5 Lessons All Movies Should Learn From 'Mad Max'
Years after the fall, as future civilizations sift through the sands and dusts of what was once our world, some group will eventually find a blu-ray of Mad Max: Fury Road. After they watch it in good old-fashioned 2D (because they're an advanced civilization, see), they'll sit back, cross their five arms behind their three heads, roll their eye-stalks around to look at each other, and say, "That was really good. Maybe we shouldn't have eaten the humans after all."
But this movie is more than just an instigator for post-gluttony remorse for our eventual conquerors -- in fact, it just might save movies as we know it, provided Hollywood is able to figure out that ...
The Star Doesn't Have To Be The Star
Despite his name being in the title, Max is not the protagonist of Mad Max: Fury Road. Instead, it's Imperator Furiosa, which is good, because her story is compelling and rad. She wants to rescue some sex slaves from the bastard child of Sweet Tooth the Clown and Darth Vader, and she's willing to take on a post-apocalyptic war party to do it. And despite what some random assholes on the Internet think, this isn't a problem with the story. It's the best part. You know why?
Because we already got Max's story. In a movie called Fucking Mad Max.
As much as I love superhero movies, the fact that they're so tightly focused on Character Whose Name Is The Title is like a brick around the neck. Say we stay interested in Iron Man after he gives up alcohol, works out any lingering problems he will ever have with Pepper, gets over his PTSD, and makes his inherited business ... uh, even more The Biggest Business in the World. Then what? All we're left with is a perfectly well-adjusted dude who also owns a murder suit. Sorry, I don't care about that at all. I want my protagonist to seem, in at least one way, shittier than me, or I'll just get jealous. So why not hold-off on his personal growth for a little while and, instead, make him the catalyst for a bigger, weirder adventure that -- though he's involved -- isn't ultimately about him? That's the point of good world building, right?
This is also the big thing killing the Star Trek movies right now. The first Star Trek was cool; it patiently and effectively got the team together, building up to a final shot where Kirk, Spock, Bones, and The Gang are ready to take on anything that comes at them. But then Star Trek Into Darkness stumbled into the room and, like a drunk idiot interrupting a conversation, forced everything back to square one. Because they didn't know what to do with the characters.
Hey, how about this: Make them help some other characters on an adventure. It worked for Mad Max (clearly) and, incidentally, almost every episode of a little show called Fucking Star Trek.
Make The Behind-The-Scenes Stuff Awesome
Every time I read a behind-the-scenes story about Fury Road, I get happier. I'm sorry if that's a low-key reaction by Internet standards, but I'm not gonna do a disservice to my feelings by saying "ALL MY MEMORIES OF TRANSFORMERS ARE IMMEDIATELY ERASED" or "I GET AN ERECTION THAT THEN CATCHES ON FIRE," because Internet hyperbole is stupid and the truth is just better. I get happy. That's way better.
Why? Well, for one thing, there's 18 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage of Fury Road, and it's bubbling over with stuff like this:
Everyone in that car died, probably.
Compare that to the behind-the-scenes footage from Age Of Ultron, which is all about the ...
Which, look, that stuff is fine. I had a lot of fun watching that footage too, because it's neat to see how goofy The Avengers looked without special effects, but I had way more fun watching the Fury Road stuff because they did it all for real. I mean, I seriously think those guys in those images up there are dead, because how can they not be? That was fire!
And it's not just the dangerous stuff; here's some trivia about how the cars were designed. Specifically, this unholy abomination of metal and raw testosteronic evil:
That car was custom-built in real life for the movie. First they stuck a Chrysler Valiant Charger body on top of some mining equipment. But then they realized that the car couldn't keep up with 60 MPH chases (Oh, special note here: All the cars were involved in real 60 MPH chases), so they took out the diesel engine and put in a water-cooled V8.
Then there's the Doof Wagon, a semi-truck crammed full of speakers, amplifiers, and drum sets that plays rock and roll during the entire chase -- which, again, they really built.
And yes, those speakers are really playing, and yes, that guitar really shoots fire.
Look, I understand that movies are too expensive to take risks on stuff like "story" and "real human emotions" anymore, and have to have a huge element of raw spectacle in order to get people to care. And what better way to get people to care than by doing as much as freaking possible in real life?
Sticking To Rules Can Make A Huge Difference
Part of what makes Mad Max so satisfying is that we're getting Fast-&-Furious-sized action setpieces that are populated with actual human beings. If someone gets thrown off a car, or shot, or takes a chainsaw to the neck, then they're either going to die or come damn close to it. So when (spoilers) Charlize Theron gets stabbed in the side near the end of the movie, we all understand right away why that's a problem (It's a problem because abdomens are important).
