Friday, May 31, 2024

Do you have it in you to make it epic?


FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA

2024
Directed by George Miller
Written by Nico Lathouris and George Miller

Spoilers: moderate


One piece of good news, for me, about Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is that it's looking as if I'll be able to fully make up my mind about it at my leisure, something that was not the case for the predecessor to which it serves as a direct prequel, 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, which came out of the gate anointed as THE PUREST STRAIN OF CINEMA IN A LONG WHILE (something like a verbatim quote from a commenter in a comments section I frequent), and I felt fuddy-duddyish for being initially a little curmudgeonly about how it wasn't as great as everyone said.  Which is still somewhat my opinion, though I might not have been wrong to feel like a joyless prick to insist it was only the second-best movie of 2015; I expect I was either in a bad mood, or had been overhyped, or I just had to go the fucking bathroom back when I saw it in the middle ranks of a packed theater in 2015which is the sort of thing that obviously would put me in a bad mood.  I did not, of course, see Furiosa in a packed theater.  But we could run with that: Fury Road had no time for your need to urinate, crowd or no crowd, and, indeed, it disdained your body's weak desire to release its fluids; Furiosa, meanwhile, says, "hey man, go pee, no big deal," several times, which may be the most efficient way to describe the differences between the two films, even if it's not especially critically useful.

It doesn't exactly find director/co-writer George Miller and Warner Bros. striking while the iron was hot, though, or even lukewarm: "back in 2015" was nine years ago, a long time to cash in on what was predominantly a filmbro phenomenon anyway (Fury Road was successful, but not a world-beater).  Miller had a contractual dispute with Warners that delayed the follow-uphe wound up doing Three Thousand Years of Longing (Miller's stamina in his eighth decade on this planet has not been properly rewarded)and, evidently, the cultural passion faded in the interim.  You shouldn't count a movie out just because of a bad opening weekendnot even in 2024but it doesn't look like Fury Road's phenomenon, critical or commercial, is going to be repeated.  And so it's not out of any resentment or contrarianism that I'm not going to flat-out say, "Furiosa is a masterpiece every bit as good as Fury Road," even though I had a better theatrical time of it.  But if I wanted to depress myself, I could say something like, "it's the best Anglophone movie they've released in the last eighteen months, why the hell isn't it doing better?"

It does have some fairly severe problemsnothing film-breaking, but one of them is that it feels like it has the ending from a different movie than the one we've been watching, which is a pretty violent rupturethough basically nothing that kept me from coming out of it feeling as jazzed about a movie as I've been in ages.  What's worth emphasizing, though, is how significantly this differs in storytelling from Fury Road, even within the seemingly-constrained ambit of two movies featuring largely the same cast of characters effecting vehicular action upon each other across a blazing-orange, cartoonishly color-corrected desert wasteland.  Fury Road takes place over something like 36 hours, almost certainly no more; Furiosa, its prequel, encompasses about fifteen years in the life of its titular heroine, who, in Miller's legendarium, had already taken on a life of her own upon his return to the Mad Max series, which in the early 2010s had prompted him to start really meticulously working out the world-building and backstories for his new Max in a way that he had strenuously avoided for the original Max trilogy, these being pitched to no small degree in terms of deliberately-inconsistent legendry.  Fury Road dropped that faint meta element, and though Furiosa actually picks it back up, it still has every intention of fitting itself snugly up against Fury Road and dutifully explaining much of what was already implied there.  And hence it is, as noted, a prequel.  That's something that should give us pause, especially since it truly is a prequel in what would, usually, be the most pejorative sense of the term: there's a lot of "and that's why Furiosa is so mad the Green Place (which I had misremembered as a complete delusion on her part) isn't there anymore in Fury Road," and there's an extended middle part that, while it offers much else, bears at least a very strong resemblance to "taxation of trade routes"-style prequelling.  (One of its scenes is, in fact, a trade negotation, and the plot of the latter two-fifths of the film rests entirely upon a finely-grained understanding of the economic interdependency of the warlords of post-apocalyptic Australia, though if I were feeling puckish I might assert the Max universe's world-building makes less sense, now that it has been explained.)

