There’s a movie out this week that’s stirring up a lot of buzz and chatter, and it’s immensely refreshing to see it is a movie that is not prime Oscar bait full of Very Important Themes and Very Good Acting. The best thing is, it has both of those things in spades, but so often these films are shrugged off by the mainstream and left to be discussed in late night chats with devoted lovers of cult genre film, while the cineastes champion the awards darlings with total disregard for their own flaws. The film is Mad Max: Fury Road, and, blow for blow, it’s being talked about using terms like masterpiece and work of art, heralded as a throwback to old fashioned film making on a grand yet real scale. I caught the film on opening night. See, I’m genetically primed to pay attention to a flick like this from the outset, thanks to growing up (and still subsisting on) a steady diet of genre stories. I love sci fi, horror, dystopian visions, post apocalyptic vistas, alien invaders, mechs, kaiju and capes. Always have, always will. Not that these things get immediate passes, for Crom knows there are as many dire genre works as their are gems (moreso, in fact), but they speak to a part of me that still shivers with anticipation when I see a sand blasted landscape of ruins, an attack ship on fire off the shoulder of Orion, or a dark knight rising. I rarely dash out to see anything opening night these days – be it from malaise, or cumulative disappointments – but a free Thursday evening and an appetite well and truly whetted by a trailer that promised something dynamic that I’d never seen before, got my ass in the seat. It’s a thrill ride of a movie, visceral with a percussive, chaotic drive that is as manic as it is refreshingly enthralling. The plot is as thin as the emaciated War Boys who rampage through the parched Wastelands in pursuit of their ghastly Chieftan’s prized possessions, “breeder wives” cut loose from bondage by one armed avenging angel, Charlize Theron’s earthy, relentless Furiosa, and carried off in a gargantuan oil tanker in pursuit of a greener life and better, less objectified future. Along for the ride is Max, a feral Tom Hardy that spends half the movie muzzled and being used as a mobile blood decanter for fervent War Boy Nux, a cancer-riddled zealot with nothing better to hope for than the thrill of death and rebirth on the glorious Fury Road. There’s your set up, and more or less your movie. Paths cross. Cars clash. Vehicular insanity and splendidly warped production design unfold before your eyes in real time, with barely a hint of excessive visual effects, making you wonder how a) nobody died and b) just how much longer we should let big budget movies rely on ephemeral, weightless computer generated nonsense when the real thing is all the more thrilling. The ‘polecat’ sequence, with attackers coming in on huge pendulums, snatching people from vehicles and raining death from above, is a masterful circus of motion and light, visual storytelling at its knuckle whitening finest. That’s where the film excels, telling it’s tale through visuals and themes, and does so without ever preaching. Environmentalism and religious zealotry are interwoven into the nature of the work, along with, most wonderfully, feminism. This is what’s bringing most of the attention to the film, and rightfully so. This is a depiction of women striving for survival and relief from the metaphorical and literal shackles placed on them by the hideous, bone white men who keep the pretty ones ready for breeding, the ugly ones ripe for milking (again, literally, for this film never leaves too long between gleefully twisted visual images), and the decrepit ones cast out and clawing for droplets of rationed water. The magnificent Furiosa is a character borne of action, and a barely hinted back story written entirely in her eyes and on a bionic arm, with a desire to bear these women into a better world, a world where their rallying cry of “We are not things” need never be heard again. She’s as capable, if not more so, than the surly Max, a costar in a film bearing his name; a favourite scene sees Max taking aim with a sniper rifle and missing the target again and again. Furiosa takes the weapon, uses Max as a grunting tripod, and hits that target first time. She drives better than Max, she fights as equally well, and has a heart in search of redemption, where his beats to the drum of survival. Of course, we see him soften as the film drives on, though he moves not to the role of alpha male protector of a group of incapable girls, but a partner in the ultimate goal. The ludicrous and swiftly forgotten backlash from male rights activists complaining the film offers an emasculating, villifying look at masculinity, is as laughable as it is ill founded. The film isn’t saying men are evil; humanity can be evil, and we need the good women to fight right alongside the good men to make it better. The damsels aren’t so distressed that they need another hero to show them the way home; but they’ll have a guy riding shotgun, because overthrowing a vicious patriarchy shouldn’t be solely a job for the ladies. Equality in ass kicking.
There are still salacious trappings on the surface that don’t always gel with the message; the wives in question are played largely by glamour models and spend the movie in swaddling that would make The Fifth Element’s LeeLoo blush. The later arrival of the Many Mothers clan, a self sustaining band of ageing maternal sages who’re as equally adept at extinguishing life as they are at kindling it, are a welcome redress of that. But tasking a film so rich thematically for design transgressions like that is a fool’s errand. This is a triumphant bit of intelligent filmmaking wrapped up in the genre cloak, an operatic powerhouse of action, motion, sound and thunder with big ideas in its heart and strong women in its soul. It’s getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so, because its key plot contrivance is to do with the abolition of women as property. But any fan of genre fiction knows that sisters have been doing it for themselves (and with backup) for years. Ellen Ripley, Dana Scully, Buffy Summers, Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, have been flying the flag for complex feminist icons for years, the torch now passed to the Katniss Everdeens and Danaerys Targaryans of the world. Last year, the superlative Edge Of Tomorrow gave me one of my favourite characters of the last ten, Emily Blunt’s Rita Vritasky, the Angel of Verdun, who slapped around (and shot, repeatedly) a cowardly Tom Cruise and saved humanity from certain destruction with only her wits, experience, and a helicopter chopper blade for a sword.
Genre fiction and its mediums aren’t as voluminous with equality as they should be. For every Ripley there’s a whatever-the-girls-in-Transformers-are-called. That is only half a joke; I generally don’t know, because they’re the sort of shallow ciphers fed to male audiences that leave no lasting satisfaction and a bad taste in the mouth. A bit like the Transformers movies in general, really. Even the championed greats aren’t always perfect; the beloved Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 morphs from can do Valkyrie to a shrieking harridan, thoroughly brow beaten by her son and his trusty Austrian robot when she takes matters into her own hands. But if a film like Mad Max: Fury Road can chrome its teeth, smash into the cultural landscape and leave so many people talking about it, then the future of Furiosa and her liberated harem is one worth embracing indeed. And a wild man named Max is even welcome there too. So, what did you lovely people think of Mad Max? Who are your top feminist icons from the page and silver screen in the realms of sci-fi, fantasy and horror? Give me your thoughts below…
I’m thrilled to be a part of Hourglass Events upcoming author signing in the lovely city of Leeds on March 5th 2016.
Tickets are now available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/leeds-author-event-2016-tickets-15537433883
I hope you’ll come out to meet me and a host of author fabulous authors. The current lineup is as follows:
Andie M Long
Charming Man / A S Wilkins
E. J. Shortall
K L Shandwick
Lisa Helen Grey
Lisa J Hobman
Lisa S Robinson
Mary E Palmerin
Sarah Michelle Lynch
Victoria L. James
That’s a hell of a lot of bang for your buck. I can’t wait to meet new authors I admire, and reunite with some good friends. Make sure you’re following Hourglass and the event itself in all the right places to stay up to speed!