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Mad Max: Fury Road (R)
Directed by George Miller
Big stars: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy
Box Office $379 mill
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Critical Reception: Overall excellent… but reviewed by dudes (one said gets boring).
Awards: 6 Academy Awards (for peripherals), 8 Critics’ Choice awards, 4 BAFTAs
Mad Max (1979)
Dir. George Miller, starring Mel Gibson, Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter)
A highway policeman harasses mean people without resources doing what they can to survive. A biker gang is involved – one of them is killed by Max’s friend, and they seek revenge. Max now quits the police force, but his wife and son get murdered (of course – don’t forget manly men, women make you weak and vulnerable) and he becomes a justified revenge seeker himself (mixed messages here) and I guess we’re supposed to root for him? No one wins here. True to apocalyptic form. (Why the hell is there so much driving when the fuel is so scarce?)
The Road Warrior (1981)
Dir. George Miller, starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence (meh)
Now Max is a hero – ironic since he’s lost everything and is now ultra-violent and preys on his targets (even though they’re bad people). He’s helping a small village of people hoard valuable resources from people to have nothing. Also, he has a dog now.
Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Dir. George Miller/George Ogilvie, starring Tina Turner, Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence
The future is truly bleak. Pig farts are a major commodity in the imaginatively named “Bartertown” and a murder dome is the main entertainment. The title suggests we’ll either see or reach beyond this murder dome, but the loudness of TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES makes me suspicious that there’s a deeper metaphor for Max, who’s been hiding inside a shell. This fight may represent the struggle within himself to move beyond the pain of his past and reclaim who he once was, but also being unable to unsee the world as it has since presented itself to him. This may be giving the movie too much credit. I think that Max will probably just vanquish his enemies, destroy the town, and move on, without really finding a viable solution to the environment that birthed the murder dome in the first place. Not before being banished to the desert, killing his horse, reclaiming his monkey, and meeting a woman representing an oasis of sorts.
Fury Road (2015)
Another post-apocalyptic or dystopian movie.
What is apocalypse: a great disaster, or in religious context the end of the world, but the ancient Greek translation of “apokalypsis” is “an uncovering” or a disclosure of knowledge.
What is dystopian: a scenario where everything is bad, unpleasant, corrupt, or totalitarian.
Source: Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millennium by Kirsten Moana Thompson (2007)
The 1990’s (a farewell to the 20th century) saw a lot of natural disaster movies, monster movies, and alien invasions. Religious theories, mistrust of technology, growing understanding of our ignorance of the universe, all contribute to what Thompson calls “apocalyptic dread.” She notes that there was a plethora of science fiction films during the cold war era (arguably this was also the space era), demonic films abounded in the seventies (an era of loosening morals). This trend increased with social conservatism during the Reagan era, and rose to a frenzy pitch leading up the new millennium, and then again after 9/11.
How our fears play out: Apocalypse movies are a way to play out our fears about limited resources due to real life threats of climate change, over-population, or a pestilence or natural disaster that we can’t forestall wiping out crops or supply chains.
The threat of the collapse of society (for whatever reason) brings additional danger – aside from the reliability of resources obviously being disrupted, societal collapse means that we can no longer rely on other people to behave in a predictable way. We assume that under those circumstances people will do whatever is necessary for themselves to survive, even if it’s at the expense of others.
These two prospects are interchangeable as catalysts for the apocalypse – scarcity of resources could bring about societal collapse as easily as societal collapse can bring about scarcity of resources.
We can also play out our fears about:
-evil governance, whether by an actual government or just a powerful corporate state – The Hunger Games, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Divergent
-the convergence of science and biology, as in Resident Evil, The Island, Blade Runner, Surrogates
-anarchy/radical crime or justice changes: The Purge, Judge Dredd, Minority Report, Rollerball, Tank Girl
Does this fixation on post-apocalyptic society distract us from the actual apocalypse – which is our middle-aged sun blowing up in a couple billion years? Or the ever-increasing likelihood of the plot of Idiocracy?
