Monday, May 18, 2015

MAD MAX: Visual storytelling in motion

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a helluva ride.

That's really all you need to know because this is one of those rare films where it's more of an experience rather than a two-hour photoplay. Gravity might be the only release in recent history to compare, being a film that's seemingly light on story and plot but still incredibly powerful and evocative.

Despite what some will probably say on their way out of the theatre, this film isn't 90% action, though it often feels like it. Director George Miller has staged some amazing set pieces that'll get your blood rushing, and with credited co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, has balanced those moments with quieter beats that remind us of the stakes and the humanity in the film without beating us over the head with them.

There's merit in comparing this film to the action orgys of the Transformers/Battleship school of filmmaking. Why does one seemingly require the viewer to force themselves not to examine the film too closely while the other effortlessly earns the audiences emotional investment? "Battleformers" is a sort of movie where the action eventually becomes boring as its assault on our senses eventually leaves us numb. Chicago and Beijing are nearly reduced to rubble throughout those films and while MAD MAX's violence never even threatens a city. Yet the viewer cares more for the half-dozen good-guys in the later than they do for any victims in the former.

It's not about the size of the target. It's about the audience's connection to the target.

In short, we're in a post-apocalyptic world that's basically the feudal system on motorcycles and monster trucks, commanded by tyrant Immortan Joe. Aside from lording over the people of his citadel with an iron fist, Joe has taken the most desirable women as his "wives." One of his trusted convoy leaders, Furiosa, smuggles this harem out of his home and stows them away in her convoy. Joe discovers this treachery and sends all of his War Boy army after her, sparking the chase that occupies most of the film.

The plot often feels like it's little more than "Get away from the bad guys." There are a number of engagements along the way, most of which end with Furiosa, Max and the women escaping by the skin of their teeth. But that's really it. The goal is: Get to safety. Out-run the pursuers. You could say that the urgency of the situation is what makes the thin nature of the plot acceptable, but you'd be wrong. Urgency and fast-pacing alone cannot do that heavy lifting.

In a wasteland world where the evil War Boys are viscerally unpleasant pale color, and the fat despots are pustuled and revolting to even look at, the harem stands out because they could have stepped right off the pages of a Victoria's Secret catalog. One of them, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, actually IS a Victoria's Secret model. You might also recognize her as Not-Megan Fox from the third Transformers film. I toss off a phrase like that and I'm sure you might be thinking, "Oh, these are the girls who are there just to be leered at." Amazingly, they're not. There's never a moment as uncomfortably leer-y as Huntington-Whiteley's introduction in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

While their desirability is a plot-necessary aspect of their character, there's an effort to show them as being capable in several of the action scenes. Perhaps an even nicer touch is the fact that they don't become "instant badasses" and at one point, one of the women seems to consider that her life as a sex slave might have treated her better than a life on the run will.

I've seen a few remarks on Twitter about how viewers found the wives more engaging and cared more for them than any imperiled bystanders in a Marvel or DC movie. The magic trick Miller pulls off is that most of the wives aren't really THAT deeply developed. It's not an issue of character depth that engages us in their plight - it's an issue of emotional investment. And sorry ladies, you're not the ones doing the heavy lifting of earning that.

No, this movie all comes down to Charlize Theron's character Furiosa. We care because she cares. Even before we know where she's going and what she's taking there, we've seen what she's escaping. We understand - or at least think we do - what's driving her. If you lived in that hellhole, working for that freak Joe, wouldn't YOU try to get out? Joe sending his army after her makes her an instant underdog in our eyes, so that furthers our need to suuport her.

Furiosa is developed in a way that lets us project our emotions onto her, and if that's not enough, Miller has another trick up his sleeve: Max himself. Max is just trying to survive and in the first two minutes of the film is captured and enslaved as a blood-bag. He's a tagalong in the chase for Furiosa, literally strapped in for the ride so that one of the War Boys can siphon off his blood. As such, he's less of an active participant in the first major action. His entire goal in that sequence is just to get free of the bondage contraption he's trapped in.

Once he gets loose, he encounters Furiosa and the women. He couldn't give two shits about their plight and at one point even tries to abandon them in the desert. It's his bad luck that the situation demands cooperation and so he becomes Furiosa's right hand as he's dragged into Joe's Ahab-like pursuit to get his wives back. If you think about it, it's basically North by Northwest, with Max playing the Cary Grant role of being caught up in a larger game he has no interest in, beyond surviving it.

We don't care about the wives. We've merely projected ourselves onto Furiosa and SHE cares about the wives. If for some reason we resist identifying with her, the film supplies us with Max, who's removed from the conflict but bonds with them, which wears down our resistance and makes US bond with them.

It's basically a game of Stockholm Syndrome that filmmakers play. The craft is that it's not as simple as putting characters in danger. The director needs to understand what bonds an audience with the players. Spielberg is one of the best at this. Think of all the emotional close-ups present in Spielberg's films: the slack-jawed wonder during the first dinosaur reveal in Jurassic Park, Elliott's amazement when he sees E.T. for the first time.  It even has a name: "Spielberg Face."

Consider how Max's first encounter with Furiosa and the wives plays out with terse dialogue, and a lot of silence. There's tension generated by these reaction shots but it also provokes us to feel empathy with Furiosa, and frustration with how Max's objective is going to totally screw her and the wives over. When she gets the upper hand on him, we want to cheer.

