Sunday, March 20, 2016

Meh Max: Dreary Road

I’ve been debating whether or not to write this for a while. At first, I thought anything and everything I could’ve said about this movie could be summed up on Twitter. Then I figured that a TwitLonger post would do the trick. Then I figured it wasn’t worth it, but my frustrations wouldn’t leave me alone. And so, almost a year after its theatrical release, I’m laying down the gauntlet once and for all:

I don’t think Mad Max: Fury Road is all that good.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s awful either. A lot of talent went into it, even though I maintain that it’s a sci-fi version of the Fast and the Furious franchise. It’s well-acted, albeit in a hokey and cartoony way. There are plenty of cool ideas, even if most are superficial. And I definitely enjoyed it. But all of that skirts around the issue I have with the film, one I think so many people are forgetting: nuance.

I’m not against dumb, loud, cartoony fun. The Avengers, after all, was a non-stop adrenaline rush comprised of exactly that, and it’s one of my favourite, pure action movies. But part of that’s because it knew what it was trying to be. It wasn’t striving to be greater than the sum of its parts, and it had no real message save “teamwork defeats all evil”. But Mad Max: Fury Road tried to have a message, and while I applaud it for that, at the same time it’s so poorly-executed that I’m still baffled.

For those not in the know, Mad Max: Fury Road is the story of a former police officer named Max Rakatansky. He lives in a post-apocalyptic Australia and suffers from PTSD due to the deaths of his wife and children. During one of his moments of reflection, he’s captured by a group of warlords, taken to their den, shaved from head-to-toe and used as a blood-bag for…reasons. It turns out that their leader, Immortan Joe, enslaves women and controls his government right down to the allocation of water. When he discovers that his slave driver has escaped, taking his slaves for the ride, he sends his army after them. Of course, Max gets caught in the middle of this, a long chase ensues, explosions occur, weird-looking warriors appear, it’s pretty much a live-action hybrid of Trigun, Twisted Metal and a Roadrunner cartoon.

In case you haven’t noticed, the premise of this movie is dumb and confusing. But whatever, it’s a catalyst for the action and thrills, something I’d normally be fine with. But Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t only content with that, oh no! It also tries its hand at a feminist message, which, again, would be fine…if it didn’t come off as the most shoehorned nonsense I’ve seen in a Hollywood action movie. But it is.

Now, I have nothing against feminism. I’m a feminist. I believe that women are too frequently maligned. I believe there’s an underlying patriarchy that favours men over women. And I believe this patriarchy is damaging to men and women-alike.

That said, I also believe that life’s messy and complicated, and that nothing has an easy solution. Acknowledging that there’s a patriarchy is one problem, and recognizing that it’s unfairly disproportionate is another. However, ignoring that the system’s run by people, all of whom are flawed and multi-faceted, won’t fix the problem. Because even they deserve some credit.

This is where, I think, Mad Max: Fury Road fails. It acknowledges there’s a power imbalance, but the details of its execution are shallow and lopsided. The patriarchal component, for example, is one-dimensional. Immortan Joe has no depth or real character outside his physical appearance, and his war-boy henchmen aren’t much better. They all come off as the frequently goofy stereotypes you’d expect from a 12 year-old’s perceptions of feminism. And while it might be amusing to see men portrayed like living cartoons, it’s not clever writing because it lacks nuance.

Conversely, the women in this movie are portrayed as saints. They have no flaws, they’re impossible to tell apart, and while Imperator Furiosa might be an awesome fighter, you never get a sense that she’s much of anything. I never once connected with anyone because I never had reason to, irrespective of how hard the movie tries. And when I can’t connect with the characters that I’m supposed to because they aren’t written interestingly, well…what am I supposed to do?

And this is why the movie really falters. I can ignore the fact that violence is an inherently masculine concept, as there are ways of using that to make a commentary on society if done well. I can ignore 
the stupidity of the premise, as I’ve seen better films with stupider ones. I can even ignore the over-abundance of explosions because of how much effort went into the stunts. But when has over-stereotyping men ever helped the cause of women? If anything, it only makes it worse!

It’s especially bad because the patriarchal system in the film has no motivation for why it does what it does. At least in Avatar there was a semblance of nuance. The humans weren’t taking over Pandora, they were mining a rare mineral to fix the Earth’s economy. There was a reason for what they did, real stakes. You can argue effectiveness, but that much can’t be denied.

Before you say it, yes, it’s totally fair to compare Mad Max: Fury Road to Avatar here. Because both are messy movies that ham-fist their messages. The only difference? Avatar isn’t hiding anything, while Mad Max: Fury Road is. And yet, one is heavily-criticized for being “generic”, while the other is hailed as a “masterpiece”.

I’m not sure people realize how much of an impact film can have as an art form. Not only in its appeal, but also in shining a mirror back at society. And how many people will look at a breakdown of the patriarchy, which is incredibly damaging, in a serious light when it portrays men as one-dimensional warlords and sex slave owners? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to show a perpetuated system so ingrained in society that even its moderates are following it without even realizing? Wouldn’t that hit home harder than what we actually got?

