When George Miller announced his desire to release a black and white version of Mad Max: Fury Road several months after the release of his apocalyptic masterpiece, there were no groans or accusations of cash-grabbing. He stated that this was his preferred version of the film and how could we begrudge the 71-year old genius his definitive vision? After casually delivering the fourth instalment in a franchise he spearheaded back in 1979, not only did he concoct a worthy follow-up/reboot to his seminal Ozploitation trilogy but it just so happened to immediately make the list of greatest action films of all time, comfortably become the best film of 2015 and go on to garner several oscar nominations including Best Picture and Director – a rare honour for a genre movie. Frankly, even if George had claimed that the ultimate version is in fast-motion and features the Benny Hill theme, I’d have pre-ordered the Blu-ray by now; such is the breathless joy of Mad Max Fury Road and the subsequent faith I, and hopefully anyone with any sense, now have in Miller.
Enough has been said about the film itself already without me waxing sycophantic, but any excuse…
There’s a shot in Fury Road in which a flare stuck in the sand, flickers its last and the screen fills with darkness for a few seconds. It’s a gentle moment and the culmination of a sequence of events which begin with Tom Hardy’s Max being abducted and end with a ferocious vehicular pursuit through a sandstorm as cars and people are lifted and dispersed like feathers in a breeze. Somewhere in between there’s room for a cliffside escape attempt, a multi-vehicle chase-cum-smash and a world-building introduction of tyrant Immortan Joe, his feral but sickly ‘War Boys’ and their dominance over a citadel in which the poor are kept thirsty and anyone else is kidnapped and are used as blood bags.
Under the guise of a routine trade, Imperator Furiosa (a never more watchable Charlize Theron) rescues several of Joe’s “breeders” – young women being held and used to well, breed. Operating a huge truck dubbed the War Rig she takes an unprecedented left turn and chaos ensues, as a convoy of cars (one of which has an unwilling Max strapped to its bonnet) give chase. Furiosa and the War Boys face off against creepy mini-territories with their own language, huge trucks lined with drummers beat a deafening pursuit rhythm, hordes of other automobiles fast approach and the entire glorious carnage meets with the aforementioned sandstorm crescendo. The flare flickers out. Get your breath back and check the clock. The film has been on for 30 minutes. It’s an amazingly dense, face-melting half hour by anybody’s standards but as the opening act of a movie which only builds successfully upon the stall it sets out, it is almost unequalled. We’ll still be spoiled with bikers being shot out of the air like clay-pigeons and an astounding final chase before the credits roll. All of this painstakingly framed and choreographed using minimal CGI. You can almost feel the sand in your nostrils.
It helps that these sequences are grounded in small but genuine stakes. Like the best examples of the genre, every chase, every shot fired, every near-miss – all feel like desperate, barely attainable measures for the protagonists. No empty Marvel-style world saving here. The world’s way beyond it. As Junkie XL’s grand, Hans Zimmer-esque score swells and our heroes make their final, against-all-odds attempt to outrun Joe and his hordes during the finale, you’ll care more about their plight than any city-levelling alien invasion. The sense of urgency is masterful, the momentum thrilling. This is helped by the fact that the film is essentially one long chase and even during rare moments of quiet exchange, Joe’s convoy is always forebodingly flickering on the horizon.
Much has been made of Theron’s performance and with good reason. It’s not even two years since Furiosa was introduced to the world and already she an iconic heroine almost on par with Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. Both solicitous and scary, we don’t need to know much of her back-story to conclude she’s a product of her environment – an inexplicably maimed female in a populace governed by powerful males. The War Rig isn’t the only thing Theron steals here. This is not to discredit Hardy who pitches Max as the same gruff loner Mel Gibson delivered over three decades ago. More insular and mono-syllabic but equally as charismatic. His arc from lone survivor to Furiosa’s ally is perfect. Their eventual mutual respect feels organic and earned; their final moment enough to elicit raised hairs.
It’s not just the set-pieces and performances which make the film work however. The world Miller creates here is both fresh and familiar. Loyal to his original vision of the apocalypse whilst taking advantage of the filmmaking tools now at his disposal, he assembles a nightmarish end-of-days without being dour. Whereas other visions of armageddon (for example John Hillcoat’s The Road or Romero’s ongoing Zombie saga) have highlighted the despair of the situation, with humans turning on each other out of survival instinct, this is a world’s end in which the right kind of psychopath (and apparently there are lots) can flourish, revel and seemingly enjoy the annihilation.
Costumes and cars are customised based on factions, deluded lackeys scream of Valhalla before sacrificing themselves with a grin and even the most angry pursuits have time for a flame-throwing guitar playing oddball to tag along and set the tone. This pandemonium is offset by quieter, haunting imagery such as an entire area of swamp-dwellers, mobilising on stilts to adapt to the hand they’ve been dealt. It’s a unique world first realised fully in The Road Warrior and often imitated – never bettered by anyone but Miller himself. The dirt and dust is tangible and yet the visual aesthetic is beautiful. Bright blue skies clash against orange sand. Flames, explosions and the bright red guitarist’s outfit light up the screen. Which brings me (finally…) to the Black & Chrome edition.
This film has always looked so beautiful, you could pause any random moment and hang it on the wall. Whilst that is definitely still the case here (black and white photography can be stunning no matter what the subject), a film which bombards the viewer with unrelenting action and explosions seems a bizarre choice to de-colourise. The palette of Mad Max: Fury Road is so much a part of its lustre, so synonymous with the movie already and so instantly recognisable that robbing it of that gloss detracts from the experience.
Certain elements are worth the experiment; the post-apocalypse is suddenly grimier and more sullen for one, altering the tone of the entire film at times. The night scenes look stunning as do the aerial shots of dozens of pursuing cars, now black insects against the sand. However, the biggest draw – namely the huge set-pieces – feel diluted. Frank Darabont’s preference for his black-and-white take on The Mist makes sense – a nod to the creature features of the 50s is the perfect choice for a format which made that particular genre famous in the first place – but for an action piece such as this it serves only to blunt the overall package.
The definitive way to experience this film is on the biggest screen, with the best sound system, in colour and two dimensions. Like the 3D version (which is also not without its merits), the Black & Chrome edition is an interesting alternative and acts as more curio than replacement. Who am I to argue with George though? Now when is that Benny Hill version due out?