But if that doesn't work, then the hardened heart of the viewer will crack later when Furiosa finds herself in a moment of despair so great she falls to her knees and screams to the sky. This sequence starts on Furiosa, but the height of this emotional moment isn't played in close-up on her. It's a wide shot, which turns out to be from Max's point of view when the scene cuts to a reverse and we see Max's reaction. His emotions are not nearly as heightened as hers, allowing us to project onto him. We've discussed this Eisensteinian technique before, in relation to Star Wars.

That moment is all we need to understand that Max is on board. He's gone from being a tagalong on this adventure to being committed to the cause. It's Max who comes up with the final plan to fight their way back through the pursuing army. The interesting thing is that while the final endgame results in a lot of glory for Furiosa and the others, Max consciously avoids involving himself in that. To me, that suggests that his motives were generally noble rather than self-serving there.

Another nice touch is the complete lack of any romantic interest between Max and Furiosa. There's a trust and a connection that forms between them by the end of the adventure, but there's nary a hint of sexual tension. At least with regard to that character dynamic, Furiosa could have been written as a man and nothing about her interaction with Max would have to change.

I've seen complaints from guys who find it upsetting that Max feels like a supporting character in his own movie. I don't know if I quite agree with that. In terms of screentime, he and Furiosa are about even. I think what they're reacting to is that Furiosa is absolutely driving the plot more than Max is. It's her actions who set off the crusade. When Max joins up with them, he doesn't become the hero who takes over and leads them out. Instead he's outwitted and is at the mercy of Furiosa's plan. For the first two-thirds, there's never any point where Max has the upper hand, despite being a participant in all the action.

I kinda want to point out to those upset guys that Max had more to do than most female sidekicks did in action movies for years. There was a whole flap last week with "Men's Rights Activists" calling for a boycott because of the film's "feminist agenda." If any of those guys actually SAW the film, I think it would be fascinating to discuss with them why exactly this movie threatens them so much.

(Just so we're clear, if you're a Men's Right's Activist, you're an insecure scumbag who's part of a very tiny fringe group with horrible opinions who needs some serious counseling... but as a specimen of insanity, I'd find you infinitely compelling.)

The people who find fault with FURY ROAD because it's light on story are missing the point. It's not lack of plot that can hinder a film on its own. (Though there are enough obstacles and distinct set-pieces presenting their own challenges to the characters that it's really not fair to accuse the film of being plot-less. It just has fewer moving parts than your average blockbuster.) The Battleformers-type films hurt less for lack of plot than they do for lack of emotion.

Character design plays a role in this too. I'd never claim Immortan Joe is a particularly deep or a well-developed character. He is merely The Antagonist, a representation of everything that's evil in this world. Yet we want to see him killed, probably painfully. His defeat would be cathartic for us. How is it possible that a character so thin can stir such strong reactions?

His look plays a big part in this. He's not just ugly, he's physically revolting to look at. He's got strange sores on his bloated body. His armor is designed to look unpleasent against the inhuman pale of his skin and the crowning touch is the horrifying facemask he wears. It pushes certain buttons in the viewers. He's a disgusting abomination and the end of his existence will be a relief.

This same approach is how Darth Maul can make such an impact despite being horribly underused in The Phantom Menace. He has a demonic, evil look that repells us on a primal level. Jabba the Hutt has maybe 30 minutes of screentime, but he's so disgusting and so physically unpleasant to behold that we transfer that vileness onto the character.

Now think about the character design in Transformers. Or Battleship. It all feels so much more generic. Half the time, it's hard to tell the robots apart, and they have too many moving parts. Simplicity is the key in character design. The devil is less in the details and more in how much impact a visual can make instantly. In Battleship's case, the problem is more that the aliens look rather generic. Could you even draw one from memory a week after seeing the film?

Most of you reading this blog are probably writers and when you're focusing on plot and dialogue, you might stop thinking as heavily about the visual. There's no greater refresher course for how minimalist dialogue and story arcs can be elevated by effective visual storytelling than MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.


  1. I don't identify as a MRA or agree with some people's condemnation of this film, but you making such a categoric denunciation against a whole movement makes you come off as a bit unhinged.

    It would be just as ridiculous as denouncing the entire movement of feminism because there have been instances of feminists calling to have male fetuses aborted.

    I've been following your blog for a while now, and generally found you to be well-balanced, so this diatribe of yours caught me completely off-guard.

    1. At least feminism, at it's core, serves a platform for proposed action/discussion about gender inequalities in a patriarchal society; particularly towards the social perspectives of women. If movements like GamerGate or sites of the ilk Return of Kings represent any facet of the MRA collective, it's less about discussion about "men's rights" -- which rarely have faced the same level of repression in society as women -- and more of playing victim while remaining the bully. Any group that adopts this perspective is bound to be subject of unhinged (and well earned) criticism.

    2. Nailed it. I feel as secure in denouncing MRA as a whole as I do the KKK. I stand by the "insecure scumbag" characterization. There is not one word written by an MRA advocate that hasn't made me think "People like this can't ACTUALLY exist, can they?"

    3. "insecure scumbag" like this woman?

    4. Straw man argument that tries at the "not your shield" hashtag GamerGate coined -- as if any one female who sides with MRA (but mostly conservative views that MRA's tend to embrace) disproves the MRA's toxic reputation.

  2. I certainly don't fault Fury Road for having a light story -- execution and production value more than made up for it -- but I would argue even the best of practical effects in film wear in novelty after a while. That's were I can see repeated viewings of Fury Road, for all it gets right, starts to show it's cracks, and the missed opportunities that implies.

    I will concur with your aforementioned point and credit George Miller for actually feeling like he gave a damn about the universe he continues to create. Earnest filmmaking is worth it's weight in diamonds these days.