In the rarified world of visually-oriented septuagenarian directors, George Miller (he just turned 70 in March) has delivered a KO punch against Ridley Scott!
Scott of course is far more prolific and well known, with 22 feature films since 1977; his seminal scifi films Blade Runner and Alien, historical epic Gladiator and gritty war film Black Hawk Down have each set the high water mark for visual style in their respective genres. For physician turned film maker Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road is only his 9th film since 1979; four of those have been Mad Max movies, but he’s also made the wonderfully wicked Witches of Eastwick, the 2 Happy Feet animation films (he won an Oscar for the first one) and the tearjerker Lorenzo’s Oil about a family’s battle to find a cure for their son’s rare brain disorder.
While Scott’s style remains just as epic in his later years, none of his recent films have broken any new stylistic ground; whether it is Robin Hood, Prometheus or Exodus: Gods and Kings, there’s been a sense of “been there, seen that” to the look of his films; it’s difficult after all, to raise the bar when the proliferation of CGI has made it possible for a film maker to bring to screen almost anything that he can visualize in his imagination. The barrier therefore is no longer technology, but imagination itself.
And that’s where Miller has scored his knockout. With Mad Max: Fury Road he has just delivered perhaps the most gloriously flamboyant road chase ever seen on screen; no doubt providing a lot of food for thought for every self-respecting action film maker, from Michael Bay to Luc Besson to the Fast and the Furious production team! Much like LP records have made a comeback with music aficionados, non-CGI action films like Fury Road along with Furious 7 earlier this summer and the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation are finding enormous appeal among action movie fans.
There are enough inventive bits in this film – cars and weapons, costumes and makeup, music and lighting – to keep fanboys and future directors busy analyzing it frame by frame for weeks and months to come. The hyperkinetic chase early on through the warrens of the Citadel, the ludicrous ‘human-powered’ fuel injection system that Nux comes up with during a car chase, the Polecat attack sequence, the live musicians in the War Boys’ convoy and the briefly glimpsed ‘marsh stiltmen’ are just a few of my favourite moments. You will find similar lists populating almost every review of the movie.
As if to give the audience respite from the sun-blasted landscape, Miller sets the middle portion of the chase in the night. The switch from ochres, umbers and siennas to the gun metal blue of the moonlit night is matched by a change in the pace and scale of the chase.
Half way through the movie, I found my eyes smarting; I realized I was hardly blinking for fear that I would miss even a millisecond of the visual buffet brought to screen by legendary Australian cinematographer John Seale. At the age of 72, he will surely earn his 5th Oscar nomination and perhaps even a win to go with his earlier one for The English Patient.
But for all this talk of visual genius, the critical acclaim for Fury Road owes as much to Miller’s investment in the people as in the cars and production design. The central character in the film isn’t Max; the story is in fact built around a female road warrior named Imperator Furiosa (I could almost hear Hermione say: “it’s Furi-oh-sa, not Furio-saaah”) who is a modern-day Ripley, driven by the same fierce protective instinct that Sigourney Weaver brought to the screen so memorably in Aliens back in 1986. Likewise, Max’s nemesis Immortan Joe – a post-apocalyptic Darth Vader, clad in an acrylic body shield and sporting a fearsome breathing mask – is sure to rank among the top 10 movie villains for years to come; not just for what he does on-screen, but also for the tyranny and unspeakable cruelty he represents.
Miller believes he has enough material to make another Mad Max film (or three, he says!) and it’s difficult to believe that Warner Bros. will waste even a minute after the opening weekend numbers are out on Sunday night before signing a deal for the next one. Other than the upcoming Jurassic World, I believe it is unlikely there will be another film this summer to top Fury Road. Meanwhile, all is not lost for 77 year old Ridley Scott. In November, he will have a surefire hit on his hands with the release of scifi thriller The Martian. The source material – the best-selling page-turner by Andy Weir – is ‘flop-proof’, but it will be interesting to see how Scott brings it to life on screen. What new visual kick can Scott bring to the real-life space thriller that we have not already seen in Apollo 13 or Mission to Mars?