Finally saw it. Took me a month, saw, like, ten other movies in the meantime. Despite rapturous reviews, both from professionals and from friends, it took me forever. Nothing against the movie; I liked it just fine. Just this: based on the previews, I thought I might find its admittedly state-of-the-art Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Cirque du Soleil aethestic a bit tiresome. That happened, but much less than I was afraid of. As a triumph of stunts, CGI, design, cinematography, editing, and just pure imagination, it’s really quite astounding.
It’s basically Buster Keaton’s The General, with slightly less amazing stunt work, but with updated sexual politics. In Keaton’s day, of course, they couldn’t cut around anything; any action sequences were entirely designed and performed by Keaton himself, and he treated that old civil war locomotive as his own private playground. But the two films are structured identically. It involves a chase, a decision, leading to another chase. Our Hero (and companion) is badly unnumbered in both films, and the bad guys have every advantage. But pluck, determination, and an astonishing ability to scramble up and around vast pieces of machinery allow Our Hero to save the day.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go watch The General. I’ll wait.
Finished? Great, wasn’t it? Let’s move on.
Here’s the biggest similarity between the two films. The General is set in the middle of the American Civil War, with photography specifically inspired by Matthew Brady. This new Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where deformed and motley brigades of macho dudes fight over the most basic liquid elements of life; water, gasoline, mothers’ milk. Women are completely subordinate; we see a room full of nursing mothers hooked up like cattle to milk extractors. The most attractive women are the exclusive property of grotesque warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who also preaches a post-mortality in which he will choose his fellow Valhalla immortals, incentivizing his War Boy followers to feats of the most astounding derring-do at his behest.
But neither film actually feels particularly tragic. The General is a romp; Keaton turns the Civil War into slapstick. Death itself becomes a set up for a sight gag. And Mad Max never gives us time to consider the implications of this post-global warming/post nuclear holocaust slayground. The stunts in both films are spectacular, and we respond viscerally; we’re in awe. They’re not just the same film in terms of plot structure; they’re tonally similar. Only the gender politics are different.
So: gender. In Mad Max, the women of this horrific community have a savior, Furioso (Charlize Theron). And she has embarked on a daring plan to rescue women from Joe’s harem, and take them to her home, a Green Place. It involves a huge semi-truck, a war truck, a beast of a machine that can all kinds of punishment, and has to. But Joe sends his boys to chase it down. Over the course of that chase, Max (Tom Hardy) joins forces with her (after an obligatory ‘getting to know you’ slugfest between them), and they’re also joined by a renegade War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), converted, I think, by the power of Troo Luv (he falls for one of the women). The most important decisions in the film are generally made by Furiosa (though advised by Max), and she gets a lot more screen time. She can shoot, she can steer a truck through the most impassable obstacles, she can beat up bad guys; she’s an action movie star. And she shows remarkable leadership skills, including occasional moments of compassion and tenderness.
So she’s a feminist heroine, right? And that’s one way the film has been marketed and sold–it’s a strong feminist triumph story. And I suppose you could argue that the Hollywood model which this film follows so closely is inherently anti-feminine. But she’s not a terribly feminine feminist, if that makes sense. She has the central characteristic of male action figures. She’s good at violence.
Again, in contrast to The General, it’s refreshing. Keaton riffed on gender roles throughout, but of course it’s gender as understood in 1926. Marion Mack is his comic foil. He rescues her repeatedly, but without much tenderness–a lot of the comedy comes from Mack’s game willingness to be stuffed into sacks, tossed onto boxes, stepped on and trapped in a bear trap and otherwise mistreated. Not that Buster’s ever violent towards her; it’s all slapstick violence. They’re on the run, and Keaton’s character doesn’t have time for chivalrous delicacy. Marion Mack’s character is courageous, plucky and patriotic; you could make a case for her feminism too, if you wanted to and were willing to overlook a 1920s culture’s construction of gender.
Both films are awesome; The General because it’s so funny, Mad Max because the stunts and the design are so spectacular. We’re more blown away by them than we are moved or thoughtfully provoked. It is a little strange to have nuclear destruction and global warming (or for that matter, the Civil War), treated as throwaway background for otherwise frenetically active movies. In the case of Max Max, I kept thinking of another, far better (and infinitely less successful financially) film, John Hillcoat’s 2009 version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which also starred Theron. Another road movie, another despairing future, another trip through hell. But The Road was relentless in its despair. To the extent that there are things we could do to prevent global warming or nuclear war, it’s a lot more responsible film. But almost nobody saw it, and everyone saw Max Max.
I mean, seriously, Mad Max showed the War Boys riding into battle with a soundtrack, provided by one vehicle carrying four kettle drums, and by another with a guitarist hanging from bungee cords, playing his axe while bouncing around in front of a moving vehicle. A flame throwing guitar, I should add. And sure, Custer rode into battle with a regimental band playing Garry Owens, and for Apocalypse Now‘s helicopters, it was Wagner, so war can certainly have a sound track. But the guitarist was just pure amazing. It was the kind of throwaway detail that made the viewing experience so viscerally rewarding.
So Max is certainly one of the most exciting action films in years. It was a triumph of design and of film craftsmanship. I enjoyed it; don’t think I didn’t. If I felt a trifle cheated at the end, it’s maybe because the movie fed the gut much more than it fed the mind. That’s okay. But the pieces were in place for a full meal; not just dessert.