Okay, let’s do something weird. Let’s compare Mad Max: Fury Road to Avengers: Age of Ultron. I think this is an interesting comparison since they’re both sequels in big action movie franchises that happen to be out in theaters at the same time right now. They both have large fan bases since their characters have been around for many decades. What makes this comparison especially interesting is that they both have simple, largely cliché storylines that we are all familiar with, but everyone seems to be mostly okay with this since a strong, unique story is not the focus of either film.
As I noted in my review of the Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron’s story seems to be an excuse for the characters to play off of one another, and that is the story’s only purpose. The story is not meant to surprise and wow, but there is the obligatory surprise death, as well as some unique twists and turns in the story to make it more interesting. Fury Road is fascinating since the story is an excuse to do some crazy action sequences. The story is simply about getting from point A to point B, then back to point A. Again, there are some surprises and unique touches, and this film does go out of its way to add several clever little details that make its post-apocalyptic world absolutely ingenious.
That being said, there is a serious problem in this focusing choice. As I have said before, you can say that film is a visual medium, but the medium is really about telling stories. At the heart of a story are its characters, so it follows that an old, cliché story can be made new and interesting just by having strong characters driving the story, as seen in Age of Ultron. (It is incredibly important that the audience is invested in the characters in order for this to work, and the investment must not be exclusively from circumstances, or else the empathy may run out when the circumstances change as the story turns.) So, there is danger to putting characters over story, but it can be done well, which I cannot say for putting action and visuals over both story and characters. This focus puts the technical aspects involved in achieving investment in the characters and story over the investment itself, which is rather silly.
In regards to very visual-oriented films, I have three main criticisms, all of which can be avoided if a visual film is very careful. First of all, visual storytelling is very desirable only if the story is worth telling in the first place. Secondly, there’s an old saying that reminds me of the place of visuals in film: “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” What concerns me whenever I hear someone say that film is a visual medium is that they may get the impression that film is about the visuals, even though visuals are merely film’s means of expression, which I know because of the meaning of the concept of communication itself. Third, what is the purpose of a beautiful window that looks out to nothing but a brick wall?
The question that must now be asked, as I have been asking myself that since I saw the first ten minutes of the film, is this: is Mad Max guilty of the pitfalls mentioned above? Well, addressing the first crime, the story may very well be worth telling, but it has actually been told before. The plot can basically be summarized as follows: a girl escapes her dreary civilization and goes on a journey with some friends and new acquaintances to get to a beautiful green place where their dreams can come true, only to go right back home to where she started in the first place. That is the plot to The Wizard of Oz. Oz also had a brilliant visual style, but people remember the characters, and what the characters said, far more than the visual style, which I don’t think could ever be said for a film like Mad Max. In regards to the second and third criticisms, the point of the film, from what I can tell, was to make a good-looking action movie, and everything else was secondary. So, yes, it is very guilty.
I suppose that means I should hate this movie, but I don’t. Throughout the movie, I was constantly experiencing overwhelming admiration, which is a credit to the film. That being said, what I wanted to experience was not only admiration, but entertainment, and that was lacking because of the criticisms explained above. Compare this to Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, which is visually excellent, but the visuals are always serving to express the mood of the piece, the context of the story, the emotions of the characters, the theme of the music, and other elements that make the story work better. In Mad Max, I see the visuals serving to create an interesting and visually amazing context for the story, but the story still seems to be lacking. Part of this is due to the characters.
Many of the characters are just fine, but there were few who really made me care about whether they lived or died. The titular character, Max, was not one of the few. As noted in the Walker brothers’ fantastic review of this film, Max is really more of an observer than anything else, and he could essentially be played by anyone. By the end of the movie, viewers should ask themselves, “What do I really remember about Max that makes him unique?” The answer is probably, “very little,” which is unfortunate. The real protagonist in the film, Furiosa, is a bit more interesting, but not by all that much. The best scene in the movie, however, is a short scene in which the film actually takes a breather (thank heavens) and allows for a nice conversation between Nux and Capable, which made me finally CARE about some of the characters.
My final point, which I once again borrow from the Walker brothers’ review, is that this movie is a great experiment. Much like with Pulp Fiction, I like it a lot as an experiment or project, but I have a hard time calling it a movie. This is so vastly different from my schema of movies (or at least good movies) since I have always seen the movie theater as a temple built to glorify great storytelling, and I do not see Mad Max as such. I do see Mad Max: Fury Road as being great art, and a groundbreaking achievement in cinema. I admire and respect what it brings to the table for moviegoers and filmmakers, and I hope it will lead to many great action movies in the future, which is why I recommend that fans of film see it. (Not to mention, everyone must see the guy with the fiery guitar, who adds a lot to the already impressive soundtrack.) However, I will continue to criticize the film harshly because I stand by my strong ideology that people do not go into a movie theater to watch a movie, but rather to experience a story.