Is Mad Max: Fury Road better than the ‘originals’?

Once again it has been a while since my last post. We were thrown in at the deep end at the beginning of this year, and I’ve been left with little time for anything other than my uni work. But with the first three projects of the year completed I have some breathing room to update you on my progress. My work for our two design projects will follow, but for now how about my Critical and Contextual Studies essay from last year?

While writing essays can be a little tortuous for me, I did really love writing this one – or maybe I just loved that I got to write about a topic I was interested in and produced an essay I was proud of. It’s a shame I couldn’t talk about Jenny Beavan’s BAFTA winning costumes more, but I think you can tell who I thought should have won Special Visual Effects at this year’s awards.

How important is authenticity or originality in a work of ‘art’?

In this essay I aim to discuss how important the concept of originality is regarding the film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The Mad Max trilogy: Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) possess originality, because they were made first, and for a while were unique. I will compare them to the recently released reboot, to decide whether the ‘originals’ or Fury Road are more successful films, and whether this is because they are originals. I will argue that Fury Road is a better film for having evolved from a tradition where three originals have already been made. Director George Miller has learnt from making the original trilogy and has returned with a new and improved version, updated for modern audiences. Technology, politics and changing values about equality have all had an impact on his filmmaking practice.

All the Mad Max films use dystopian themes that resonate with contemporary audiences. Walter Benjamin argues that ‘the manner in which human sense perception is organised, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.’ (2007, p. 216) Audiences view films in context to the times they are from. Stephen Maher writes that the first two films ‘use visions of a collapsing society to express middle-class fears about the spread of urban criminality into suburban spaces, and the superficiality and emptiness of modern life.’ (2015) Nathan Abrams, Ian Bell and Jan Udris, write that the science fiction genre rests on ‘the ‘what if?’ question’ (2001, p. 185). Mad Max was inspired by the violence that accompanied the 1973 oil crisis. This particularly resonated with the audience because it showed them a possible, close at hand future, where fuel shortages have sparked violence and chaos. Ben Rawson-Jones supports that one reason Mad Max remains ‘so effective is because it all feels vaguely plausible.’ (2015) Road Warrior demonstrates further societal breakdown, revealing the aftermath of a great war between two ‘warrior tribes’. As Paul Mason observes, with the beginning of the ‘new cold war’ in 1979 ‘it became possible to imagine the world ending in a ball of flame, and what a post-apocalyptic society might look like.’ (2015) Beyond Thunderdome shows us the ruins of a modern city, and confirms that nuclear weapons are to blame. The attempt at civilisation depicted emulates our own: a world of commerce, lacking in spiritual values, where our leaders, like in Bartertown, ‘can make incremental progress but instead of bringing about reform, they are satisfied benefiting from the fallen state of things.’ (Sanes, 2000) The originals all connect to audiences by offering a possible, dark future for the world at the times they were made.

Fury Road shows us the most desolate landscape of all. Aligning with today’s audience anxieties about climate change, Fury Road shows ‘the disintegration of society and the regression of humanity into barbarism [that] goes hand in hand with widespread ecological destruction and resource scarcity’ (Maher, 2015) Civilisation is reduced to one despot who deals in commodities, among them water, food, gasoline and ammunition. Among his slaves, his educated wives ask ‘Who Stole the World?’ One possible answer is ‘toxic masculinity’ (feministmadmax, 2015). The question, and film, stand as a warning to the leaders of today that the situation is in their hands. Bryan Ghingold writes that ‘science fiction has been a tool for authors and filmmakers to warn us about our own decadence, greed, and quest for knowledge and control.’ (2011) In Fury Road we see a slave state run on false religious fervour, and the objectification of men and women alike. The chosen few women are objects for procreation and the harvesting of their milk; and men and boys become parts of machinery or soldiers. Once again Miller gives us an exaggerated version of the real world, past and present. Maher points to the metaphor of suicide bombing in regards to the War Boys’ aspiration for a glorious death in service to their godhead, and subsequent entry into Valhalla. (2015)

Erik Kain argues that there are ‘a jarring number of survivors, and feels more like a civilisation than a post-apocalyptic future of isolated settlements and roaming bandits.’ (2015) However, this gives more scope to the situation, giving a clearer and more desolate picture of the world. In the originals we have no idea what the rest of the world looks like or how people are living. Both the originals and the reboot are successful in showing what could happen if the world continued on its current paths. But Fury Road creates a world, though set further in the future than the originals, that has more parallels with our own world, and therefore raises more questions and has a greater impact on contemporary audiences.