But that points us to the real difference in approaches here: Fury Road is a fable of the wasteland, mythic figures doing cosmic battle against an elemental backdrop, with the kind of bluntly obvious moral message that basically amounted to "barbarian sex slavery, patterned on the cover of a heavy metal album and undertaken by a cult leader who very nearly amounts to an actual dragon, is wrong, and ought be opposed."  Furiosa takes that backdrop seriously and, indeed, literally, as the new material circumstances in which human beings have now been condemned to live, and therefore it commits, to a remarkable degree, to actually trying to understand the psychology and morality of its inhabitants, which couldn't be the same as ours.  It does not commit all the way to this, because I'm not sure a movie like this plausibly (or responsibly) couldthe nerviest manifestation comes when one of those heavy metal sex slaves gets demoted from the harem, and she pleads to staybut it's the best thing about the movie that isn't its vehicular stunts, and the most distinctive thing about it, either as a Max movie or just a movie-movie.


It flings us just about all the way back for Furiosa (Alyla Browne), aged about eleven or twelve, specifically to the last day she saw the Green Place of Many Mothers, and as for that "psychology of its inhabitants" thing, Furiosa starts off with exactly such an example, given that Furiosa is not victim of slave raiders, exactly, even if that's how it shakes out, but happens across intrudersmotorcycle foragerswho've stumbled across this oasis, and she only even comes to their attention because she makes a deliberate razor-wire-on-the-border effort to murder them by sabotaging their transportation.  (Heretofore, their biggest crime is poaching, but that is a big crime here.)  This is completely unstressed, so much so I'm not completely sure Miller and co-writer Nico Lathouris consciously realized that Furiosa kicked off her own saga with an act of aggression, though I expect they did.  Her efforts, anyway, do result in all their deaths, because her Ma (Charlee Fraser) gives chase and kills them, but not before she's been rendered away back to the mobile camp of Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), flamboyant warlord of a large motorcycle horde.  The next curious thing is that during her rescue attempt, Ma spares the life of a female servant who begs for mercy, very much in line with Fury Road, almost obnoxious in its gender essentialism, given that all the summarily-executed men are basically slaves too, but this is definitely on purpose, because this turns out to have been Ma's fatal mistake.  Shortly, she's been crucified and burned before Furiosa's eyes at the orders of Dementus, unwilling to divulge the secret location of the oasis; Furiosa follows suit, but lives, a girl in a cage that, over time, Dementus simply starts referring to as "Little D," a replacement for his own lost children.

Eventually, after various atrocities and battlesan arrogant and flubbed assault upon the Citadel of the Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, taking over for Hugh Keays-Bearne, who passed in 2020); a much more successful Trojan Horse-style invasion of Gas TownFuriosa is traded as part of an economic treaty with the Immortan, one more sex slave on the pile (though it's described as a "royal marriage," and of course such a thing often would shade one into the other).  But Furiosa escapes the harem into the bowels of the Citadel, masquerading, I guess, as a boy even as she ages into a twenty-seven year old woman (Anya Taylor-Joy), but finding glory and retaking her given name during a battle under Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), one of the closest things the Citadel has to a "good" guy inasmuch as he's a lot less disgusting than Joe or Joe's only surviving, merely-semi-mutant sons, Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) or Scrotus (Josh Helman).  She serves the Immortan, but when Dementus's imperial designs blossom fully into war, it becomes personal: an opportunity to avenge her Ma on one evil warlord, under the auspices of another.

This is not all perfectly-done or even perfectly-told.  Even on a visual level, which is of course still the real reason Furiosa exists, we don't have to watch it too long before we slam into some potential problems, especially how frequently the digital compositing of Furiosa is outright shameful for a movie that cost $160 million in 2024, deficient in ways ranging from "was Furiosa actually made decades before Fury Road?" to "am I somehow watching a YouTube sketch about Furiosa?", with the way the war boys in particular get composited occasionally making them look like somebody doing Fury Road cosplay.  This is not good, but has a funny knock-on effect that's counter-intuitively positive: one of the things I actually didn't like about Fury Road was how its hyper-aggressive color grading made extremely real things look fake, and that hyper-aggressive color grading is, obviously, replicated here under the ministrations of cinematographer Simon Duggan (his impression of Jonathan Seale is very good, though there's less opportunity this time for "blocks of orange and blue representing land and sky, respectively" full-tilt abstraction); on the contrary, the blatant, belligerent signposting of what's "fake" here actually wound up giving me a more visceral initial appreciation of the stuntwork.  Undoubtedly, it even tricked my brain into believing that the well-composited images were real, even when they're fake, which they clearly often are, considering that I haven't heard tell of Miller running any stunt performers over with giant chrome gas trucks.


