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The #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown is under way, and voters have chosen “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) as their winner for Week 3, dedicated to movies first released in theaters from May 15-21 (between 1975 and 2019). Times film critic Justin Chang sat down with entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp to discuss a movie they both consider a masterwork — and one of the most remarkable action movies ever made.
Chang and Whipp will discuss "Mad Max: Fury Road" with the director George Miller on Thursday at 6 p.m. Pacific. Their live video conversation will be streamed on the Los Angeles Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube as well as Twitter.
JUSTIN CHANG: I have to admit, Glenn, that in a week that also included “The Empire Strikes Back,” this isn’t the outcome I was expecting. If I’m honest — and with all due respect to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, which is having its own Showdown rematch as we speak — it is absolutely the outcome I was hoping for.
I haven’t seen many movies over the last five years that felt like classics on first viewing, but “Mad Max: Fury Road” is undoubtedly one of them. I still recall the excitement — no, not strong enough — the pure, unleaded exhilaration surging through the audience when I saw it in a Burbank screening room in May 2015. It wasn’t a huge theater, but it was fortunately equipped with Dolby Atmos sound, all the better to hear the roar of the engines, the screaming guitar riffs of Junkie XL’s propulsive score and the words — yes, the powerful, incantatory words (“I am awaited in Valhalla!”) — of the movie’s brilliantly spare and perpetually underestimated screenplay.
A week after that screening, “Fury Road” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in an out-of-competition slot, never mind that it put most of that year’s Palme d’Or contenders to shame. The movie opened to glowing reviews and made a lot of money, though not enough to turn a huge profit or offset the legal disputes with Warner Bros. that have stalled the franchise until recently. It won six of the 10 Oscars for which it was nominated, but it didn’t win best picture or for George Miller’s wizardly direction, as it should have. (I’m still not over the fact Charlize Theron wasn’t nominated for her brilliant, heartrending performance as the movie’s true if not top-billed protagonist, Imperator Furiosa.)
I say all this to emphasize that, despite not having gotten its full due, “Fury Road” wasn’t exactly underappreciated in its time. More so than Miller's great earlier "Mad Max" movies, it was rightly recognized at first glance as a masterpiece of action filmmaking and dystopian world-building — not bad for a movie that easily could have gone the way of countless disastrously over-budget Hollywood follies. Let’s hear it for blockbuster auteurism and for Miller, who stages the most dynamic, sustained and deliriously inventive action sequences around — and also, not incidentally, the cleanest, due in no small part to Margaret Sixel's supremely disciplined editing. Noisy, frenetic blockbusters are a dime a dozen, especially in summer. Cinema this breathtakingly pure, not so much.
GLENN WHIPP: "Fury Road" beating "Empire" surprised me too, Justin, and, like you, I think our voters did themselves proud. What makes this film singular in my moviegoing life is that it left me feeling the same way I felt as a teenager when I staggered into the lobby after seeing "The Road Warrior" in 1982. Same franchise. Same filmmaker. And that same sensation of giddy exhilaration, only this time, 33 years later, coursing through veins caked with cholesterol and a brain filled with a certain amount of skepticism that an entry in any movie franchise could deliver something so shockingly full of imagination and poetry. Spielberg couldn't do it with Indiana Jones. How the hell did George Miller pull it off?
And not just pull it off, but superbly execute a kick to the groin of the patriarchy ruling the movie's post-apocalyptic world as well as the Hollywood hierarchy that rarely puts women at the center of a movie like this. "The Road Warrior" (as it was called in the States; it was released as "Mad Max 2" in Miller's native Australia) featured Mel Gibson playing a loner not all that different from the reluctant heroes I watched Clint Eastwood play in countless KCOP-TV movie marathons. Women didn't get a ton of screen time in these movies. In "The Road Warrior," Max's dog probably owns the second-strongest character arc.
Thirty-three years later, "Fury Road" puts Tom Hardy's near-mute Max in the title, but the movie belongs to Theron's Furiosa. It's funny you lamented Theron's lack of recognition. My wife, watching the movie with me, asked during one of Furiosa's many great, gut-wrenching moments: "Charlize was nominated for this, right?" Nope. Apparently spending nine months in the desert playing a one-armed, badass warrior doesn't rate.
Miller doesn't stop with Furiosa in his foregrounding of women. There are Immortan Joe's five "wives" who are, in fact, the warlord's sex slave breeders, captives in a post-apocalyptic world in which value has been reduced to elemental function. (Max begins the movie as a "blood bag," his fluids used to restore the War Boys' vitality.) There's also the tough, resilient band of matriarchs, the Many Mothers, we meet toward the end of the film. Miller has written or directed some interesting movies starring women — "The Witches of Eastwick," "Lorenzo's Oil," "Babe: Pig in the City" — but this one, Justin, demonstrates a real journey in terms of understanding and empathy.