It’s additionally frustrating because many fans are also claiming it trumps most of Hollywood’s yearly blockbusters. This drives me crazy: yes, Mad Max: Fury Road is a beautiful-looking movie. But it’s nowhere near as clever as people are claiming. Even the weakest of the MCU is more coherent, and that’s saying plenty considering that Thor: The Dark World exists! And please don’t tell me that the movie is using minimalist storytelling so as to not spoon-feed the audience information, because exposition is sometimes an important part of movie storytelling.

Finally, I’m tired of being redirected to internet think-pieces when I ask fans of Mad Max: Fury Road why it’s clever. Isn’t that NOT why I came to you for an answer? What’s so undeniable that you expect me to accept that the movie’s brilliant? If you’re so insistent that Mad Max: Fury Road is so great, then why not explain why yourself? If you’re making the claim, then you have to back yourself up when challenged.

Whatever, film is subjective. I won’t pull a Bill O’Reilly and stop you from enjoying what you enjoy, that’s not my goal. I simply don’t think Mad Max: Fury Road’s anything special because it lacks nuance. That’s far more harmful to its message than if it had nuance. And isn’t that what really matters? Aren’t we better than this?


  1. I didn't see this one, although one of my brothers did. He never described it as anything even remotely deep, or even as a particular well-made "movie", in the traditionally understood sense of the word- only as one of the very best extended chase sequences he'd seen in a long while. Which is why I was exceedingly surprised to see all the pieces coming out about how this was some sort of deep, meaningful movie. The trailers made it look like nothing more than a preposterously enjoyable action-spectacle, and the reports I received from more than one source that I trust indicated that it was exactly that. Nothing more, nothing less.

    "That’s far more harmful to its message than if it had nuance."
    Oh, you mean like Avatar?

    Sorry, I couldn't resist burning you a little there ;-)

    "Aren’t we better than this?"
    Humanity as a collective whole?


    I think a better question would be: "Can't we be better than this?" An honest answer to *that* might still not be as hopeful as you you or I would like, but it would offer a rather more positive answer, I think, than the question you end this editorial on.

    1. You can never resist jabbing at Avatar, can you? (Don't answer that, it was rhetorical.) Although, having seen both, it's still the more nuanced film (relatively speaking, of course.)

      And I guess it's because I'm still a little annoyed by all the debates I've gotten into over it, but I'm still keeping my final question. That said, given that I don't trust any one or two source directly with my opinions on film, since I always form unusual opinions on what I watch anyway, the general consensus was that this was some grand game-changer in the wave of a feminist film. Even George Miller, the director of the movie, claimed that he'd made the movie with a critique of sexism in mind, and given how I've seen far better examples of that even in the West...I think he failed.

      So yeah, there's definitely a "feminist-friendly" message in this movie. I don't think it's all that successful, however, but it's there. Which is a shame, as I really think this movie could've been so much better if it either removed the subtext and focused on the chase, or minimized the action and fleshed-out the subtext more efficiently. It really hurt Mad Max: Fury Road to have both in there, and this is aside from the movie already being way too long and stupid as is...

    2. In fairness, you kind of set yourself up for me to give the jab this time.

      Please never forget that my intense dislike of Avatar does not extend to the people who enjoy it. Yes, it is a thoroughly mediocre movie apart from the special effects, but I've enjoyed mediocre films myself. My special disdain has to do with the *ways* in which it is mediocre. Too many personal pet peeves in one single movie.

      Unless and until I've seen a movie myself, I don't really have any fully-formed opinions on it one way or the other, so I'll let your verdict on the film stand alone without any commentary from me at the present. With that being said, I'll note that you paint a picture of the movie as being somewhat confused over the kind of film it wants to be. I've seen films that, and in my experience, they can range from the downright boring to the utterly fascinating [if only for analysis purposes]. I don't know if I'll see this one, but the symptoms you describe have afflicted some movies I've seen before. So I think I've something of an idea of what you're describing.

      "stupid as is..."
      Maybe its just me. But after over a year and a half of reading your editorials, I'm starting to suspect you may have some subconscious biases against silly, over the top movies in general, regardless of how well done they might be. That's not a statement on "Mad Max: Futy Road" which, as I've said, I haven't seen. Just that there seems to be a broader pattern of sorts of you finding ways to dismiss such films in general; even when you're complimenting them, it can often feel backhanded.

    3. Oh no, I have nothing against over-the-top when it's done well. The LEGO Movie is insanely dumb, and yet there's such a clever underpinning to how it's written that the dumbness of it is kinda charming. I don't mind stupid or dumb when it's done well, otherwise I wouldn't have mentioned The Avengers in the blog as being one of my favourite, pure action movies. I have nothing against stupid, it's how it's used that determines whether or not it interests me.

      And Brave? You already know what I think of that...

    4. I wouldn't describe "The Lego Movie" as dumb, though, in light of how the big twist re-contextualizes pretty much everything in the entire movie, making it clever instead of stupid. Calling something like "The Avengers" dumb makes more sense.

      I do get what you're trying to say, though :-)

  2. Should also add that I know what it is to see a movie fail at elevating female characters in Hollywood as a consequence of [among other sins] virtually all the male characters being total caricatures. After all, I've seen Pixar's "Brave."