By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
If it were indeed the future, and we had the technology to download the cogent and savory core of director George Miller’s highly ambitious, post-apocalyptic bedlam without having to suffer its long, extraneous stretches of gratuitous pandemonium, such would be my recommendation. ‘Tis the best movie I didn’t like in a long time. Its excesses can be oppressive to anyone with a normal attention span. But now, at home in armchair, safe from the inundating madness of “Mad Max: Fury Road’s” in-your-face adumbrations, y’know, there’s an awful lot of creativity there.
Unfortunately, to find the good kernels, one must ferret through the chaff of this horrible world. It’s a hellish combination of reawakened primordial instincts and a dastardly corruption of what technological advances humankind had achieved before the fall. In the expansive desert landscape, with not an edifice or road to remind us of the past world this wasteland has succeeded, we look for some sort of hope. The wish becomes even more urgent when we learn how the desperate, oft starved and more or less depraved survivors have come to be governed.
You don’t need to be an expert in Machiavellian politics to understand how the circumstances of this scenario lend themselves to totalitarianism. All of which explains the cult-like rule devilishly enjoyed by the ultra-heinous Immortan Joe. Portrayed with unmitigated despicableness by Hugh Keays-Byrne, from way up on a mountain balcony evocative of Hitler’s Berghof in the Bavarian Alps he lords it over a subjugated mixture of hauntingly pale, genetically compromised beings.
Equipped with an unexplained breathing device hooked to his jaw, rendering him almost bug-like, the grotesque despot controls, in addition to everything else, the H20 supply. He’s fond of lavishing it in waterfall fashion for only seconds at a time to impress his absoluteness. Gosh, we dislike him as well as his inner coterie, each one of them visually redolent of the villains in the Dick Tracy comics. A dash of Felliniesque whim adds to their mind-boggling freakishness. Politically incorrect or not, each bad guy bears some sort of physical curiosity.
In other words, Mommy forgive me, they are ugly. But not so our potential saviors, or so we hope as we become cognizant of them. The title character, a former cop and now a wanderer until being captured and kept as a “blood bag” by Immortan Joe and company, seems normal. Played by Tom Hardy, he’d even be handsome if he could lose the medieval-like cage they’ve fashioned around his face. At least that’s what we suspect Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa thinks when first she meets the fellow.
Of course their convergence doesn’t come under the best of circumstances. For starters, that Imperator title refers to her rather high rank in the employ of the head evildoer. However, without giving away the store but not caring too much if I do, right from the get-go we have the feeling that this gal sporting the early Mia Farrow/Sigourney Weaver “Alien” coiffure is somehow OK. Maybe it’s because she’s pretty despite the radical shearing. But more likely it’s a testament to Miss Theron’s ability to project an inherent sense of morality in the female lead.
Suffice it to note, whereas some dramas are character driven, the eccentric personae here make “Mad Max” no. 4 oddity driven. However, once we’ve ferreted through a good chunk of the saga’s muddying excesses and survived a mind-boggling crash course in the perverted civilization’s mores and folkways, we detect a plot. Sure enough, it’s your good old coup d’état gambit, and doubtless one rife with David and Goliath overtones.
But then, what good’s a fable if it isn’t about an underdog? Our side, assuming you’re with us, has a secret weapon. It’s the desire for freedom, that gloriously greater good upon which all humanity has pinned its hopes. Of course while this may please the sensibilities of those who demand rhyme and reason in their tales of derring-do, I smugly suggest that the bulk of this movie’s intended audience will show up for the action, the nihilism and the vicarious rebellion.
Adolescents of all ages will appreciate that director Miller’s opus, for all its futuristic visions both astute and purposely foreboding, is at heart the ultimate drag race, the real stars its highly creative, cobbled-together cars and trucks morphed into war machines. I for one enjoyed trying to identify the various marques imbedded within the macabre, rolling versions of metal sculpture.
The question is, to forgive or not to forgive the often over-the-top clatter and cacophony that, while obfuscating the basic story, are inseparable from the alluringly bizarre, strangely artistic experience? A neo “Marat/Sade” on wheels, with enough shooting and killing to drive you crazy, “Mad Max: Fury Road” gives your sanity a run for the money.
“Mad Max: Fury Road,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by George Miller and stars Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy and Hugh Keays-Byrne. Running time: 120 minutes