As for stuntwork, and action generally, Furiosa's got loads of it, though probably less, in absolute terms, than Fury Road, and it unavoidably feels like less in perceptual ones, and not only because the movie's half an hour longer at 148 minutes, but because it doesn't arrive at the expected All-Timer Stuntshow Setpiece for a while: the opening chase is intentionally small potatoes, and despite some fun bibs and bobs of action in the interim, it's not until Furiosa's reputation-making confrontation with the rogue raiders formerly of Dementus's horde that the film explodes.  It is, for the record, 100% worth the wait, involving awkwardly airborne (!) adversaries and a shit-ton of violence, staged as a whole collection of miniature setpieces driven by Margaret Sixel's intense editing and Tom "Junkie XL" Holkenberg's throbbing score.  It adds up to one incredible sequence, probably the best thing I'll see in a theater this year.  (Which means it sort of repeats Fury Road's very mild, possibly-only-in-my-head problem of all of the action being great, but its finest action coming early; it's less of a problem, however, when it comes in the middle.)  It also ends on the film's funniest joke, at least by my lightsit's a very funny movie, at turns, though much of it is whooping in delight at the stunts, and some of it is even stuff like this, the incredibly deadpan, dead-serious way that Burke declares his ridiculous intentions to his sister-in-arms, "I'll teach you everything I know about road war."

So I have no real complaint about the length or structure, as it concerns "so about this road war."  (At most, with the second big setpiece, I half-expected Truckasaurus to show up.  This is my defect.)  It's worse at doing "the passage of time," despite its cyclic structure making that important, and that's especially the case once we switch to Taylor-Joy, albeit through no fault of her own.  (Taylor-Joy was cast, probably, mostly on the basis of how her giant, pretty, weird eyes would pop under the black forehead warpaint of the praetorians rather than any even-in-a-long-shot resemblance to Theron, but she's excellent at Furiosa's avenging angel, and such a remarkably good vocal mimic for Furiosa's angrily-vibrating voicein what adds up to only about twenty lines, tooI've idly wondered if Theron actually dubs her.)  Anyway, Taylor-Joy's age would seem to place even the finale ten years before Fury Road, but I'm probably overthinking that.  The slippery chronology is most keenly felt, anyway, in the transitions between various chapters, particularly right after the big war rig fight, where I honestly can't guess if it's days that have passed, or years.

This is fairly minor, though; a medium-sized problem is that the star map on Furiosa's fated-to-be-lost arm feels like it started off with more plot relevance in an earlier screenplay draft, and Dementus's quest for the Green Place just sort of vanishes before the second chapter's done.  The only genuinely serious problem, though, is that Furiosa starts to lose track of why it's telling this story: frustratingly, that's even inextricable from everything that's great here, and how this whole movie is about the moral compromises demanded by individual and group survival in the wasteland.  But after the first ten minutes, there's not much sense that Furiosa, herself, compromises anything.  It's only there in the sense that she throws in with Joe, which is "bad," because Joe is bad, but this is just the same conundrum of society that exists for practically every powerless human who's ever lived, rather than an emotionally-wrenching story.  The last cruelty Furiosa inflicts is when she's eleven; the worst thing she's ever asked to do for Joe is fight a war against a peer warlord that she'd fight anyway, and given that that the apparent goal of all the preqeulling is to explain why Furiosa's heroism in Fury Road is motivated by guilt, it's distractingly theoretical about that.  But that's just some minor thematic muddling, after allmixed, perhaps, with some blockbuster cowardice about making its heroine too distastefulso it isn't really that noticeable until it calls attention to itself.  It does so, loudly, right at the end, where the film makes its only truly graceless move, from a fun-but-bleak consideration of the violence required by the wasteland, to a parable about, apparently, whether revenge is wrong.  The movie can't keep a straight face about this for more than about ninety seconds, because obviously nothing in its worldview forbids extravagant, metaphorical super-revenge, which is exactly what we get.

"The last five minutes" is a terrible place for a movie to lose its footing, though it's amassed enough goodwill by this point that I didn't care too much; its primary vehicle for its discursion upon the philosophy of the post-apocalypse has never been Furiosa, anyway.  This is where the film has made itself strange and fascinating, even tolerably challenging all along, with Dementus nearly rising to the level "actual deuteragonist."  He is, also, the vehicle for Jenny Beavan's best costume design ideas (narrowly edging out our Bullet Farm warlord, the Bullet Farmer (Lee Perry), and his armor made of bullets); but it goes without saying, maybe, that the prequel to Fury Road has extraordinarily great costume and production design (the latter from Colin Gibson), or that through its visuals it manages as much of an exploration of its world as with its script.

