Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Fifteen

#15 — Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

If George Miller was going to go back the Wasteland, he was going to get everything he could out the post-apocalyptic landscape. Mad Max: Fury Road was released thirty years after Miller seemingly completed a trilogy with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and the revival seems like thirty years of idea generation packed into a couple hours of film, with no concept deemed too outlandish for inclusion. If a small army of mutated fellows ravenous for violence go roaring across the desert in a quest for battle that resembles a fever-dream demolition derby, of course they’d bring along a grotesquely masked beastie in a filthy red union suit playing a double-necked guitar that shot flames. Why wouldn’t they, for heaven’s sake?

In Mad Max: Fury Road, the taciturn, weather-beaten hero known as Max is played by Tom Hardy, the modern actor who owns the adjectives taciturn and weatherbeaten. By any reasonable accounting, though, the movie belongs to the women who team with Max to fight off the marauding hooligans of the beast-like Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a warlord who presides over a desperate, cave-dwelling citizenry by withholding scarce resources such as food and water. Five women he’s enslaved to use for forced breeding escape under the guard of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, at peak magnificent fierceness). As a claw swipe against patriarchal villainy that exists here in the pre-apocalyptic society, the messaging isn’t subtle. Arguably, the bluntness of Miller’s thesis makes it more satisfying.

Miller’s haymaker swings extend to the action scenes, and it often feels as if the entire film is an action scene, with a few comparatively quiet moments so the participants can catch their breaths. It’s hard to imagine the kinetic, thunderous battles orchestrated here — mostly conducted in tricked-out vehicles that make the mightiest real-world monster trucks look like tinny Hot Wheels — will ever be matched, at least in any film that doesn’t registered a fatality count that would necessitate charges in some sort of international court. The physicality of the staging and stunt work would be impressive enough if the film were presented as a single static long shot. Instead, Miller and his collaborators deliver a master class in film mechanics. Editor Margaret Sixel won an Academy Award, as did the teams in charge of sound mixing and sound editing. Cinematographer John Seale should have won one, too. And all of them deserve accolades not usually associated with filmmaking. Medals for valor, maybe?

As the U.S. theatrical exhibition business teeters on the precipice, Mad Max: Fury Road is an example of what will be lost if big-movie-big-screen entertainment falls into the abyss. Dreams live on that screen. Legends live there. A production such as Mad Max: Fury Road is recognizably great no matter how it’s seen. I’d wager, though, that it takes movie theater scale — in image, in sound, in everything — to unlock its full power. In that context, it’s staggering.

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