Juxtaposed against, or sprinkled amongst, the apocalyptic landscape are the antithesis – superhero movies. Relentless optimist and refusing to give in to cynicism, superheroes prop up our struggling faith in humanity (ironic in cases in which the heroes are themselves not or no longer strictly human) and give us a swift kick to the seat of our gumption and get-to-it-iveness. They face down unspeakably bleak odds with a disgusting self-assuredness that “this is the right thing to do” even if it means making a heart-breaking sacrifice – it’s all for the greater. This theme is opposite to what we see in the PA/D movies, but they could be essentially the same. The dystopian movies always have a hero forged in the fire of necessity, and superhero movies always present a villain or situation bent on destroying the world or life as we know it. The difference seems to be that in the superhero movies it’s just a threat, but the post-apocalyptic/dystopian movies, the superhero never showed up – all the bad stuff already happened, and we’re just looking for someone to mitigate it or put everything back the way it should be.
Also different – in superhero movies the average citizen tends to give up his or her accountability and agency. We just maintain as best we can under the guy in tights and a mask shows up. The opposite is generally true in PA/D. Some plucky little nobody ends up finding the “no longer give a fuck” button on their self-preservation module and decide they ain’t gonna take it any longer.
I think the unifying meta theme here, the real anxiety, is that one of these days, the hero we blindly rely on will fail us, and we’ll have to find out if we’re made of the stuff of mere survivors, exploiters, or architects, building a new future. I think we’re really afraid of what our complacency has done to us.
The Mad Max franchise represents a touchstone example of the “macho” movie genre – lots of violence, vehicles chases/crashes, explosions, guns everywhere – falling from the sky, behind every bush, under all the rocks. So it’s the last place you’d expect some strong feminist moments, and they’re probably all the stronger for their unexpected arrival.
Jessica Valenti breaks down the finer moments in a 2015 Guardian article (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/27/sexists-are-scared-of-mad-max-because-it-is-a-call-to-dismantle-patriarchies).
-Max hands the rifle off to Furiosa because *gasp* he recognizes that she’s a better shot, and his ego is not worth risking everyone’s lives over *double gasp*
-The women cut their OWN chastity belts off (I’m going to ignore the fact that they were wearing them to begin with – the fact that they weren’t killed as martyrs or depicted as semi-willing participants is enough for me right now) rather than having a man liberate them
-There’s a matriarchal motorcycle gang whose mantra involves shooting men specifically.
Valenti states that the root of the film’s feminism is not that “Theron’s character gets to engage in as much violence as any other action lead, but because the world director and writer George Miller has created shows the horror of sexism and the necessity of freedom from patriarchy.” She herself quotes Laurie Penny that typical thinking dictates that in the event of the apocalypse, eventually “the so-called natural order will reassert itself … and hot babes will go crawling back to the kitchen.” “What’s threatening about Fury Road is the idea that when the earth burns, women might not actually want men to protect them. Men might, in fact, be precisely the thing they are trying to survive.
There was even a article on feminism in Fury Road written by a dude! Kyle Smith (http://nypost.com/2015/05/14/why-mad-max-fury-road-is-the-feminist-picture-of-the-year/) writing for the New York Post notes (correctly) that Mad Max is actually the supporting role to Theron’s leading. He states that feminist criticism that women are not in enough super hero or leading roles in action movies than men is reductive. I have to agree – not because I don’t think women should be more represented in action roles, but because I think it’s far more important to have quality versus quantity (at least as a step in the right direction). What’s most important is the interaction between the leading females and the leading males. Max treats Furiosa as a valued and respected peer. He’s not constantly shoving her out of danger or telling her wait in the car. She’s an active participant in making her own destiny. She’s not told her choices and desires are secondary to the males motivations (oh wait, yes she is. I was daydreaming). She’s not as strong as Max and she’s not as a good a fighter – but she has OTHER – NOT TRADITIONALLY MALE DOMINANT TRAITS THAT MAKE HER JUST AS SUITED TO SURVIVE. Smith notes that in a weak attempt at quantity feminism, the lady superheros are depicted to have fighting skills on par with the men. I would add that many leading action females still are depicted as using their bodies to distract, betray, or otherwise get the better of men. This limits women to a just a different shade of men. There are going to be really strong women out there that can duke it out men, but not every action heroine is going to be just a man with boobs; nor should they be. It’s not perfect, but Fury Road at least shows women a heroine who we can believably see ourselves as. Smith states that “… Fury Road is the rare action blockbluster that fully acknowledges the importance of women.” I would add it acknowledges the importance of women as women.