Online media means that people all over the world are watching Fury Road simultaneously and commenting on it. Benjamin argues that ‘the greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.’ (2007, p. 232) Online media influences audiences’ perceptions. Mad Max prompted outrage on release, for its violence and ‘exploitative take on heroism.’ (Mason, 2015) Fury Road on the other hand, has sparked positive debate about the representation of women in film. This created media attention for the film, increasing its viewing numbers, and in turn showed the industry that people want to see, and enjoy seeing, women with agency in film. Rawson-Jones writes that the originals don’t lack ‘warrior women’ either. (2015) But Sasha James argues that ‘with the exception of Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity [in Beyond Thunderdome], there is no focus on female agency – especially in regard to heroism.’ (2015) Fury Road’s use of gender and sex is utilitarian. The female characters ‘use their womanhood as a weapon’ and are able to ‘enact as much agency as its men. They are allowed to survive by whatever means are available to them.’ (2015)

Mad Max is simply a fantastical speculation of a dystopian future, while Fury Road is more successful at making a political point. The originals do not attempt to address gender even though the issue was around at the time. James asks whether Fury Road is Miller’s answer to his own misogynist franchise. (2015) Science fiction can be used to address concerns about ideology as much as technology. (Abrams, Bell and Udris, 2001, p. 185) Fury Road tries to alter the real world by drawing our attention to the injustice of inequality. In the film people are ‘reduced to objects valued only for their utility.’ (Richmond, 2015) This might seem an extreme scenario but in some parts of the world slavery, sexism and other kinds of discrimination have and do exist. In Fury Road ‘the world director and writer George Miller has created shows the horror of sexism and the necessity of freedom from patriarchy.’ (Valenti, 2015) He has addressed the same issues as in the original, but has added gender, relevantly and effectively.

New techniques and technologies in filmmaking, invented since the originals were made, has meant that the spectacular visuals at the core of Fury Road, were possible. Making the film with the intention of releasing it in 3D pushed the filmmakers further visually. As Benjamin says ‘the work of art produced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.’ (2007, p. 218) The filmmakers have made more dynamic action sequences by incorporating movement that lends itself to a 3D viewing. Rawson-Jones argues that in Mad Max: ‘there clearly wasn’t much money to play with, unlike the expansive Fury Road, yet what George Miller excels at is orchestrating and executing every action sequence and emotional beat to precision. The carnage that ensues when the cars and bikes thunder across the roads is on a tiny scale compared to Fury Road, but still instils that same immersive sense of jeopardy and lodges hearts firmly in mouths.’ (2015) However the use of CGI in Fury Road has allowed Miller to make a much faster paced, visually stunning car chase. Kain argues that it is simply a new, vamped up, extended version of the one in The Road Warrior, and that ‘it does lose some of the gritty realism that made Road Warrior so effective.’ (2015) However the CGI, used in conjunction with real stunts and practical effects, adds another level and quality to the action on screen.

CGI has also helped create a more established despotic world. The Citadel’s towers are entirely CGI, but built up of photography of mountains, to create a new but natural looking structure. (Flicks and the City, 2015) As Debord argues, ‘the spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality…Reality emerges within the spectacle.’ (1983, pp. 8-9) Kain argues that the use of CGI ‘detracts from a sense that this is our world laid low by nuclear war.’ (2015) But where in Mad Max and The Road Warrior the Australian ‘wasteland’ was clearly recognisable, with it’s vestiges of society – roads, houses and businesses – in Fury Road we have a barren desert, and an unrecognisable city. It is clearer than ever that we are on a post-apocalyptic Earth, flattened by nuclear war.

Benjamin explains how new technologies and techniques can enhance the visual experience. (2007, pp. 229-230) Being able to use digital cameras in Fury Road meant easier editing and adding of visual effects. The cinematographer John Seale says ‘you can change it, manipulate it, [it] allows you [to] do anything you like. I know with Mad Max [Fury Road], it won’t look anything like a ‘good film image’ and it won’t look anything like a ‘good digital image’…it will look like its own image. I think that’s the wonder of it.’ (2015) The visual effects which include sky replacement, innovative colour grading, extensive environment work, and some pyrotechnics, have created a visual experience that surpasses the originals. (WIRED, 2015)

The original films’ narratives are borrowed from the classic Western. Max is the solitary fighter who ends up a hero. He is ‘the lone gunman in the dusty West, up against the group of outlaws, helping protect the good townsfolk.’ (Kain, 2015) In Road Warrior this is exactly what happens. Beyond Thunderdome ‘like Westerns and other frontier stories, it is about humanity’s exile from civilization, and the founding, or, in this case, the refounding, of civilization.’ (Sanes, 2000) Voltaire argued that ‘originality is nothing but judicious plagiarism.’ (Deathridge, 2003) All the films borrow from each other and outside influences, Fury Road is part of the Mad Max ‘tradition’. Deathridge argues that ‘people prefer the idea of originality, something new, or someone who’s producing something new, inside a tradition without realising those two things are rather contradictory, because you can’t have a tradition without people stealing from everybody else and sharing a language.’ (2003) Benjamin argues that ‘the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.’ (2007, p. 217) Kain argues that Fury Road is a big budget remake of the action sequence in The Road Warrior (2015) In Road Warrior ‘the audience sees only what Max sees. It feels very personal…Even the big action sequences are carried out with some sense of intimacy.’ In Fury Road ‘since we see the world through both her [Furiosa’s] and Max’s eyes (and from the perspective of the villain Immortan Joe and the War Boy Nux) we maintain a wider, less personal scope.’ This is likely deliberate on Miller’s part, he wants us to experience, and therefore understand, this world from different viewpoints.

