A Dissenting Opinion on ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Mad Max: Fury RoadPacing is one of the movies’ great mysteries.

It’s impossible to prescribe a guaranteed-gold formula. Films that are, on the surface, devoid of traditional action can fly by like X-wing fighters screeching around the Death Star. And flicks that jump from cut to cut while featuring sped-up cinematography and other tricks may feel as slothful as a long summer’s day on Tatooine.

The latter seems an accurate description for Mad Max: Fury Road, which I recently saw after a period of reasonably heightened expectations. Filled with billowing explosions, zippy edits and frenzied camerawork, the picture pulls out all the stops to offer a thrill ride that no one has witnessed before—an in-your-face apocalyptic actioner that would top all others in the fantasy/sci-fi genre while setting the benchmark for out-there stunts and totalled off-road vehicles.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t succeed … at least, in my opinion. And it’s all because of the pacing, the cinema’s secret ingredient, the piece that marks the difference between a good movie and a bad one, a rip-snorter and a lemon.

Fury Road, despite all its pyrotechnics, plods along more lethargically than the oil rig its dominant female character, Imperator Furiosa, drives. I didn’t care about the characters enough to feel the celluloid move. The dialogue is flat and left me not believing many of the scenes—including a crucial one involving the philosophical transformation of a once-zealous follower of the megalomaniacal monster leader, Immortan Joe. All of these factors contribute to the poor pace of the film, which isn’t helped by the nearly nonstop car crashes and shootings that comprise the bulk of its narrative.

I’m sorry, but I tire easily of that sort of thing if it’s not in measured doses. And Fury Road supplies its mayhem in truckfuls, making it difficult to enjoy each set piece owing to the similarities of one to the other. At one point, I was starting to worry that the protagonists were going to have to dispatch each Driving-Mr.-Crazy in that 100-or-so strong fleet of cars individually—and I’d have to sit through each one. It was a depressing thought.

Thankfully, director George Miller didn’t go there, much to my relief. But Fury Road does tread over previously sown ground—particularly Miller’s previous instalments in this dystopian-future series: Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). None of these pictures is my cup of tea; I find the tales dreary and trying, with over-the-top performances and unpleasant characters. Still, these predecessors had a novelty to them when they came out, a bite. All I got out of Fury Road was a nip, a toothless lunge, reminiscent of faded inspiration and a false-note attempt to remake something old into a new phenomenon. It felt forced, unconvincing, and I don’t have the patience for that. Plus, there’s a sense that it’s derivative of more than just its Maxian forebears—the pasty-white soldiers in Joe’s army call to mind the crazy, pale-faced denizens of the society gone awry in A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the vehicular pursuits hearken back to The Wages of Fear (1953) … which, to my mind, offers a helluva lot more suspense and tension at a fraction of the cost.

I’m sure I’m in the minority with these viewpoints; Fury Road’s reviews have been consistently positive, and performers such as Charlize Theron (who plays Furiosa) have been singled out for specific thespian kudos. Theron is certainly skilled, but she doesn’t have a lot to work with here, and her role has little dimension—though it’s certainly more complex than the titular hero, brought to grunting life via Tom Hardy. If the pace of the movie were more fluid, these issues wouldn’t matter. Yet the picture trudges along slowly, limiting my interest. No amount of jarring cuts and speedy dolly shots can make for pressing drama if the drama isn’t there. It’s not a replacement. It’s just filler.

You know what I find fast-moving? Ivan the Terrible, Parts I (1945) and II (1958). The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Even My Dinner with Andre (1981). All of these films have one thing in common: deliberate pacing, despite reputations for being slow. They involve me, and that’s enough. I can’t say the same for Fury Road.

And that, I think, offers more evidence that the mystery ingredient in cinema can be so elusive. It’s not a given, and it can star in the most surprising movies … while ones in which you’d expect it to shine may thud to the floor. There may be taste involved here—a lot of people like Fury Road, and my opinion won’t even make a dent in its armour—but at some point, I think it has to become a question. After all, it’s the fulcrum on which great films rest, making it too important a factor to ignore.