Compare that to the end of Furious Seven, when Dom crashes his Dodge Charger into a helicopter and (spoiler alert) almost dies. I had no idea that he was in any trouble until the other characters started to panic, then my first thought was "He drove a different Dodge Charger off a fucking mountain like 20 minutes ago. Why is this suddenly dangerous?" If we hadn't cut to Michelle Rodriguez and The Rock looking concerned, I would have had no idea Dom was in any trouble. I would've expected him to just climb out of the wreckage and start high-fiving everyone for having finally saved the day and killed everyone in Los Angeles.
Our ... hero? Recklessly firing a Minigun a quarter mile from my apartment?
And here's where the apologists come in: "Who cares about that shit? These movies are all about balls-to-the-wall action!" But that's clearly not how it works, and you fucking know it, you goddamn liar. Revenge Of The Sith had more balls-to-the-wall action in the opening sequence than most other movies, but no one remembers it because it never felt real. There was no weight to any of it. It's the same problem with the Transformers movies: Way more stuff gets blown up, but none of it matters because none of it seems to impact the plot.
Fury Road proves that you can have that kind of insane action without making your characters invulnerable superheroes. It's possible to make a movie where you know a character is in trouble because of what you see happen to them, not because you cut to a different character looking worried.
But instead of picking up on that ...
Continuity Is Less Important Than You Think
Max speaks about 12 words over the course of Fury Road, and half of them are about his car, a supercharged Ford Falcon described in the second Mad Max movie as "the last of the V8 Interceptors." He badly wants his car back, so it's a pretty big bummer when we see it destroyed.
Except that's all nonsense, because he can't possibly have the car, because we already saw it get destroyed in The Road Warrior.
Max can't have found a new one, since that car was -- again -- the last one. So where'd he get a new one? The timeline's also a bit funny: in Fury Road, there are firmly established post-apocalyptic civilizations, but in Mad Max the apocalypse hasn't even happened yet -- meaning that Max must be something like 90 years old for this universe to make any real, hard "sense."
But I didn't care, and what's more, I haven't even heard of anyone caring. Instead of nitpicking the problem, they're coming up with crazy fan theories that help these issues make sense. Sure, that "Max is the Feral Kid all grown up!" idea is really dumb, since we know what happens to the Feral Kid and it's not this, but that's not the point. These people were still thinking about the movie when they got home. They wanted to talk about it more. They wanted to fill in the blanks.
It turns out that making all the little pieces fit together into a complete puzzle is less important than telling a really cool story. Movies are lies, after all. Actors are lying about who they are, set directors are lying about how the world works, and every cut is lying about the passage of time and our sense of space. Storytelling can work exactly the way Detective Holdaway describes jokes in Reservoir Dogs: You hit the important parts hard, and the rest is filler.
This is why Age Of Ultron probably could've skipped most of the weird stuff that derailed the plot and obviously only existed to set up a sequel. We don't need sequels to be set up. We're actually pretty smart and can figure it out on our own. Remember how everyone went to see Guardians Of The Galaxy despite the fact that no one managed to cram one of Groot's parents into the background of Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
Sure, not every cinematic universe has to work like the Mad Max one -- there's definitely a place for rigid continuity -- but you don't need to sacrifice the plot of an individual movie to make the bigger plot make sense. You can have your cake and eat it too. You just have to be smart about it. You have to be smart about your cake.
We Don't Really Need All That Much Explanation After All
Building off that last point, I think direct explanations are less important than most filmmakers (and most audience members) think. But this is kind of a crazy point, so bear with me, kiddos.
After Age Of Ultron (I don't mean to pick on this movie that much -- I actually really loved it. It's just the obvious comparison), a lot of people complained about how stuff wasn't explained enough: "Why did Ultron go crazy?" "What is the Vision?" "Where did Thor go in that swimming pool?" "What's up with those dreams, dude?" "Just what the hell are Scarlet Witches powers?"
"How did they manage to make the guy from Kick-Ass look more silly?"
But people aren't asking these questions because they need to know the science behind androids or the rigid rules of the movie's magic; they're asking them because they weren't interested enough in the characters to not care. No one was curious about how each individual piece of Iron Man's armor has enough fuel to fly all the way across the United States, because they were so caught up in the magic of the scene that such a question seems idiotic.
That's the most important thing that Fury Road gets right. Instead of pummeling us with a blow-by-blow explanation of Immortan Joe's army hierarchy, it just shows us that they worship chrome and makes us care about Nux enough to explain the rest away on our own. Instead of explaining where they got all the equipment to make the awesome cars, they show us why they're designed that way. Instead of explaining exactly how old "The Green Place" is and how Furiosa was taken away, they show us how badly she wants to get back. They show us the why instead of telling us the how. And that makes us care.
Because we're people. With emotions. And that's what stories are all about.
Also, this happens:
JF Sargent is an editor and columnist at Cracked until he finishes installing a supercharger in the front of his Honda and moves into the desert, at which point he'll adopt a way better title. He wants to talk to you about Mad Max on Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Ways Kids' Toys Are Shockingly Good At Teaching Sexism and 5 Ways To Relax That Secretly Just Stress You Out.
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