But it's through an arguably surprising source that we get the chewiest meat of Miller's new intellectual and psychological bent towards the world he created forty years ago: that's Chris Hemsworth, presumably in a career-best performance; the competition would be, like, the first Thor, and it's not a close competition, though it may occur to me because this is Hemsworth's own opportunity to have his own "Tom Hiddleston in the first Thor" performance, with a villain more interesting than the hero despite the hero having plenty of charisma of their own.*  Hemsworth, and the material attending Dementus, is also the driver of the film's most substantial comedy; for one thing, Dementus is initially a pretty big fuck-up, and Hemsworth charts the rise and fall of a great, evil dude with something that's sort of like Hemsowrth's customary good humor.  But Hemsworth puts a much more feverish (sometimes thoughtful) spin on his "beefcake doofus" persona, not exactly "deranged," more like an exercise in attempting to fight off derangement, so that the end of the world (it's implied, anyway, that Dementus witnessed the collapse) actually hasn't driven him insane yet (it's implied, too, that to be "Dementus" is more like an aspiration), and not being insane is worse, for he's never completely killed his sentimentality.  There's substantial possibilities left on the table hereit's unfortunate that he doesn't recognize grown-up "Little D" before he does, and I kept expecting it to come up that, for all Dementus would know, Joe killed his adoptive daughterbut the consistent overtures of affection, and the pining for impossibilities, are shockingly different for a Max film.  Dementus, our villain, is somehow one of the saddest things in a franchise that's about how the world ended, and the survivors survive in no small part by figuratively, or literally, eating each other.  Oh yeah, Dementus also casually eats people.

Score: 9/10

*It's also something of an apology for his, as I recall, much-more-boring cult leader in Bad Times at the El Royale.

4 comments:

  1. You're not alone in having extreme ambivalence to the worship Mad Max Fury Road gets in some corners. I think it's the common suggestion that it's somehow singularly innovative and groundbreaking that alienates me - it's a Mad Max movie made in an era where we can triple down on the good parts of a Mad Max movie. Which is awesome! It's also not particularly original, which is fine - we've been doing "constant chase" movies since at least the days of 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and 'Smokey and the Bandit.' But I see folks saying things like "why haven't action movies responded to Fury Road" like it was The Matrix in 1999 and I just have no idea what they're talking about.

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    1. Yeah, maybe in size and scope it's bigger (even then, it's more like it's more coherently big, cf. Smokey and the Bandit II, not that I'm comparing the two movies' overall level of quality). It's a perfected version of Road Warrior action and you could learn a lot about editing from a close study of it, but I wouldn't know what lesson to draw from it, exactly, if I were a filmmaker, what really new vocabulary I'm supposed to be incorporating into the action idiom. And there are comparatively few stories that are even going to support "a running battle with an army of automobiles." Furiosa barely supports that, I'm fairly certain it's not nearly as hard to stop a wheeled vehicle as this movie insists is the case.

      The New Thing is always The Greatest Thing. We have a bit of a hyperbole culture. I probably do it too sometimes. I've mostly come to terms with it on Fury Road, which deserved it more than a great many recipients.

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  2. As for this one, I haven't seen it but I can't say I'm surprised interest in it is lukewarm: they've positioned it to look like everything people hate about prequels and spinoffs, the kind that feel like pure "lore" rather than a full-on story. Also recasting, awkward timing, and a title that makes it sound like a Netflix miniseries (maybe that's the format they should've went with?).

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    1. Yeah, I wasn't super-excited about the roleplaying game sourcebook aspect of it. It's amusing, to me, that I just wrote about Battle For the Planet of the Apes, the original bad sci-fi prequel, and "explaining flamboyantly-dressed warlords in the wasteland" doesn't strike me, on first impression, as any more worthwhile than "explaining radioactive psychic mutants," so it's weird that Furiosa turned out to be so unusually good at it.

      The common complaint, that it prohibits narratives of real consequence, isn't as much a problem for me as some. (That it prohibits surprises, even less so: I don't think, even as a young child, I felt surprise when Indiana Jones beats the Nazis.)
      I'm not sure that would apply to Furiosa, the character, that much anyway, given we only knew her for a few days and only got a hint of her life beyond the Fury Road, so they do manage some narrative consequentiality for her and the characters in this film. Even so, if the immediate reaction is "this one's for the fans" I wouldn't be able to counter that, it definitely is. (Just for a start , it would probably be disorienting if you didn't have a really solid idea who Immortan Joe was.)

      On the other hand, Dune: Part Two did tremendously. I guess that's not even close to the same thing (second part of a two-part movie, after all), but this is a lot more fun to watch, so it somewhat galls me that Furiosa might not hit Dune: Part One numbers.

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