Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - Renewing Old Mythology

Mad Max: Fury Road is a fitting allegory for modern times:  We can find messages about reproductive rights, natural resources and religious warfare, as well as some meditations on the more general themes of home, family, power, freedom and survival.  What makes the film more than just a generic action flic is that these themes are brought to life through the creation of a compelling, mythologically rich world.  Though it is unmistakably a Mad Max film, Fury Road surprisingly calls to mind the familiar mythological territory of the original Star Wars saga.

Spoiler Alert:  Mad Max: Fury Road is all about the action and visual spectacle, so you can still enjoy it even if the plot has been spoiled.  However, it offers plenty to think about in the few quiet moments between (and after) those astonishing action sequences.  If you'd rather not know much about how the plot develops, don't read what follows.

Fury Road' opens at breakneck speed and within minutes we learn a few key details about Mad Max (Tom Hardy):  He is independent, he is capable of doing anything to survive, and he is a universal blood donor.  Metaphorically, that last part could represent his lack of loyalty to any cause: he could give his blood to anyone, for any reason.  At the beginning, his blood is used (against his will) to help Immortan Joe's (Hugh Keays-Byrne) tribe.  As his blood is literally forced out of his veins, Max is caught in the middle of a deadly chase between Joe and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  Still, Max shows no inclinations of sympathy for either side.  He and Furiosa soon start working together, but Max is reluctant.  Like Han Solo, he finds common cause with and eventual sympathy for Furiosa and her rebels.  When he gives her his blood at the end, the opening metaphor comes full circle.  Max's war is won when he is able to give blood as he sees fit.  If there is a message here, it's about taking ownership of our own lives.

This is a film about life, and the fluids that sustain it: blood, mother's milk, gasoline and water.  All of these fluids are used to control, exploit and sustain life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland.  If the film raises a question, it is this:  Who has a right to the fluids of life, and what kind of power can they wield?

Immortan Joe is the great exploiter of fluids.  Under his reign, blood is stolen from Max, mother's milk is stolen from women, gasoline is stolen from anybody who has it, and water is hoarded and used to subjugate the masses, who try to steal it from each other.  If Max is Han Solo, then Immortan Joe is Darth Vader.  We are introduced to Joe with imagery that calls Vader to mind:  Joe's old, scarred and worn torso is slowly covered with a sort of military armor.  We never see his full face, as it is behind a grotesque version of Vader's mask.  And like Vader, he has two primary concerns:  his power and his progeny.

Furiosa is the only character who is not clearly exploited or subjugated in the film.  The reason for this is never directly stated.  She tells Max that she is seeking redemption by freeing Joe's wives. Furiosa therefore must have been one of the exploiters.  All we learn about her past is that she was taken from her home and family as a child and eventually became a great warrior in Joe's army.  Perhaps Joe adopted her, took her on as one of his own.    Indeed, if Joe is Vader, Furiosa is Luke Skywalker, except in this version, Luke has succumbed to the dark side and now wants to make amends.  Like Luke, she has a mechanical replacement for a missing hand, she is from a desert world which was once green and full of life, and she was taken from her parents when she was young.  A great warrior, she stands up against and fights her "father," who wishes to use the force (fluids of life) to exploit and subjugate, to wield an unnatural power over people.

To emphasize the unnaturalness of Joe's power, we see his followers exhibit a religious devotion to him.  They explode in ecstasy if Joe gives them the simple honor of looking directly at them.  They have a highly ritualized way of dying in battle for Joe.  And when one of them sees that Joe is fallible, the spell is broken: If Joe is capable of error, then the whole mythology of his world is a lie.

To make the comparison to the Star Wars mythology complete, we can identify Furiosa's people, who she eventually finds again in the desert, as jedi knights.  They are the rightful mothers, the righteous givers of life.  They are the ones who know how to make the world green again.  The oldest and wisest of them is Keeper Of The Seeds, too old to fight, but still wise in the old ways:  in short, Yoda.

Warning:  Way Bigger Spoilers Below

While George Miller has succeeded in creating a compelling world with absolutely thrilling and visually stunning setpieces, I didn't find the dramatic development entirely convincing.  When Furiosa found her "green place" and had to come to terms with that harsh reality, I didn't feel a strong enough connection to her character.  I didn't believe what she was going through. I never felt like she needed the redemption she was after.  And I didn't like that she had to be saved by Max.  The Furiosa in the second half of the film seems weaker than the one in the first half.  Also, I wasn't convinced when Nux (Nicholas Hoult) had his profound transformation, or by his connection with Joe's wife, Capable (Riley Keough).  It was too quick and painless.  I was also disappointed with Max's development.  It was never clear exactly how or why he started to care about Furiosa.  I also think the women should have headed back to the Citadel on their own.  Max should have decided to follow them, to help them, but not to lead them.  And it should've been because he didn't have a choice.  If 160 days of riding in the desert wasn't going to get them anywhere, where would it have gotten him?  Finally, at the end of the film, Max has no car, nowhere to go, no way to survive on his own.  Furiosa would certainly be willing to help him along on his way.  I guess there's symbolism in him disappearing into the crowd as Furiosa is raised into the sky, but it doesn't really make much sense.  He should've stayed, at least for a little while.  Anyway, it's an enormously entertaining and impressive film, but the development just didn't always work for me.