advanced medical knowledge, but only Max knows how to perform battlefield surgery. He rescues Furiosa time and time again. And, in what could be an interesting plot point (and a clunky allusion to ecofeminism), one of the women has retained heirloom seeds she hopes to plant, but, at least as the movie unfolds, all she ever does with them is carry them in a mysteriously unclasped purse.
Troublingly, only Max has relevant information; this film only respects male knowledge. Furiosa’s tribe of elderly women have lived in the desert for twenty years (without food, water, or shelter, apparently). They suggest that they drive away from their enemies, claiming, mysteriously, that they have 160 days’ worth of fuel in their bikes, but Max shows them a hastily drawn map and in mere moments, convinces them that they’re all wrong, inspiring them to attack the very people who they are running from. Really? They’ve lived in the area for 20 years. Wouldn’t they know better? And wouldn’t the rape-victim breeders resist going back. Wouldn’t at least one of them say, “Hell no, I’m not heading back that way. I was a sex slave. Instead, I’ll live in the desert for twenty years like these elders did. They seem pretty happy, healthy, and good humored. They’ve been well-hidden since Furiosa was a little girl. I’m hanging here, thanks.”
Charlize Theron’s character never grows. She doesn’t change or learn, other than to accept the leadership of a man she neither knows nor really trusts. We know nothing about the supermodels at all, and all of the women except Furiosa are interchangeable. In fact, the only character that changes at all is the male albino who rejects his religion, his upbringing, and his loyalty, simply because a redheaded woman speaks quietly to him and smiles when they make eye contact. Yes, it is nice to see a women who can kick ass like Furiosa does, but Ripley and Sarah Connor did it much better, with more depth and more realism. While it may not seem possible, the women in this film are even more cartoonish than the men.
I suppose I shouldn’t find it baffling that so many women are attracted to Furiosa’s character. In a world where Laura Croft’s breasts are the standard for women action heroes, anything is better than nothing. But to celebrate Mad Max: Fury Road as a success, rather than the best worst option, is to set up the next decade for more of the same. This isn’t a Mad Max movie, it’s a Furiosa movie, but until she gets top billing, and until her character gets substance, it’s just an excuse to see explosions and fashion models jumping around in gauze.
We all like what we like and I begrudge nobody for having a good time. If you enjoyed this film, more power to you. But don’t confuse liking something with it being good. This is not a “masterpiece” as the paid reviewers are claiming, and it won’t be a game changer. It will be forgotten quickly. The movie is stupid. It’s a product of lazy writing and a video game mindset. It’s too violent and shockingly unsophisticated, even for a summer action flick. It’s also kind of offensive, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many people like it.
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