I definitely didn’t ignore it during my Mad Max experience. Maybe it was for worse, but I’m happy it was top of mind. It gave me another technique to assess Fury Road frankly. And that’s the only way I know how to watch movies.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

18 thoughts on “A Dissenting Opinion on ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

  1. I didn’t see it as a pacing problem, though I suppose that is a reasonable angle to take. I do wish the movie had slowed down enough to let us get to know the characters and the issues a bit more. I would have had a better reaction to the movie if it had done that. But as a roller coaster ride, which is how I took it, I thought the pacing worked quite well.

    • Completely disagree with you on this, Jon, but we have different tastes. I found this Fury Road to be as slow as molasses, with an unrelenting series of chases that became grating after very little time. I usually hate back story and the way it’s overdone in Hollywood films today, but in this case, the flashes of the past that Max experienced didn’t add any nuance and merely served to irritate. There’s something cynical about Fury Road–it smacks of a measured attempt to profit from a 30-year-old franchise with extra explosions and a higher body count. But what exemplifies it most is the crazed, frenetic electric guitar player plying his awful trade on the front of one of the trucks: He’s noisy, manic and obnoxious, and if that doesn’t speak to the movie as a whole, I don’t know what does.

      • Hey Simon. I certainly see where you’re coming from in regards to the film’s quality, but one thing I’d say is that, whatever the end result, this is almost definitely a lifelong labor of love for George Miller, rather than a cynical cash grab. He certainly appears to believe in what he’s doing…

        • I understand what you’re saying, James, but part of the issue is that it felt–at least to me–like an opportunity to capitalize on a commercially successful name brand … like most sequels. It may have also been a labor of love for Miller, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was looking to resurrect a popular series for a new breed of filmgoers. And it didn’t resonate with me; the techniques used seemed like a halfhearted attempt to fill up the movie with “action” rather than plot or sharp dialogue. I felt like the director wasn’t trusting his audience enough; the overall effect was one of superficiality rather than depth. Miller may believe in what he was doing, but I don’t … and I think that’s what matters most. The results didn’t convince me.

  2. Thank you so much for expressing my thoughts about the film! The pacing, the never ending looping effects. Plus, I didn’t learn anything significant about the characters that were engaging. All it boiled down to was people in trucks and cars throwing bombs at each other and searching for the green space? So glad it wasn’t just me.

    • You’re welcome! It was a pretty simplistic plot, unfortunately, and the spare, unconvincing dialogue just made it worse. And you’re right–it was hard to care about the characters through all the mayhem. We had flashbacks to Max’s past, but no context was provided. To me, it felt like pieces were missing, and that didn’t help the film at all.

  3. I agree with the others, Simon, in that your response to this film was well-thought-out. That said, you didn’t care for the Mad Max films to begin with, so, I’m not surprised this film left you unimpressed. I don’t like horror films. People talked about how inventive and interesting the film Saw was when it came out. I doubt my opinion would change if I watched it.
    The pacing of a film is, I agree, elusive and often not as important to filmmakers as it should be. The films you mentioned, especially The Wages of Fear, are expertly paced. A lot of action movies throw everything into a bloated script with close to three hours of confusion. I enjoyed Mad Max:Fury Road because, to me, it was a well-paced, focused actioner with little fat, coming in at under 2 hours. It was about one thing and the film never let you forget that, and never let go. That and it was beautiful to look at.

    • You definitely raise a good point, Andrew, about my feelings about the Mad Max series; I think that came into play here. Some styles/directors/series are just not my favorite, and I can’t say I’m a big fan of George Miller’s other movies, Babe included, either. I understand how you feel about Fury Road; I respectfully have to disagree. For me, it felt long and padded with “action” scenes, which slowed down the flow. Pacing is definitely a fugitive thing, and I agree that many action films make a mess of it.