CHANG: I imagine that journey will continue, Glenn, with the long-anticipated next movie in the ongoing saga, which will be a Furiosa-centered prequel, as Miller recently confirmed in an interview with the New York Times' Kyle Buchanan. Presumably we’ll learn more about her relationship with her mother, her kidnapping, her years of service to Immortan Joe and the battle that cost her her arm. It’s tough to digest the news that Theron won’t be playing the character, given that we’re encountering her at a younger age, but I’m not worried. Miller has earned our trust and then some.
After all, one of the most remarkable things about “Mad Max: Fury Road” is how immediately and completely it secures our investment in characters we’ve never met before — no, not even Max Rockatansky himself, since this was of course Hardy’s first time stepping into Mel Gibson’s motorcycle boots. We care about this world and the people in it because of the visual and conceptual strength and the eerie plausibility of Miller’s dystopian vision: You really do believe this is what a dead world may look like. We also care because of the actors, Theron and Hardy especially, who give performances of such rigorous physicality and often-wordless emotion. This was maybe my fourth or fifth go-round with “Fury Road,” Glenn, and while I was expecting the nonstop visceral charge, the deep waves of feeling that rolled over me this time were more of a surprise. It’s a kick-ass action picture; it’s also a story about loss, desperation and retribution you feel in your bones.
Everything that happens in this movie is believable. How astonishing is that? Colin Gibson’s production design and Jenny Beavan’s costumes — all those blood banks and breast pumps and skull heads and kinky breathing masks — are fabulously grotesque. They also feel like the authentic handiwork of a civilization ruled by barbarism. Ditto the weapons, the Buzzards' porcupine-like attack cars, the great big honking War Rig, the characters driving and wielding this massive artillery. As a feat of visual imagination, Miller’s achievement is simply staggering. Nothing about this civilization appears to have been designed or willed into existence; it appears to have existed all along, only to be fortuitously discovered by Miller and by John Seale’s impossibly nimble camera.
And to your point about the deep, trenchant feminism of “Fury Road”: It is as fully felt and fully realized an element of this universe as anything else. Given how much perfunctory, performative feminism we see in Hollywood movies these days — in dreck like “Dark Phoenix” and even an above-average blockbuster like “Avengers: Endgame” — it’s remarkable how Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris managed to throw down the gauntlet for an industry still struggling to achieve meaningful gender parity in its workforce and in its storytelling. They gave us a prescient, pre-#MeToo epic about a group of women rebelling against their sexual subjugation by a despicable fascist pig and his moronic religious-fundamentalist death cult. Can Immortan Joe’s resemblance to Donald Trump be a coincidence? I think not.
WHIPP: Justin … that's bait.
What really struck me as I watched "Fury Road" again — and what will keep me returning to this movie for the rest of my life — are those deeply felt moments of grief and desperation you mention. Once they make it through the biker-controlled canyon and head to the Green Place, the movie's almost exactly halfway done, and suddenly "Fury Road" becomes this soulful procession of gorgeous imagery, aided immeasurably by Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg's (aka Junkie XL) score.
Yes, the Bullet Farmer's mad pursuit takes place here. (I love that Max cedes the last shot to Furiosa.) But that sequence, set in the nocturnal blue of a desolate swamp populated by one lone tree, pierces with a haunting beauty amid the flying bullets. It's capped by this brief image of crow-like humans walking slowly across the bog. These creatures are in the movie for 10 seconds, but I bet Miller owns a thick binder detailing their story. I can feel their legend just in that brief glimpse.
It's here we learn Furiosa's history, watch War Boy Nux (looking for another Oscar omission? how about Nicholas Hoult?) fall in love (and eat a bug; Miller never loses his sense of humor) and, finally, meet the Many Mothers. And we discover the Green Place was actually that poisoned, abandoned morass they just traversed, a revelation that brings Furiosa to her knees, letting loose a primal cry that sets the stage for redemption.
But Miller's not ready to rev up the engines just yet. He lingers in the salt flats night, giving us whispered exchanges, flashes of beauty and a wise old woman cradling a box full of seeds. "Trees, flowers, fruit." Heirlooms of a more hopeful past. She plants one at every opportunity. For a long time, I've remembered "Fury Road" as a masterpiece of action cinema. Five years later, it's that old, laughing lady that sticks, a testament to the power of hope. Damn, Justin. Is this the best movie we'll be talking about this summer? I think it just may be.