Mad Max: Fury Road

20 May

There is a car chase in Michael Bay’s The Rock that became instantaneously famous when the movie debuted in 1996. This action sequence, involving Nicolas Cage pursuing Sean Connery through the streets of San Francisco, completely changed the way action sequences were shot and edited in Hollywood. It also is annoying and frustrating and not very good.

The Rock‘s car chase is certainly is visceral and intense. So is accidentally sticking your hand into a Cuisinart. Neither are much fun and both eventually are a complete mess. The main problem in The Rock‘s car chase is that everything is shot so close and edited so tight there is very little spatial sense of what is happening. Where the hell is anyone in relation to anyone else? A car chase is suspenseful only if we know what is going on: is Cage one block or ten blocks behind Connery? How can there be suspense if we don’t know?

Re-watching it, the sequence is rather tame by today’s standards because what it began has intensified and ramped up so ridiculously. Movies like Man of Steel and The Furious Saga are shot and edited so close, so fast… and often so dark… that all spatial sense goes entirely out the window. These movies no longer are about actual suspense, narrative tension or, god forbid, character. They are designed instead to bludgeon the audience into submission.

The use of CGI has also completely taken over these movies, actors mostly performing in front of green screens with everything digitally created around them. Consequently, nothing we see can actually happen in real life which also drains the action of any real intensity.

All of which is why George Miller’s long gestating Mad Max: Fury Road, six days now in theaters, is so incredibly thrilling, exhilarating and, please Lord, game changing. 

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Given that everything about Fury Road is awesome and mind-blowing, I will only cover a few things here. Let’s start, however, with the spatial. George Miller is not just a visionary (see almost any image within this often gorgeous movie). Miller is a master at coherent, definable space. Coherent does not mean tame! Much of this movie is absolutely insane. Take, for instance, the much talked about blind bungee jumping guitar player, hung from the front of a massive rig, who plays a real flame-throwing guitar as he blindly bungee jumps:

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Insane! But whatever is happening in Fury Road, no matter how chaotic, fast or explosive, we the audience always know exactly what is going on. Who is doing what. Where people are in relationship to one another. What is at stake. (We will get to the fact something is indeed actually at stake in a moment.)

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Miller’s directing, editing, planning and use of the frame is ingenious and purposeful. It always makes sense. If we happen to be momentarily confused about something, that, too, is purposeful, Miller withholding information for a time to keep us leaning forward and to surprise us later. This understanding of the spatial alone means Fury Road should and will be taught frame for frame in directing classes for years to come. 

Then there is the CGI or, rather, the incredible lack of it. Miller is obsessed with everything happening for real. Sure there are a few CGI effects, such as the amazing desert storm with tornadoes that ends the first Act.

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Yes they also used some CGI to wipe away safety wires. But that’s pretty much it. If you see it in Fury Road, it happened. Which makes the movie incredibly organic, tangible and breathtaking. As Miller said, “We didn’t defy the laws of physics. These are real people in real cars in a real desert.” It might be cool to see amazing digital effects but the real life stunts and real life consequences in Fury Road blow away anything that’s been on screen. 

So if you see a blind bungee jumping guitar player, playing a guitar that is also a flame thrower, you can know Miller made a real guy spend six real weeks learning how to play a real guitar, while blindfolded, on a real bungee cord, while it threw real flames. You even hear his actual music in the movie (click here for more).

If you see guys on motorcycles fly over other vehicles to throw down grenades, it happened.

Or if you see this, it happened:

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As did this:

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If you see Tom Hardy hanging upside down between two huge mack truck wheels speeding thru the desert, his head inches above the ground, it happened.:

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And when you sit, after 100 minutes or so, unable to breathe, wondering how on earth they might top themselves, as surely Miller could come up with nothing else as mind-blowing as what you have already seen, this happens:

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Not even Miller thought these ‘pole-cats’ could be done for real, so crazy insane is this final action sequence. Yet with the help of an amazing team and Cirque de Soleil performers, this astounding sequence also happened. And it shows. (Even Tom Hardy, afraid of heights, swung around on these poles for a while.)

Best of all, when you see 80 or so vehicles speeding across a desert or through a canyon, as the camera swoops perfectly choreographed above, it happened. The effect is stunning. Unlike most action sequences of late, Miller knows that what is truly mind-blowing are wide shots. Because when done real time, they cannot be faked. Fury Road is filled with some of the most deliriously epic and stunning wide shots every to be seen on camera. 

