03rd May2017

‘Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne | Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris | Directed by George Miller

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A colourless rendition of George Miller’s action symphony was rumoured back in 2015, but it wasn’t until the end of last year that it would become a reality. Now released in cinemas for one day only, and coming to Blu-ray soon after, the “Black & Chrome” edition – editorially untouched but carefully re-graded – is more than a simple twiddling of knobs.

Monochrome may seem like a strange choice for a sun-saturated epic so rich and, well, colourful in its depiction of desolation. And while it may not become the default viewing experience like, say, Frank Darabont’s drained version of The Mist, it is a fascinating new perspective. It is also a good excuse to re-watch – and re-examine the underlying themes of – the greatest action movie of the decade so far.

Fury Road’s story is simple. The wasteland overlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) controls the water that sustains his people. When one of his subjects, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), goes rogue and steals away his breeder-wives to go in search of the mythic “Green Place”, Joe takes an army of his “War Boys” and pursues. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a guilt-drenched drifter focused solely on his own survival, becomes embroiled in the women’s escape. He, along with the shamed War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) find themselves helping Furiosa to find her homeland, and ultimately redemption.

For long sections, Fury Road is an example of almost pure visual storytelling. The dialogue is often delivered in snatches: “Water”, “Redemption”, “You!” etc. Miller set out to make a virtually silent film and the larger-than-life performances are consistent with silent cinema – as is the limewash makeup of the War Boys. Those doomed War Boys, promised a short “half-life” before martyrdom, are pale white as if already ghosts.

You don’t need to have seen the previous Mad Max instalments, though the references are numerous. From the original we have a stolen boot, a hissing bad guy, and a shotgun-wielding old lady. From Mad Max 2 we get a child’s music box, a shotgun misfire, and a binocular/telescope combo. And from the third film there’s a prison modelled on the Thunderdome, and instead of an Aunty we have a Daddy. Max, meanwhile, is the constant in this rapidly rad-mutating world.

Nux could be seen as the spiritual continuation of Johnny the Boy from the original Mad Max. Johnny is a child soldier, too, who desperately wants to impress the boss (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne in both films). In Fury Road, Max is haunted by the guilt of his actions. The cruel killing of Johnny (offering him the choice to hack off his foot to save his own life) was born of rage, therefore a prime source of such guilt. The fact that Nux and Max strike an alliance can be seen as Max’s way of vanquishing the guilt of killing Johnny. Redemption begins with forgiveness of the self.

In Fury Road, Max is depicted as a kind of angel: an inspiration rather than an out-and-out hero. There are numerous parallels with the Christ fable. Max is virtually pinned to a cross for the first sequence, and his blood is literally the saviour of Nux. The idea of the Green Land recalls the hymn “There is a Green Hill Far Away”, which includes the line “trust in his redeeming blood”. Furiosa, who states that she seeks redemption, is literally saved by Max’s blood.

The explicitly heroic heavy lifting is done by Furiosa. It’s something of a cinematic role reversal as it’s usually the male who gets the glory, assisted by the female. Max even gets to play nurse to Furiosa. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days was perhaps the last action movie to have this much fun with such a direct switch of expectations. Yet, on practical level, Max and Furiosa are interchangeable without gender being a factor, because neither is defined by their gender or their sexuality. It is a truly feminist aspect.

Indeed, this is the zenith of Miller’s consistent portrayal of powerful female characters in this saga, whether it’s Jessie, Warrior Woman, or Aunty Entity. And Max is the archetypal lone wanderer. He is not a solely male archetype, even if “men’s rights” groups would like to adopt him as such.

Beyond newsreel snatches, the apocalypse is never explicitly portrayed in any Mad Max film. It’s symbolic. Max’s family represents the last nuclear family. The death of the family is the apocalypse, and the wasteland is Max’s grief. Upon the plains of that grief Max fights his battles – and however hard he tries to isolate himself he always ends up involved in some power struggle, and (from Road Warrior onwards) he is always reminded of the goodness of humanity. Max is not seeking revenge, he’s seeking a retreat. But his socially-natured species keeps inviting him back into the fold.

That Max is running, rather than revenging, makes his idea of returning to the Citadel at the end of Fury Road profound. When he says “Hope is a mistake” he is really saying that hope is the last, prayerful roll of the dice for those who have nothing. Rather than merely hoping, Max is saying, take action. Max has always been running from the guilt of failing to protect his family. He doesn’t want to see Furiosa make the same mistake – betray her family – so he persuades her to turn around and confront her trauma. And that trauma is Immortan Joe and the Citadel. All that the women would have on the Salt Flats is hope, which is not real; what lies in the Citadel is green, which is real.

