In general there isn't much of a difference between movie reviewing and film criticism. Movie reviews tend to be exclusively focused on a single piece of cinema while film criticism tends to be about something bigger like how that film fits into the broader context of our society, but both are basically personal essays that are trying to explain to a reader what it's like to interact with a specific piece of art. However, there are times when those two things are very different indeed, because movie reviewing and film criticism can take place on wildly divergent timelines. Most movie reviews have to be done quickly; they are part of a promotional pipeline that wants to let you know that a new product that might be worth your money is available for purchase and that means that they have to be churned out while those films are still in theaters. In contrast, good film criticism is often much slower because the true context of a new film isn't always immediately apparent. When those two things line up just right it can really pay off - then you can get a top to bottom picture of a new film in real time. But when those two things don't line up... Well, then it gets complicated.
I'm thinking about this because last night I saw Mad Max: Fury Road. Now, writing a movie review of Fury Road would be pretty straight forward because because when you look at it in isolation it's pros and cons are relatively self-evident. It is about a loner named Max who ends up helping a partially bionic woman named Imperator Furiosa smuggle some sex slaves away from a skull faced warlord and towards a promised land called "The Green Place." Now, I’m not saying the movie isn’t subtle, but you know, the villain does have a skull for a face...
Let's get the obvious out of the way: it's undeniable that Fury Road is an incredibly stylish and well directed action film. It is basically is one long chase scene that takes place in an endless desert, and the production design and cinematography are both striking. The contrast between the mutated monster trucks and the beautiful red and orange desolation of the scenery those trucks are driving around in makes the whole world look alien and uncompromising while still being gorgeous to look at. Truly, Fury Road is a visual marvel.
Furthermore, the action set pieces are immaculately well-paced. Max and Furiosa's 18 wheeled "war-rig" is attacked over and over again by the Warlord's "War-boys" and each attack is slightly more unhinged and dangerous-looking than the one before. (For the record, there is a lot of war in this movie.) At first their attackers are trying to overtake the war-rig from behind by trying to ramming it or shooting out it's tires. In the next skirmish the attacks are coming from the side of the war-rig, as the War-Boys have caught up, and now they are throwing exploding spears at the tanker. The next fight takes it to the next level: now the War-Boys are close enough that they can jump on the hood of the war-rig, which is a very dangerous for both them and their targets, in that now they have a clean shot at Max and Furiosa but if they get pushed off the hood they will probably fall to their death. This is the point where you would think it would impossible for the action to escalate even farther - but it does. Eventually, Max, Furiosa and their charges are being assaulted on all four sides not just by other cars and war-boys who have jumped onto their war-rig, but also by war-boys who are on bendy-poles which allow them to actually reach into the war-rigs cab while still being attached to another vehicle - meaning that if Max or Furiosa kicks them away they will fall away for a second before bouncing back and trying again. Writer / director George Miller has an incredible knack for building tension, because every time you think he can't top himself he finds some way to take it to the next level.
Given all that I can say without any hesitation whatsoever that the film has plenty of surface pleasures. What I can't quite decipher - at least not yet - is if the film has much of a point. The film’s apocalyptic setting allows Miller to ask a lot of heavy handed questions about man’s tendencies to violence, but I'm not particularly satisfied that he has any good answers for those questions. For example more than one character explicitly asks “who killed the world?”, which is a ridiculous thing to ask when in a movie that's pitting a team of martyrs against a skull faced guy who commands an army of brainwashed war-boys. I mean, this truly is a heavy handed film - at one point Max kills a man trying to protect these young women and then he gets clean by washing the blood off his face not using water but rather a pail of pure "Mother's Milk" - and that heavy handedness really undercuts it's larger metaphorical ambitions.