Now, the movie is not perfect, by any means. Tracy King (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/05/no-mad-max-fury-road-not-feminist-masterpiece-s-ok) points out that “Because most Hollywood films are so bad at dealing with female characters, Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for trying.” She draws parallels of the most basic aspects of the relationship between Max and Furiosa with Pretty Woman. But Pretty Woman, being a chick flick, received no feminist war medals. Also, exacting revenge on a horrific rapist using your hard earned position could also describe Showgirls, a movie utterly reviled by most.
However – the enslaved women’s mantra, King asserts, of “who killed the world” indicates that men engineered the instruments of our demise. We have to assume the inverse is true – that women were not present in those engineering and military industries. Is that plausible? Clearly women aren’t pacifists in this universe – they’re riding around on motorcycles and shooting at men.
King also warns against giving too much praise to the movie, for fear of making it the acceptable standard. She lists the following fatal flaw that we do not want to see replicated ad naseum:
-The movie is still named after a dude – yes it’s a franchise based on that dude, but still.
-The brides are played by models – so even enslaved women have to have a thigh gap, apparently.
-The pregnant women are just models wearing bellies. There is no other discernable change in their bodies. Anyone who’s been pregnant or been intimately acquainted with a pregnant woman’s body knows that there are a myriad of changes involved. It’s not just a swollen belly. We already have unattainable body standards for women, we don’t need to heap more on pregnant women.
-A patriarchy that into chastity (to the point of belting the women) would have them covered burka-style.
-She shouldn’t have had her plan tabled by Max’s plan. (I don’t think this is what actually happened – he suggested an alternative to her, and she accepted after consideration).
-Furiosa should have been the one to give closure to the plot.
-The seeds… this is a tricky one. King sees this as reinforcing that the highest value of a woman can only be her reproductive ability. Smith saw this as an additional differentiation of the men and the women as groups – the women know the value of the seeds in establishing an new and sustainable society.
-The movie was written and directed by men.
-Most troubling – Furiosa’s role was still framed by the greater picture of Max’s story. It’s still about him – his feelings, his future, his direction. What we’re watching is the effect Furiosa is having on Max. What her journey means to and for him.
So yeah. Not perfect. But it ain’t nothing.
Andy Lee Chaisiri (https://www.quora.com/Why-is-Mad-Max-Fury-Road-being-called-a-feminist-movie) also brings up the point that boys are conditioned to believe that dying for the cause is a great purpose to fulfill, and brings up the violent nature of the motorcycle gang. These arguments I find weaker. A) we’ve spent thousands of years solving men’s problems. Not into it any more. B) boys have been brought up into war for thousands of years. This is nothing new. In many, many cultures over many, many years, boys have grown up with swords in their little fists. C) The Many Mothers are protecting themselves from the threat the men pose – they’re older and have presumably been successful at keeping themselves out of Immortan Joe’s harem, so… keep on keeping on, ladies. The point that Chaisiri makes that I do agree with is that men and women working together is what’s going to bring about a workable new society. Certainly, this dynamic imperfectly balanced in the movie, floundering on its fledgling legs, but the beginning of a system which views everyone as equals is not going to spring into being perfectly made.
Favorite Quote: “Ahhh, mediocre.” – Immortan Joe
What did YOU think of the topics we discussed? We’d love to hear from you!