The reason Max struggles so badly with Furiosa’s near-death is not just because he believes that everyone he gets close to will die, but because he was helpless when his wife was once brought to hospital. Note how, in the first Mad Max film, when we see Max’s wife on the hospital bed after she’s attacked, she has lost an arm. Just like Furiosa.

The internet furore over Fury Road’s perceived “gender agenda” needs to be identified for what it was. Female casting shouldn’t be a talking point in itself. No one bats an eyelid when action movies are entirely populated by men. I also don’t believe that anyone would have cried “feminism” (as if it were a dirty word) if every major character except the wives had been male. No, the issue is Furiosa: specifically, how she supposedly sidelines the male title character.

First, let’s remember that Max has never been fully front-and-centre anyway (famously he spoke fewer than 20 lines in Road Warrior), and also remind ourselves that he is in fact vital to the success of Furiosa’s mission. But there is no denying that by the time Furiosa reaches her tribe of elder females there is a clear statement being made about gender. There is a reason Miller employed Eve Ensler as an on-set adviser. “Who killed the world?” Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) asks. Men is the answer, needless to say.

In Miller’s world, men rule through possessing the lives of others. Possession of the body (breeding boys for war; controlling the water); possession of the mind (inciting fear of “addiction” to water); and possession of the spirit (“I live, I die, I live again” – the promise of immortality). There’s always a transaction: the subject must give something up for the right to be subjugated. Men are takers in Fury Road’s wasteland, while women are the symbolic givers of life. Two of the “wives” are pregnant, and even the women too old to conceive carry seeds.

Old-school patriarchy is also evident in the fact that Joe’s favourite Splendid wears a wedding dress (while the others are bridesmaids). Marriage is an institution fashioned by patriarchy, with the woman traditionally being a possession to be “given away” by her father. Joe’s wives also wear chastity belts. No doubt these were fitted by males, but the presence of teeth suggest a masculine anxiety about female sexuality, as if it’s a caged beast. Why go to such lengths to control your subjects, unless you are afraid?

Maternal imagery abounds in Fury Road, in glimpses such as the shot of Toast (Zoe Kravitz) straddling the bag of guns (the suggestion being that the wives may birth a new generation of warlords); or when Max emerges from the darkness, head bloodied, and washes himself in mother’s milk. In this moment he is reborn in the eyes of Furiosa: not only was he willing to sacrifice himself for her quest, he also chose to come back. (And to think there are those who would doubt he is a hero!)

But there’s more to the wives than motherhood. Furiosa’s search for redemption may be to do with shame. It’s encapsulated in the scene where the youngest wife, Cheedo (Courtney Eaton), starts running back toward the Citadel, toward Immortan Joe, crying, “He will forgive us!” This kind of guilt is common in abused children who have been treated as a possession. I’m not sure Furiosa is even aware of the redemption she is seeking – and so it takes the intervention of Max to direct her to her destiny: redeeming the Citadel.

Immortan Joe is a quasi-religious leader whose War Boys’ honour system is built on the promise of martyrdom. It’s not enough to simply die; it must be dramatic. Everyone has their “show”. The parallels with suicide bombers, indoctrinated to believe their death is more meaningful than their life, is clear. Joe presents himself as living proof that death is a liberating process: a mythic figure who supposedly transcends death. “I live, I die, I live again.” Citadel citizens believe that Immortan Joe has been through the process of death and out the other side – hence, when they see his corpse they realise they’ve been betrayed by a mortal, and they are angry.

There is a parallel with Max here. Max is himself a mythic figure (see how the War Boy takes his V8 from the revered tree of steering wheels) – but the difference is that his myth is not of his own making. In the original Mad Max, his police superiors were jostling to secure him as their Interceptor poster boy, while he was trying to jostle his way out of the service. His reluctance as a hero is what makes him so interesting, so conflicted, and ultimately so heroic.

So, how about this Black & Chrome Edition? For me, the monochrome adds and subtracts in equal measure. Some of the stiller, simpler shots – the convoy silhouetted against the sunset; Furiosa yelling to the sky – seem starker and bolder, focusing the eye on the lovely framing. And the War Boys’ skeletal appearance is stunningly enhanced. The look is less successful when the pieces start to move and the editing hastens. It was in these (let’s face it, plentiful) moments that I missed the richness of the original colouring. During that astonishing shot of the exploding tanker, as Max clings desperately and hilariously to a swaying pole, my eyes were left yearning.

Still, nothing can suppress the energy, imagination, depth, and sustained visceral thrill of Miller’s mad masterpiece. It’s a movie of magnificent mayhem; a celebration of perfectly-calibrated framing, sound design, and editing, which is delightful in a million colours or a million shades of grey.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition is out on Blu-ray now.

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