Mad Max and Our Need for Speed

05/18/2015 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Let me start by saying I really liked George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. Remember that when I am using it as an example of all that is wrong in the world.

Thirty-six years after his groundbreaking debut, Miller has returned to the character and franchise that helped reinvent action pictures in the 1980s. The original Mad Max launched Mel Gibson, spawned two feature film sequels and along with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, made punk fashionable. Those two sequels -- Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) -- picked up at some indeterminate points after that original story, with ex-cop Max Rockatansky, wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape and getting into one scrape after another. Fury Road continues that pattern.

When he wrote about Mad Max in 1981, film critic Danny Peary noted that audiences would find the movie "less interesting as a story about "people" than as a marriage between a filmmaker's machines (his camera, his editing tools) and the motor-powered machines that he films." That was true for 1979. But the newest incarnation makes the 1979 movie look like a deep, penetrating character study. Such is the way in which mainstream film has changed in the intervening 36 years.

Back in 1979, Miller crafted a leisurely story. We got to meet Max and his police comrades. We got a sense of the world they inhabited. We knew some of their back stories. When they came across the bad guys, the action was involved and brutal, but there was a typical movie rhythm at play. Maybe most significantly, we saw Max turn into Mad Max on screen before our very eyes.

In 2015, there is no time for that. We begin with Max already deranged. He tells us so in voice over in the opening minute. We then plunge into an unrelenting roller coaster where the sole narrative force is the chase. At first, Max is being chased by a cohort of bald albinos whom he seems to have upset. They will enslave him. After that prologue, the main plot kicks in. It involves one of the military leaders of this violent world, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), going rogue and taking some precious cargo from the hyper-gross chief baddie Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe's minions pursue and this sustains the rest of the movie. Max is along for the ride.

Miller does this type of movie extremely well. He makes use of 3-D and wide screen beautifully. The editing and sound are first rate. There are a half a dozen extended action sequences that are breathtaking. And his make-up people will be up for Oscar consideration. This is an amazing world full of amazing characters. (Well, not so much "characters" as amazingly grotesque faces and physiques.) Two hours flies by in no time at all. If you like closure, you could even make the case that in this current version, Max actually rediscovers his humanity at the end. So in 1979, he moved from sane to mad, and in 2015, he moves from mad to at least some semblance of sane.

Furthermore, there is clearly the suggestion of an important and pointed theme: namely, that the rapaciousness, egotism and greed of white men have destroyed the world. That question -- "Who killed the world" -- is asked several times in Fury Road, and the answer is fairly obvious. Women, the likes of Furiosa and the matriarchs to whom she is looking for salvation, are the only true saviors. There may not be a more affecting and memorable moment in the movie than when the matriarchs rear back in suspicion at the presence of two men -- Max and Nux -- who accompany Furiosa and the women she has smuggled to freedom.

The problem is that this theme, and any potential character arcs for Max or Furiosa or anyone else, play as afterthoughts. You can multiply Peary's observation about how machines matter more than people in the original version a hundred times over in 2015. This is a movie about speed and chase and machinery. Tom Hardy is one of the best young actors we have today, but he is asked to do little more than scowl and grunt and leap and punch. Theron's Furiosa speaks of redemption but it's hard to understand what she means. It is very easy to understand why she would be fighting like hell to get away from a character like Joe. But redemption? That feels like a shortcut to meaning.

And that may be the most significant difference between the first and fourth Mad Max. To be fair, not many people thought Miller's 1979 film had a great deal of meaning. But in hindsight, it had a lot to say about what it means to be human. It said something about human relationships. (Max's relationships with both wife Jessie and partner Goose had identifiable emotional resonance.) It said something about moral choices (The denouement between Max and psycho biker Johnny provided a brilliant trolley problem.) The current incarnation offers state-of-the-art spectacle. It is thrilling. It is stunning. You may well forget it by tomorrow's breakfast.

I still vividly recall imagery from 1979. Those memories have nothing to do with the quality of the imagery. It was good, but it is nowhere near as good as what we get in 2015. But the imagery in 1979 was tied to character. Today, those images exist for their own sake. This is where the continuing shift from plot and character to spectacle -- a reordering of Aristotle's classic dramatic attributes -- has lead. We are doing a better and better job of creating empty calories.

Twenty-four hours after watching Fury Road, I found myself thinking more about David Michod's movie The Rover. That 2014 film starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson is much more in the spirit of the original Mad Max. So I'll close by saying that I really liked George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road. But I'm very hopeful that more movies like its great grandfather can continue to flourish.