As if you needed further evidence of my faulty judgment, in my previous column I said I was waiting “like everybody else” to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Now the box-office results are in, and it’s plain that only a minority of us had been impatient for kinesthetic delights to hurtle into the frame from every side and at all times, never as you’d expect, while dystopian horrors blast back out of the screen with an equally endless inventiveness, here clanking with a grotesquerie of jerry-rigged chains and motors, there roaring with the excess of a rock musician shooting flames from his guitar, as Tom Hardy in an iron mask is raised up on an armored dune buggy like a hood-ornament crucifix and a crew-cut Charlize Theron commands the churning desert with her cold blue gaze, glinting under a coat of crankcase grease, all so the film can incite women everywhere to rise up with her, our one-armed Imperator Furiosa, and overthrow war-loving, Earth-devouring, mechanistic patriarchy.
Other people wanted to see Pitch Perfect 2.
Without prejudice to that jaunty a cappella comedy, I will say that its commercial triumph over Mad Max: Fury Road shows that I’ve fallen onto the dark side of a generational divide. It’s not just that the plurality of the theatergoing audience cannot recall the glories of George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy, the most recent of which was released 30 years ago. Research (meaning chats with my daughter and a random sample of her friends) demonstrates that kids today neither recognize nor desire a cinema like Miller’s, which does to the methods and imagery of pop movies what Jimi Hendrix did to the old-style electric blues, and to a similarly outrageous purpose. Despite the robust overseas ticket sales for Fury Road, the domestic appetite for this kind of filmmaking seems to have withered, leaving us with a young mainstream audience that wants to see genre conventions fulfilled, not exploded. Have I mentioned San Andreas?
No—I don’t want to talk about San Andreas. I’d rather dedicate two more paragraphs to Mad Max: Fury Road, knowing that few other films this year are likely to be as impressive. It’s like a simoom, a conquering Amazon, a burning bush. You don’t so much watch it as enter its presence—and once there, you find that it does not stoop to explain itself. After all of 30 seconds’ worth of introductory voice-over, which is not so much an exposition as a groan of despair from Max, the action starts and the guidance ends. Where do they come from, all these dead-white, half-naked, shave-skulled men? Why is it a form of blessing for them to have their mouths sprayed with aerosol paint, while their leader intones, “You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome”? How would you translate “He’s a crazy smig who eats schlanger”? What makes you think you’ve got time to ask? Unlike action directors of the plodding sort, George Miller doesn’t ask you to understand the deliriously strange world into which he throws you headlong. He just wants to change the parts you recognize.
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Mad Max: Fury Road has been skewing a little old in its audience—an inevitability, when a film is R-rated—but it’s got more rebellious energy than anything else around, even though its writer-director is a septuagenarian and its totally kick-ass heroine is played by an actress who is pushing 40, the age at which Hollywood wants to stamp Expired on a woman’s forehead. This is not to imply that Fury Road is an entry in the current cycle of geezerfests such as The Expendables and RED, which convene actors in middle age or beyond to prove that their stunt doubles can still blow things up. Miller and Theron have no time for such jokey self-congratulation. They’re too busy actually ripping up the screen.