Another week, another huge trailer for a film franchise that was completely dormant for decades.
Actually, I can’t wait for the release of Mad Max: Fury Road because I can’t wait to hear the full story of its crazy production. It was originally supposed to shoot in 2003, then it was delayed due to money issues and the outbreak of the Iraq War. Then it was supposed to be revived as an animated film stylistically similar to Akira. Then it was supposed to be two films shot back to back.
And then, when it finally started filming, the production was so out of control it stopped and restarted roughly a year later. And THEN filming wrapped in 2013 but got trapped in post production. And despite all of the interest in the franchise and the long gestation period, nobody has any idea what the film is about.
Apocalypse Now didn’t go through this many false starts or such a bizarre shoot. Fury Road is destined to be either incredible or incredibly terrible. There is not going to be a neutral position.
What’s unusual is just how the series was revived in the first place, especially after Beyond Thunderdome. The second film in the series (Road Warrior) is regarded as a genuine classic that has influenced filmmakers from David Fincher to Joss Whedon. Thunderdome’s reputation is more mixed. There are some who love it and insist it is the best of the franchise. (Roger Ebert took this position.) There are others who feel that it is the low point of Mad Max.
In a recorded DVD intro for The Road Warrior, Leonard Maltin compares the climatic car chase to John Ford’s legendary Stagecoach. Both are genre pictures that rewrote all the rules about their respective genres. The post apocalyptic look of Mad Max is everywhere now, even in places where it’s not appropriate.
Beyond Thunderdome deserves praise for not copying its predecessor but for trying to introduce something new. This time, Max goes to a western frontier town called Bartertown where a power struggle exists between Aunty (Tina Turner) and the El Topo-esque Master Blaster. Aunty tries to get Max to kill the giant Blaster via the Thunderdome (essentially a WWE cage match with chainsaws and blades) to prevent the dwarf Master from taking over the town.
What’s surprising is that this plot is resolved barely forty minutes into the film. And that’s where the movie makes it’s biggest mistake.
After that, Max encounters a tribe of children who believe him to be a pilot that will fly them to “Tomorrow-morrow land.” If you think this sounds like a half baked version of Peter Pan’s lost boys, you are correct. Even the intriguing version of their oral history is not enough to save them.
So of course Max thinks the best thing to do is to take some of the children to Bartertown to rescue Master, which results in half the town being destroyed and a car chase involving a train.
I cannot tell you how those ideas link. I think that the idea was to explore how civilization truly rises. The kids start out in what we would call a primitive tribe but then move onto rebuild great cities. They have legends and heroes. It’s the same things that kept everyone else going. There’s also the dynamic that their legends are based on reality but are not going to meet the expectations of everyone. Still, the film ground to a halt during the second act.
But those scenes in Bartertown are amazing. It’s a great western tribute that captures the imagination. Plus, in its own way, it feels like the sort of ramshackle civilization that would be set up in the world of Mad Max. Tina Turner is an effective villain and the Thunderdome scene is worthy of applause. It was fast paced, action packed, and a wonderful exploration of the “bread and circuses” idea that would undoubtedly carry the people living in this world. This is fascinating, intriguing genre film making. That is where the strength of the film was, and it’s curious that the filmmakers didn’t seem to realize it.
Another problem is how they changed Max. In The Road Warrior, there’s a lot of Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune in him. He barely talks in that film at all. Here, he almost never shuts up. They even handle his weapons poorly. At the start of the film, Max unloads an entire mercenary’s arsenal when entering Bartertown. (It’s illegal to carry the weapons there.) In Road Warrior, part of his character was that his sawn off shotgun was useless – he had no ammo for it. It was his poise and his mysteriousness that made him dangerous. Trying to have him act like a typical macho ’80s action hero didn’t feel right.
So, Thunderdome was incredibly entertaining but still flawed. That’s what has me worried the most about Fury Road, especially in regards to its long gestation time. There’s an old maxim in Hollywood that states, “You’re only as good as your last film.” The last Mad Max films had some great ideas, some wonderful images, and the series’ trademark fantastic action. But it ultimately tried to do too much in a short run time. It’s also still very difficult for me to explain how the two plots merge together. But at least I can explain what happened. The fact that no one seems to know what’s going on in Fury Road is disconcerting.
But to me, the weirdest aspect is the fact that Fury Road just seems to be The Road Warrior on steroids. It’s bad for sequels to redo what previous films have already done. Beyond Thunderdome didn’t have that issue. It took its characters and tried to do something new with them.
Even if it didn’t succeed, it’s one of the most daring sequels ever made. I hope Fury Road lives up that.