Importantly, the movie isn’t devoid of character or depth. As crazy as the movie often is, there are moments of amazing beauty and haunting quiet. Much has been made of the fact the movie is actually about Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, the strongest female character to hit the screen since Ellen Ripley.

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Her performance is kick-ass, as is the character. All the characters have depth. Which lends the movie gravity. When two superheroes are flying around slamming into buildings, and ‘the world’ is at stake, nothing is really at stake because you know the superhero is never going to die, nor is the world going to end. It’s wildly different here. No one is safe and the physical consequences to the action and violence are real. Additionally, unlike most action movies, Miller is willing and able to stop the action for quiet and moving moments such as Furiosa’s devastating reaction here:

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Mad Max: Fury Road is an incredible, astounding achievement in cinema. Miller long has been one of our best and most inventive directors. Unlike many, he has directed great movies in various genres, from action to comedy to kid’s movies to heartfelt, impassioned drama. Here, at age 70, he has topped even himself and outshone ‘bad ass’ directors well under half his age.

As one critic said, Fury Road “will burn your face off”.  I cannot deny this is true, I’ve had my face burned off twice. I will be back soon for a third facial. Miller and Fury Road are astounding.

 

5 Responses to “Mad Max: Fury Road”

  1. ashlynpondsimon May 21, 2015 at 7:29 am #

    Thank you for another incredible post! After reading this, Robert and I can’t wait to see this movie!

  2. Sean The VFX Dude May 22, 2015 at 9:41 pm #

    Great write up, however there is one quibble from me:

    You confuse Visual Effects (VFX) with CGI, which to be honest many, many people do and the marketing team for this movie certainly capitalized on this fact when they keep hyping up the fact that “80% of the film didn’t use CGI!”. CGI is VFX, but not all VFX is CGI.

    This movie is *very* VFX heavy. If I have correct numbers, there are about 2,700 cuts throughout the entire film, so there are that many or few shots. The lead VFX house on the film delivered more than 1,500 VFX shots by themselves, and they were one of 7 houses working on the film – if you stay through the credits, you will see the largest part of the crew list is the VFX brigades, a not uncommon sight these days. So it’s a solid bet that more than 80% of the film involved visual effects of some kind, which ranges from beauty and wig fixes, making the environments the stunning vistas you see in the film, and comping a live-action plate of Tom Hardy screaming onto a clean plate of the underside of the amazing vehicles.

    A good watch is this video here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9kK-CbqH0k. Sticking with the Tom Hardy hanging upside example, you can see them shooting part of it around 10:48.

    That said – the work done practically in this film (and that you see in that video) was mind-blowingly amazing. The production team on it deserves every kudos possible for pulling off what they pulled off. However, I have seen many reactions to the film which seem to heavily fall on the side of practical effects > visual effects as if the two are somehow competing or exclusive. That’s entirely untrue, as oftentimes both are needed to create something like Mad Max.

    The hallmark of good VFX is that the audience doesn’t even know it was done, and you believe that if you saw it on the screen, “it happened”. They enhance, clean up, and stitch together things that were actually shot into the image you see up on the big screen. A movie like Fury Road would never have been possible the way it exists – in all its face-burning awesomeness – without VFX, in the same way it wouldn’t be possible without the stuntmen, wardrobe, grips, gaffers, and everyone else involved in the industry.

    To summarize – VFX isn’t inherently bad, and is far more than just CGI Gollums and Avatar. When it’s accomplished as well as it was in films such as Mad Max, it should be lauded just the same as the accomplishments of the other departments, especially if it was accomplished so well as to be invisible.

    Apologies for the long-windedness, and thanks for the fantastic review!

    • onfoodandfilm.com May 22, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

      You are exactly right! So please! No apologies! Again, you are right. Even as a film guy/director, I lump CGI into the category of, say, the last 30 minutes or so of MAN OF STEEL, which made me want to hang myself. The best argument for Miller’s genius is the gravity and physics of what happens along with his directing and framing, which also affects cutting. Even if the movie were entirely ‘created’, all of that elevates MMFR above most of what we are subjected to in theatres as of late. I love VFX- BLADE RUNNER, as organic a movie as can be, is laden with VFX. And one of my favorite movies of the last few years, LIFE OF PI, is over half (?) VFX abd CGI. I don’t even know if the vehicles in MMFR were actually moving. I don’t care. Miller directed the shit out of this and, as a DGA member, if he doesn’t at least get a nod, I will be seriously pissed. Thanks so much for this, would love to be in touch and dig in deeper! onfoodandfilm@gmail.com. Keep commenting!

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