Miller has had 30 years to collect ideas and meditate on his plot.‘Benjamin conceives texts – and memory, too – as material, as woven.’ (Leslie, 1998, p. 7) ‘The ability to tell stories, Benjamin tells us, is rooted in two factors; travel to faraway places and knowledge of past local lore.’ (p. 5) In the modern world knowledge of faraway places, as well as an array of stories from different places and genres, is easily accessible through things such as the media, television and the internet. Fury Road is rooted in the tradition of Mad Max, and the traditions of the genres of westerns and science fiction dystopias. ‘Fury Road feels like a Mad Max film ought to feel. Weird, almost incoherent, a bizarro punk-rock muscle car vision of the future, where gas is scarce but everyone drives fast and burns it anyways.’ (Kain, 2015) It fits with the originals, but the narrative has been crafted for the times, to be powerful and thoroughly entertaining.

In regards to the importance of originality in the Mad Max films, it does not matter that Fury Road is not one of the originals. But it is better for having evolved from them. It uses the same genres of western and dystopia to comment on modern issues, but is more successful. As a social commentary Fury Road has more impact because, while Miller has addressed similar issues, he has done so more obviously. The reaction to this film, which is due to a combination of discussion of its representation of women and its spectacular visuals, has mainly been possible due to the prevalence of social media, and online media in general. Technology has also made it possible to improve upon the action and landscapes of the original films. Fury Road could not be what it is without belonging to the Mad Max ‘tradition’, but Miller has updated and improved the narrative and message. As Mason says ‘the subtext of most modern dystopias is the futility of rebellion…In Mad Max: Fury Road rebellion happens. It is spectacular, it is feminist.’ (2015)

Works cited:
Films:
Mad Max (1979) Directed by George Miller [Film]. UK: Warner Bros.
Mad Max 2: The Road Wrrior (1981) Directed by George Miller [Film]. UK: Warner Bros.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie [Film]. UK: Warner Bros.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Directed by George Miller [Film]. UK: Warner Bros. Pictures

Books:
Abrams, N., Bell, I. and Udris, J. (ed.) (2001) Studying Film. Great Britain: Arnold. Studying the Media.
Benjamin, W. (2007) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Arendt, H. (ed.) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.
Debord, G. (1983) Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red.

Journals:
Leslie, E. (1998) ‘Walter Benjamin: Traces of Craft’, Journal of Design History, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 5-12. doi: 165.193.178.71

Online Newpapers/Magazines:
James, S (2015) Mad Max: Fury Road: George Miller’s Feminist Answer to His Own Franchise? Available at: http://www.themarysue.com/george-miller-feminist-answer-franchise/ (Accessed: 8 June 2015)
Kain, E. (2015) ‘Mad Max’ Review: 5 Reasons Why ‘Road Warrior’ Is Better Than ‘Fury Road’ Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2015/05/15/mad-max-review-5-reasons-why-road-warrior-is-better-than-fury-road/ (Accessed: 9 June 2015)
Maher, S. (2015) Mad Max and the End of the World Available at: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/mad-max-fury-road-review/ (Accessed: 9 June 2015)

Mason, P. (2015) The ultra-violent world of Mad Max no longer shocks us – it’s too close to reality. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/17/the-ultra-violent-world-of-mad-max-no-longer-shocks-us-its-too-close-to-reality (Accessed: 8 June 2015).
Rawson-Jones, B. (2015) Re-Viewed: Mad Max – How does the 1979 original compare to Fury Road? Available at: http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/movies/feature/a648509/re-viewed-mad-max-how-does-the-1979-original-compare-to-fury-road.html#~peQlSMNahlSAGP (Accessed: 8 June 2015)
Valenti, J. (2015) Sexists are scared of Mad Max because it is a call to dismantle patriarchies. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/27/sexists-are-scared-of-mad-max-because-it-is-a-call-to-dismantle-patriarchies (Accessed: 10 June 2015).

Websites:
Cinematographer John Seale captures ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015) Available at: http://www.codexdigital.com/news/cinematographer%20john%20seale%20captures%20mad%20max%20-%20fury%20road (Accessed: 9 June 2015)
feministmadmax (2015) hey girl Available at: http://feministmadmax.tumblr.com/ (Accessed: 10 June 2015). Ghingold, B. (2011) Science Fiction: Tool of Social Critique Available at: http://mgbgfilms.com/essays/science-fiction-tool-of-social-critique (Accessed: 9 June 2015)
Richmond (2015) We Are Not Things: The Themes and Imagery of Mad Max: Fury Road. Available at: http://art-eater.com/2015/05/spoilers-we-are-not-objects-the-themes-and-imagery-of-mad-max-fury-road-spoilers/ (Accessed: 8 June 2015).

Videos:
Flicks and the City (2015) 12 Things You Didn’t Know About Mad Max Fury Road. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vb0PTpLpays (Accessed: 11 June 2015)
WIRED (2015) Mad Max Fury Road: Choreographing Complex Stunts & Car Chases | Design FX. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=56&v=nGz3b1YpiTs (Accessed: 9 June 2015).

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