Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We Are Not (Exploding) Things

I want one of these so much.
*Here be spoilers*

I finally managed to see Mad Max: Fury Road at the weekend, and man, does it live up to the hype - both as a feminist manifesto and a balls-to-wall action thrill-ride. I don't think I can overstate how beautiful I think this film is. It's fantastically shot, the stunts and vehicle design are outrageous, and it is the most - hell, only - emotionally powerful action movie I've seen since Inception.

Lots of people are complaining about this movie. Mostly because they're the sort of people who like to complain about things they don't get. Usually it's Men's Rights Activists moaning that Mad Max is forced to play second fiddle to bunch of slimy girls, and whinging that the film tries to force them to - shock and horror - see said women as equal to men. Or it's traditionalists who are infuriated by the shifting of focus away from Max himself and onto other characters. To be perfectly honest - to my mind - these two arguments are more or less inseparable, but let's address them separately for the sake of fairness.

1) Ugh! Female characters with agency who aren't just there to be damseled or raped!
- Go fuck yourself.

2) This isn't a Mad Max movie. Mad Max isn't even the main character.
- Well, maybe he isn't, and that's a good thing. It's worth remembering that Beyond Thunderdome almost didn't have Max in it at all. It was a completely different story about the kids, and Max was merely inserted in on the suggestion of a producer. So we've established George Miller wants to tell different stories. Does that make him the bad guy here? Max's character arc is already well established. It would be boring as hell if Miller didn't introduce some new, memorable characters.

Speaking as a fan of the first three movies (In order of preference: Road Warrior, Thunderdome, Mad Max) everything about this movie makes perfect sense in the context of the series. Mad Max shows society crumbling, The Road Warrior shows the survivors picking over the scraps, Thunderdome highlights the challenge and pitfalls of rebuilding civilisation, and Fury Road shows us that the greed and messianic entitlement that doomed the world in the first place is alive and well, even in the wasteland.

The film illustrates this point through the juxtaposition of two generations of characters. Immortan Joe, the weakened dictator, obsessed with his own legacy and greedily hogging all of the resources in the wasteland, represents the blind leaders and 1%ers who doomed the world in the first place. Then there's Max, the cynic, for whom "hope is a mistake" and Imperator Furiosa, who says she wants redemption - but revenge might be more accurate. If you contrast those three with Joe's "wives" - who've been through hell but still haven't lost that hope that Max denies - and Nux, the indoctrinated boy soldier, who gets a crash course (no pun intended) in self-determination, you see a beautiful contrast.

That's why the complaints about the feminist ideology of the movie annoy me so much - what holds true for the female characters also holds true for the male ones. "We are not things" says Splendid. The girls, with Furiosa's help, are taking the first steps towards establishing their personhood. Nux, coming face to face with the falsehoods he's believed his entire life does the same thing. And then you have Max, who's been essentially reduced to a thing - as much an animal as the two-headed lizard he snacks on at the beginning of the film. He can't tell Furiosa his name until the dying moments of the film because it's not until then that he truly regains his identity.

This is a theme that we've seen time and time again in the Mad Max movies. In The Road Warrior the grown-up Feral Kid tells us that the wasteland was where Max "learned to live again." All through the movie we see the person he once was fighting to come back to life, from the half-smile that flickers across his face when he finds the music box, to his burgeoning friendship with the Feral Kid and the Gyro Captain. In Thunderdome, we've got an embittered Max, but again, one who risks his life to protect a group of innocents. Mad Max is the story of a survivor. But it isn't water or gasoline that helps Max to survive. It's the kindling of these small flames of hope for a better future that keep bringing him back from the edge.

The Feral Kid approves this message.

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