I don’t normally pay much attention to the Oscars. The voting is very politicized and I find the choices for “best picture” rarely stand the test of time. That said, the buzz surrounding Mad Max: Fury Road had intrigued me. This isn’t the type of film to normally receive praise from the Academy. It’s one big, long car chase with lots of explosions and minimal dialogue. It makes Gladiator – the “best picture” winner for 2000 – seem like Shakespeare. So why has this film not only been nominated for “best picture” but also received critical acclaim from some mainstream film critics?
Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by a dictator, Immortan Joe, who controls the supply of water. When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steals something important from the Immortan, he sends a convoy of trucks to retrieve his “property.” Meanwhile, Max (Tom Hardy), a slave of the Immortan’s ghastly army, runs into Furiosa and agrees to help her.
If I had to choose one word to describe Mad Max: Fury Road, it wouldn’t be “action,” “explosions,” or even “cars.” It would be “thoughtfulness.” Director/screenwriter George Miller seems to have thought through everything carefully. Each frame is crammed with detail, which can sometimes result in a sensory overload, but everything is there for a reason. When you stop and look, everything in the frame tells a story. During the chase scenes, there’s a lot happening, but it never gets confusing and always remains engaging.
Despite the fact that the film is essentially one long car chase, there’s actually a story with well-rounded characters. These are conveyed subtly with minimal exposition. You have to pay attention to what the characters are doing and what’s going on around them in order to understand the story. I don’t want to go too deep into the story because there are spoilers, despite the lack of plot, but at the end of the film I found myself impressed at how much Miller squeezed into the film using so little. The film even touches upon feminist and environmental themes.
Miller even thought about how the music would fit into the story. Most movies just play a soundtrack over the visuals. Audiences aren’t supposed to wonder why they can hear music but the characters don’t. Mad Max actually goes to the trouble of establishing the music in the world of the film. One of the trucks in the Immortan’s convoy has a group of drummers and a guitarist who, in effect, play the soundtrack by musician Junkie XL (similar to a marching band in an army). This is known as “source music,” i.e. music with a clear source in the film itself. Just seeing where the music comes from and seeing the music react to events on screen helps further immerse viewers into the world.
I don’t usually care much for films about cars and explosions (I still refuse to see the Fast & Furious movies), and as such had initially dismissed Mad Max when it came out. I now regret that choice as I would have loved to have seen this film in a theater. Mad Max isn’t my favorite film of 2015 (that title goes to the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina), but it’s one that I respect quite a bit. I don’t know if I’d watch this movie again anytime soon as the relentlessness of its action can get a bit overwhelming, but I’m glad I finally understand why it is a real contender for “best picture” of 2015.