Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Mad Max" — It wasn't my fault; she wanted to see it, but I still had to apologize to Carolyn for this one.... We should have known better.

The high praise for this movie must be seen for what it is: adoration of one element in filmmaking at the expense of most others. The claim that it has a complex, but subtle story, or worse, that its story is "dense" seems excessively hyperbolic. It is clearly meant to be an adrenalin rush, and it is. Unfortunately, it is an excessively redundant exhilaration. Praise is heaped on the myriad forms of inventive destruction; others note the uniqueness of the various vehicles. Notice, therefore, that I do not claim "repetition" but merely redundancy. This next observation is a personal judgment to be sure, but I also found the score to be overtly manipulative and unsubtle (although occasionally silly—the guitar player being particularly goofy and amusing...one or twice...then just gratuitously absurd, especially when it became part of the climactic action). 

This is minimalist storytelling and maximalist filmmaking, offering two hours of remarkably adept choreography of acrobatic and balletic crashes, explosions, immolations and mayhem, predicated on five minutes worth of story,  two minutes of uninteresting dialogue, and thirty seconds of character development. To be honest, though, it might have actually been more interesting if it had offered no dialogue at all (I mean this sincerely).

The young acolyte who turns (absurdly quickly) from bloodthirsty minion to devoted paramour to altruistic martyr is the only dynamic character in the film. Every other character is static, as is to be expected in a video game actioner. The emerging trust between the two main characters or the young, chrome warrior was never in doubt, though hardly credible from any character's viewpoint or experience. Of course, we didn't have time to offer a rational explanation for this instantaneous teamwork because we had gauntlets to run and endless stuff to blow up. As for the great sci-fi setting credited by some, again minimalist to the extreme: sand, mud, funny cars, stilts, and a treadmill—that's it.

Many commenters have praised the film for its subtle themes and its "showing and not telling" approach, but those themes are extremely underdeveloped; in fact, they are merely nods to a range of well-worn (but significant) and much better explored (elsewhere) themes of religion, economics, exploitation, tyranny, demagoguery, fanaticism, patriarchy, feminism, ecology, war, loyalty, courage, heroism. They are all in there, but this movie neither tells us nor shows us anything of substance about any of them. It's basically, "Yeah, society's foibles...yada, yada, yada...."

I've tried to give as few spoilers as possible and still give a reasonable assessment, but as for the ending, let's just say it was the most inexplicable and unlikely part of the movie, but since we'd wasted all of our time on all that great action, the denouement just happened, voilĂ , and "happy ever after," which, again, was never in doubt for a moment. I am guessing that even if you knew absolutely nothing about the Mad Max franchise, an objective viewer would find every single development thoroughly predictable.

Having watched "San Andreas" the day before, I found that movie's action sequences relatively implausible, its mass destruction derivative (or typical ala most apocalyptic movies and every Marvel superhero movie), its deus ex machina plot contrivances and coincidences completely absurd, and its saccharin family plot line cliched; nevertheless, perhaps especially because I'm a fan of Caltech, I didn't walk away feeling that I had really wasted two hours on a pointless shoot-em-up like I did with "Mad Max." 

Don't get me wrong, from an artistic point of view, as an action movie, "Mad Max" is very well done, and if all you demand from your action movie is non-stop action, then "Mad Max" is nearly perfect. On the other hand, if you want a story that at the very least challenges you to think, even slightly, about issues or ideas, then any of the three earlier Mad Max movies and nearly any other sci-fi offering, no matter the logistical gaps, will offer you more (I would, however, exclude "Lucy" from that group—it was too silly, illogical, and gap-filled to merit viewing except as an exercise in unintentional and ludicrous humor). 

It is the hyperbolic, euphoric praise and the absurdly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes that prompted me to respond to this thread. If you want to see a fine, articulate review of the movie that offers a reasonable explanation of the praise, I encourage you to read super-reviewer Nate Zoebl's analysis at the bottom of the RT page for "Mad Max." It is very well done.

By the way, below I have offered the link to a short video, "Chains," created by Sharon Lewis, that adeptly, and with minimal budget, covers nearly all of the aforementioned themes in a meaningful and memorable way (and not a single car crash) in just ten minutes. It is a video that I used with both my creative writing students when exploring science fiction and with my video production students when looking at short, narrative film making. I am sorry for the 40-second intro (although the film series is worth viewing). Check it out.