  4. Grateful to know that I am not the only one who was unable to engage with the characters and found the story fleeting at best (although, perhaps “fleeing” is a more apt expression). I also agree that the majority of the film was essentially the same 30-sec loop of car-nage being played over and over and over.

    You’ve defined these issues much more clearly than I was able to (http://createdbyrcw.com/2015/05/16/mad-max-furiosas-movie-a-review/), and added several points I had not considered.

    Thanks for the insights and thoughts.

    • Your article is very good–I think we agree on many points. And yes … when you’re immediately exposed to the “high” of the action, it can only go downhill from there, methinks. That’s just what happened in Fury Road, though the “high,” for me, was pretty low. 😀

    • Ha, ha–yes, we’re a small minority, Andrew, but we do exist. And I think “underthrilled” is a good word to use in this context for a film whose chief aim was provide thrills.

  5. Pacing is one of the most subjective elements in any work of art, and I don’t know if there will ever be a formula to get it right. It’s a matter of feel.

    Fury Road worked for me, personally, but I can understand what you’re saying–it used trauma as a substitute for characterization. It’s a common technique in modern filmmaking. You’re supposed to care about the characters because terrible things are happening to them. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, it worked for me, but not for you.

    I couldn’t say why, exactly. As you say, it’s a matter of taste. In other films–the Transformers franchise, for example–the wholesale carnage and destruction left me absolutely cold.

    • It’s interesting, Misha–at one point, I believed in the objectivity of art … that certain things are just objectively great, and a combination of taste and understanding of works’ inherent greatness provides the small gradations separating likes from dislikes. But now I wonder how art can be judged at all … especially when something like Fury Road comes out.

      I totally agree with you about Transformers, BTW: What an awful series of films. It’s intriguing to see how some of the same mayhem doesn’t appeal in all contexts.

      • I think that art has both subjective and objective qualities. It is possible to discuss how well a work functions as a means of communication in terms of the craft as separate from the question of how a particular audience member enjoys what is being communicated.

        There are films that I can admit are very well done that I don’t like–most of Oliver Stone’s library, for example. There are also films that I love that I have to agree are bad art by any objective standard–Brian DePalma’s “Phantom Of The Paradise” comes to mind.

        Then there is the issue of what is the artists is attempting to do and how much weight that should be given. Is an ambitious failure a “better” work of art than one that aims at an easier target and hits it? I think that Edger Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy” is a good example of that. “Shawn Of The Dead”, in my opinion, hits its target most squarely, but that is largely because it’s also the least ambitious. “The World’s End” (also my opinion) fails primarily because it tries to do so much more.

        I think that is what makes the task of a reviewer a difficult one.

  6. Nice to see you back Simon. I am giving you a metaphorical round of applause here, for having the intelligence (and courage) to dissect something that seems to be ‘all things to all men’, and coming out with a negative review.
    I haven’t seen this film, and to be honest, I don’t really want to. However, the world of film, Internet blogs, respected reviewers, and even plain just good friends, are all raving about this so much. Until now, not one word of dissent, not one so-so review, at least that I have seen.
    Your considered opinion of this much-praised road film makes it sound exactly what I expected it be be like. You mention taste, I had thought it might be the age gap from my end, but I cannot find a single thing to get excited about here, and I suspect I will wait until it is on late-night TV eventually, to get around to watching it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Many thanks, Pete–that’s much appreciated! I’m not sure how valuable it is to listen to my opinion on this … as much as I’d like to think it’s the right one, the rest of the world (including my wife) seems to differ! 😀

      But I’ll tell ya: I don’t think you’re missing anything. This was a loud, uncomfortable movie, and it just didn’t have the complexity I thought it would have. Then again, I don’t like the other films in the series much; I actually tried watching Thunderdome on TV the other day and ultimately gave up, like I’ve done so many times before! For some reason, the whole concept of an apocalyptic world based on folks doing wheelies and crashing monster trucks seems unconvincing to me. I may be one of the few, but I won’t give up being vocal about it. 😀

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