I’d never seen an earlier installment in the Mad Max franchise when I went to see Fury Road at Grauman’s Chinese IMAX Theatre. I felt it was a movie I needed to see because so many people were asking me whether it succeeded in its effort to be a feminist action flick. But what really captured my imagination – and inspired me to watch all three of the previous films – was its singular vision and its relentless originality.
I often judge the sci fi I read by its ability to avoid exposition – to simply immerse me a world that is completely unfamiliar. This is a standard feature of cyberpunk style, which Bruce Sterling recently summarized at a terrific conference I attended at USC called Cyberpunk: Past and Future (videos are available).
Turns out that Sterling’s description fits Mad Max to a T. He argued that cyberpunk style typically entails
- “Oozing stuff out in all directions” – aka, sensory overload
- “Beatnik eyeball kicks” – surprising details that give a sense of a lived world. He also called them “small visual assaults.” An iconic instance in Beyond Thunderdome: a frightening child named Scrooloose cuddles a Bugs Bunny doll.
- Weird mood switches – in Mad Max, the heartbreaking intermingling of the tragic and the comic (e.g., cute little feral children toting giant guns).
- Lack of explanation; not stopping to “coddle the straights.”
Reading a cyberpunk novel should be like entering a foreign country – stumbling into the wasted world of Mad Max surely qualifies. If we manage to get beyond the shock of witnessing the intoxicating collision of life force and death drive that characterizes all Mad Max films, we can start to appreciate the intricate aesthetic policies driving the implementation of George Miller’s bizarre vision.
While film lovers like myself typically complain about Hollywood’s addiction to financially safe franchises, Mad Max should remind us of the deep pleasures of engaging in a long-term relationship with a truly cinematic story. Lots of people like to say that the best storytelling these days is for small screens, and I would heartily agree. But I think Mad Max demonstrates what a big blockbuster movie franchise should be able to offer its fans – we shouldn’t necessarily expect the psychologically nuanced investigations of social mores that get in spades on TV these days. Mad Max doesn’t provide that pleasure, but what it does offer – at approximately 11 on the dial – is a distinctive audio-visual experience, with a mysterious internal logic that feels simultaneously ridiculous and inevitable.
The final credits of Fury Road are a testament to the tremendous craftsmanship necessary to bring this peculiar world alive. I suspected that many of these people would consider themselves hackers and it occurred to me that that might be the engine driving this noisy road-ragey enterprise. As we marvel at the countless clever hacks in all four movies – my primary source of pleasure in this franchise – we also feel the dull dread of a ruined world and the insidious power structures that have emerged from it. We see the re-inscription of tyranny at every turn and I’m reminded of another one of Bruce Sterling’s insights: “The problem with the hack is that it doesn’t seize the means of production.” By the end of Fury Road, we see Imperator Furiosa (a steely Charlize Theron) grasping the means of production after initially running away from it. Is this the feminist heroine we’ve all been waiting for or another tyrant in the making? Guess we gotta wait for Mad Max: Wasteland to find out.