This is a question that’s been plaguing a lot of moviegoers this Oscar season. After news broke that the George Miller’s fourth “Mad Max” film had fetched ten – that’s right, ten – Oscar nominations, many heads flew atilt with confusion. A film with such clichés as maidens in distress, revving motorcycle engines, and great big dumb explosions can’t possibly make the cut – or can it? That’d be like giving “Lethal Weapon” an Oscar nod, and that just doesn’t happen!
Even with the disappointment with “Birdman” winning best picture last year (just go see “Boyhood,” then think long and hard about it), at least audiences could sit back and remind themselves of that movie’s half-sensical whimsy. We actually kind of get it when an “artsy fartsy” film is trying to be clever and avant-garde. We actually kind of get it when a film is intentionally bizarre and eventually fetches a lot of awards; it’s happened a thousand times before, even if it isn’t quite to our liking. But that still doesn’t explain why an action beat-em-up like “Fury Road” is getting so much attention. So what’s the deal?
The deal is this. We’re currently entrenched in an era of film-making that largely produces only two kinds of mainstream feature: special-effects-driven action films and dialogue-heavy or otherwise “literary” films. The former represents, as an example, just about any comic-book movie out there. The latter represents your so-called “art” films, those “Oscar bait” features like “The Hateful Eight” or “The Revenant.” I advocate for all category of film, to be sure, and I enjoyed “The Force Awakens” as much as anybody else. That being said, I think we all knew going into the theater, 3-D glasses in hand, that the new “Star Wars” flick wasn’t going to win a ton of awards (save, of course, for visual effects, sound engineering, and the like). It’s just the way that particular cookie crumbles.
So where does “Mad Max: Fury Road” fit into this bifurcated cinematic equation? It doesn’t – simple as that.
I will concede that, on the surface, it certainly does have the appearance of a brainless visual effects parade. Upon closer investigation, the film reveals itself to be infinitely more creative than that. Rather than confuse plot complexity with artistic brilliance, director George Miller reversed course, using a basic and straightforward narrative as a foundation from which to explore a relatively dormant style of visual storytelling.
The first thirty minutes of “Fury Road” present a deeply sophisticated visual rhythm that explains everything the moviegoer needs to know without relying on standard Hollywood action tropes. In almost every regard, the setup for “Fury Road” is a sublime sequence of pictures that approach a “silent film” quality unlike any other movie in the action genre, or any other 2015 title of any genre. I challenge any reader to re-watch the beginning of the film with no sound (or with any old song of your choosing – I’m quite convinced this would play remarkably well with a Chopin nocturne) and consider how marvelously rich and detailed the mythology of this “Mad Max” story is – and all without the aid of narration or expositional dialogue.
That is the brilliance of “Fury Road.” It is deceptively simple, but speaks in a universal, wholly accessible visual language that doesn’t rely overmuch on historical allusion and the tropes of “avant-garde” or “high” art cinema. It is a primal story that presents itself in primal, pictographic language. It’s honest with itself, it’s honest with it’s audience, and it accomplishes what very few films today accomplish. It’s visually remarkable but behaves as though its practical and digital effects aren’t important; that’s a rare quality in the action and adventure genre, and I’m pleased to see that the Academy has taken note.