Mad Max: Fury Road, (a movie for your eyeballs)

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There are these people who get chased across the desert, see, and then they turn around and get chased right back. There are several crashes. The End.

“What?  No spoiler alert? You can’t give the whole thing away. Gosh!”

Look, friend, the purpose of a “spoiler alert” is to keep the reviewer from spoiling something. In order for something to spoil, it has to be able to spoil — that is, it has to be perishable (or valuable) in the first place. The surprise in The Sixth Sense? Now, there was a call for spoiler alerts. Mad Max? Well, as I just told you — nothing really happens.

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OK, some things happen. In a brutally post-apocalyptic world that has very little by way of outlet malls or Chipotle or water, (but still has oil refineries, and sophisticated hydroponics gardens, plenty of spare car parts, sterile medical supplies, chrome spray paint, etc.), a handsome rough and tumble guy (Mad Max — Tom Hardy) gets captured by some evil and warty, rough and tumble guys. These guys drag Max along when they go after one of their own, the fabulously non-warty Furioso (Charliz Theron with grease smudged on her head), who, on her way to the refinery, tries to lose her warty escorts. Is she fleeing for her own safety?  No, deep in the bowels of her twin-engine super-tanker behemoth, she is emancipating some hot supermodels (is that redundant?) from the clutches of an evil, Darth Vader-type overlord (also warty). This radiation-disfigured bad guy likes to impregnate non-warty supermodels in an effort to produce less warty offspring. The girls, as you can imagine, don’t like him. There is a chase and lots of crashes.  One of those crashes throws Mad Max and Furioso into an alliance — a quest to find some famed Shangri-la/Paradise/Utopia — a place filled with grass and shrubbery. Of course, when they realize the place doesn’t exist, they turn around and head back. More chasing and crashing ensues (but I repeat myself).

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In other words, nothing happens.

What’s more, the characters are flat — unchanging and predictable cartoon characters — adult comic book characters, but cartoons none-the-less. Much has been made of the “strong women” in the film, but mostly they are just beautiful. Write me a strong unattractive, complex super-heroine and you might have something to make Betty Friedan proud. The closest thing to character development is the conversion of one of the evil, warty, rough and tumble guys, (Nicholas Hoult as “War Boy Nux,”) to just warty and rough and tumble. He switches teams and helps the babes. Really? That counts as character development? “Let me see, I play for the ugly warty team. Should I switch to the non-warty supermodel team? Hmmmm. Can I phone a friend?”  What’s more, one of the babes (a clean, unblemished, red-head) falls in love with him, tumors and all. Of course he switched teams. Who wouldn’t? There is a pithy aphorism my supermodel friends bandy about: “Beware the post-apocalyptic warty guy who suddenly starts being nice — he might not be looking out for your best interests. Indeed, [the pithy aphorism continues], beware any guy who suddenly starts being nice — he might not be looking out for your best interests. He might be thinking something else all together.”  Isn’t that pithy?  The war boy didn’t undergo some powerful crisis that made him rethink his direction in life and his ethical values — he met a supermodel.

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(red-headed bombshell with the warty Nux — notice his shoulder and lips)

Anyway, the movie is lacking plot and character development and so what does that leave us?  From beginning to end we see! We just see. It’s not a movie, but a “picture show” of monstrous absurdity and wonder.  Mammoth Frankenstein vehicles cobbled together into gladiator-style battle bots, tractor-trailer boom boxes (complete with a ghoulish rock guitarist strung up on the rig, calling the marauding pursuers to action with violent acid guitar rifs), and mace-like spiked dune buggies… they all rage through the wasteland. The screen is filled with digitally masterful post-apocalyptic storms, a cast of dark and deformed radiation freaks, and fabulously violent crashes. Then there is the visual contrast of the damsels in distress (who, despite death and terror and horror and the complete lack of rest areas or waffle houses, seem, for the most part, serene and easy going). Max’s introduction to the ladies is wonderfully jarring.  Having survived end-of-the-world tornadoes and homicidal bad guys, he extricates himself from his totaled and sandstorm buried vehicle (pulling with him the body of some bad guy to which he is chained), and comes around the back of Furioso’s vehicle to find, in the blazing heat, girls clad in white linen, bathing in a garden hose. Oh, and did I mention it’s in 3D? A pretty good 3D, too. Only a few times did they violate the sense of suspended disbelief w/ an obvious pander to the 3D gimmick (making you duck, making you reach out to grab something, etc.).

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(extremely non-warty, and non-singing sirens)

Mad Max is visually jarring — and I think that’s the whole idea. The movie is a kind of visual feast. Not necessarily a beautiful one (like Elizabeth: The Golden Age or Emma, movies in which the director saw every scene as an opportunity to produce a work of aesthetic magnificence), but a feast for the eyes, nevertheless. And the ears. It was loud!

The movie is, in other words, just a spectacle. Mad Max is not meant to be wrestled with or meditated upon or puzzled over or blogged about — it’s just meant to be watched. You pay your money, get your 3D glasses, and try not to get motion sickness.

Marshall McLuhan identifies movies as a hot medium. He says that hot media are sensory rich — they provide all of the content/data so the audience has very little to do (in contrast to cool media, like books, that require the audience to contribute alot to make sense of the content). But this past semester, a group of my undergraduates argued that movies are “heating up.” As Hollywood works to compete with distractions (flat screen TVs, cell phones, the internets, and our increasingly pathetic attention spans, etc.), the writers and directors and special effects wizards must bombard us with action and extravaganza. The screen is filled from top to bottom and side to side with a blaze of action, horror, and visual stimulation, because without it, we would just stay home and watch Psych reruns.

This isn’t new.  Movies have been competing with television for a long time and they have been using spectacle as a weapon. Cecil B. DeMille’s movies are classic examples of this attempt to save the theater movie, but Moses and Ben Hur were more than spectacle — they were also powerful stories. My students noted (and argued) that a simple episode of The Simpsons can lead to discussion and conversation that can last for hours, but that after seeing the latest action/thriller we are likely to report to our friends, “Ya, it was pretty cool — some amazing special effects.”  There just isn’t much to talk about.

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I think my students are right.

I went to see Mad Max with a couple colleagues who, like me, were at the end of a semester and a long couple of weeks of tedious grading.  We were ready to shut off our brains for awhile and the Mad Max movie was the perfect vehicle (pun intended) to make this happen.  So, if you need an entertainment break and watching things smash up and explode in visually interesting ways helps you — go see Mad Max. There’s alot to see!  But if you are interested story, complexity, truth, and goodness, I’d probably suggest something else — like, say, a book.

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