Now, it's not that unusual for a popcorn movie to want to write big philosophical checks that its script can't cash, but it is weird for this franchise. You see, this is technically the fourth move in the Mad Max series, and while the other films had similar themes about humanity's need for community, they were never as blatant as they are here. For example, Fury Road is very similar to The Road Warrior, since that is also a film where poor loner named Max gets dragged into helping a group of optimistic survivors outrun a band of angry nihilists in punk rock outfits, but that film was much more comfortable with leaving Max's true motivation ambiguous. Max starts and ends that movie as a cipher - as someone who has their own code, but whose code doesn't exactly line up with society's. In contrast, Max starts Fury Road as a lone wolf who is only interested in protecting himself, but he eventually agrees to sacrifice himself for these young women who explicitly remind him of the daughter he lost years before. Personally, I think the Road Warrior’s inherently shades-of-grey worldview worked a lot better given the sort of story it was trying to tell, because it made an argument that self-sacrifice was in our best interest without belaboring it. In contrast, I think there's something kind of self defeating about how Fury Road wants to tell it's audience that we need to be thinking of (and working towards) a brighter future even while it's indulging in non-stop wreck-em-up action sequences where unnamed characters are constantly getting slaughtered.
However complicated Fury Road's relationship is with the Road Warrior, it's relationship with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (the previous installment in the franchise) is even muddier. Thunderdome has it’s faults, but it did feel like an organic conclusion to the Mad Max saga: the first movie showed how society fell apart, Road Warrior is about society at it’s violent nadir, and then Beyond Thunderdome - which was meant to be the conclusion of a trilogy - tried to show the audience how the world got a new lease on life. It's "band of children starts a brand new society" ending might have been cheesy (particularly in contrast to the rest of the otherwise bleak series), but it did feel like a logical way to wrap up the series' general arc. However, Fury Road pretends that Thunderdome never happened, because as the movie begins we’re back to a world where everyone is just trying to murder everyone else all the time and the utopian society those children founded is never referenced once. Although the decision to overlook Thunderdome makes sense – returning to a fully apocalyptic setting allows Miller access to a much broader palette – that doesn’t change the fact that Fury Road felt regressive to me, in large part because it returned the story to a previous (and more popular) chapter.
Now, at this point you might be wondering: who cares. Again: it's not unusual for blockbuster films to undercut their own ideals by overindulging in action scenes or for them to pick and choose which parts of their continuity they want to keep and which they want to throw away. What frustrates me about Fury Road, however, is that it's so close to being an auteur-driven masterwork that I can't tell if I'm just nitpicking or if I'm actually picking up on major flaws in the film.
For example: maybe it is legitimate to try to understand Fury Road in the context of the other Mad Max films - and if so, it is legitimate to dock the film for being such a blatant photocopy of Road Warrior. On the other hand, all of the Mad Max movies have always functioned as stand alone entries. They never directly reference each other and the only overlapping thread is Max himself, but he generally refuses to give himself a name or only names himself reluctantly, so he’s a thin thread to connect them together. Furthermore, Max isn’t even played by the same actor here as he was in the original trilogy – Mel Gibson had aged out of the role, so he was replaced by Tom Hardy. (And, uh, there were also some other problems with casting Gibson in 2015, but let’s just move on.) So if Mad Max is like James Bond - i.e. an archetypal character who finds himself in similar-but-variant situations over and over again - it doesn't make any sense to be mad at Fury Road for not continuing where Thunderdome left off.
In other words, I'm saying that Fury Road is too recent in my mind for it's context to be completely clear. I might be alone in that; I doubt that people that are too young to know the original films (which are, after all, over thirty years old) will care at all that this film doesn't necessarily add much to the general mythos. But for someone like me who grew up on the Mad Max films it’s much more complicated. I thought that Fury Road was like a lot of fan service films which give you the same old thrills with new unwanted twists in that it was satisfying without necessarily being fulfilling - and I haven't quite processed whether that's its fault or mine.
I don't really know what to say about Fury Road. I mean, I can tell you how it looked; I can tell you which parts worked well and which worked less well; but I'm hesitant to pretend that I understood what I saw after one viewing and twenty four hours of reflection. I'm at a point right now where I could probably write a half decent movie review of this film - but if you want actual criticism, you might want to check back in a year.
Winner: honestly, I don't know yet