I am baffled by the level of hype surrounding director George Miller’s return to the Max Max mythos. As of this morning, Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website, is showing Fury Road has a 98% positive rating, out of 211 reviews counted. That’s highly unusual; I’d wager most films don’t crack 75% on that thing. Meanwhile, the fanboy gushing on social media has become frankly kind of embarrassing. One of my Facebook friends actually compared seeing this film to losing one’s virginity; he said something to the effect of, “You know going in that’s going to be good, but it turns out to be so much more than you imagined.” Um, yeah… okay. I saw Fury Road last night and, well… it wasn’t like that.
It’s an okay movie. It’s well-crafted and entertaining enough, and the visuals are frequently quite beautiful, if stark. It has some interesting ideas underlying the mayhem. But overall I just don’t see what everybody is losing their damn minds about. The only thing I can figure is that it’s been so long since anyone saw a movie with real stuntmen facing real danger on real machines, in service of action scenes that are actually intelligible, that people are getting kind of drunk on the idea. Or something.
I should probably stipulate that I am a big fan of the original Max trilogy that starred Mel Gibson, especially The Road Warrior, or Mad Max 2 as it’s known in much of the rest of the world. But this isn’t another case of me stamping my feet and getting in a snit over one of my personal touchstones getting remade by the insatiable Hollywood branding machine. Honest. I really tried to keep an open mind with this one, and in any event, it’s never quite clear if Fury Road is meant to be an out-and-out reboot anyhow. There’s nothing in the film that suggests this Max is the same character that Gibson played, but there also isn’t anything to suggest that he isn’t. There are some nice callbacks to the earlier films — I especially liked a subtle one that I’m willing to bet most viewers missed, involving a little hand-cranked music box, which was one of my favorite bits in The Road Warrior — but these are more echoes than specific references to any events from Gibson’s trilogy. And while Fury Road doesn’t fit anyplace in the timeline of the originals, I never got the sense that this one was intended to displace the earlier films either. Rather, it’s just… another Max Max story. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as an alternative Max story, maybe a glimpse of the Max from a parallel universe or something.
I suppose that’s my issue with the movie, now that I think about it. It never feels like it’s happening in our world. Everything is too outlandish, too over-the-top. The original trilogy — well, the first two, anyhow — had a fairly modest scope, in part because of their limited budgets, but also because of the stories they were telling. They were human-scale stories, and that was a big part of what I’ve always liked about them. I’ve always been able to imagine the people in those stories were once backyard hot-rod enthusiasts like my dad, forced into doing whatever they could to survive as the world fell apart around them. It felt real, in some way, or at least plausible, and that was what made it all so powerful… and so frightening. Fury Road, by contrast, is consciously designed to be epic; George Miller cranked the knob up to 11… and then broke it off. The vehicles, the costumes, the bad guys’ lair, the landscape… none of it looked recognizably devolved from our modern-day civilization so much as the phantasmagorical fantasy of a half-insane gearhead tripping on ‘shrooms while listening to an Iron Maiden album. I’ll be honest, the production design in Fury Road reminded me less of the classic Mad Max trilogy than Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone — which, as I recall, was widely panned back in 1983 for being derivative of, yes, The Road Warrior.
And then there’s Tom Hardy, the actor who’s replaced Gibson in the title role. A number of my friends are just ga-ga for this guy, but again I’m the odd man out in that I just don’t see the appeal. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge him based on this movie, as Max is pretty underwritten in Fury Road — I think he has a dozen lines of dialog, maybe? — but I can’t detect much in the way of charisma or magnetism coming from him. As Max, he’s a far more anonymous presence than Gibson was. It’s not that I can’t abide another actor assuming the role; it’s that Hardy brought nothing to the role, in my opinion. He was just… there.
I’m not saying Mad Max Fury Road was a bad movie. It’s not. But I never once felt the adrenaline surge I still experience while watching The Road Warrior. And I doubt I’m going to want to see it again, or remember much about it a year from now. So when I read all the breathlessly enthusiastic comments out there in the InterWebs, when I hear people saying it’s the best movie of the year so far and they just can’t get over its awesomeness, I wonder if I saw the same movie everybody else did.
I suppose this is just one more example of how out of touch with popular culture I’m becoming. I’ve been out of sync with my peers a lot over the past couple of years, liking things other folks say are mediocre, not liking the stuff everybody else is wetting themselves over. I don’t understand what’s happened, where and when I disconnected, and it troubles me. I don’t like being the cranky dissenter all the time. I don’t like feeling like everybody else is in on something that I’m incapable of perceiving. But I guess there isn’t much I can do about it. You like what you like, right?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch a real Max Max movie…