2016’s Mad Max: Fury Road broke so much new ground for action cinema – and yet nobody appears to have really tried to follow its path.
Mad Max: Fury Road felt refreshingly different in 2015, and it still does seven years later. Director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action sequel runs counter to so many of the staples we now expect from major summer films: its story is simple where most are bogged down in characters and sub-plots. It’s a sequel, but it doesn’t require encyclopedic knowledge of lore or previous events, and neither does it serve as a jumping-off point for further films (though there is a follow-up coming, which we’ll get to later). Its action was augmented with CGI, but its wealth of physical stunts made it feel mesmerisingly real.
Mad Max: Fury Road was so different from anything else in cinemas in 2015, it felt like something of a watershed. Perhaps not on the level of Jaws or Star Wars, which helped define the modern ‘blockbuster’, but maybe in the vein of The Matrix or The Bourne Identity – movies that influenced the look and feel of action sequences for years afterwards. Fury Road, surprisingly, didn’t: certainly not in the minimalism of its plot, or in the tone or aggression of its mayhem.
The Fast & Furious series, which has long specialised in slamming cars and trucks into each other, carried on pretty much as it did before Mad Max: Fury Road came out. The eighth and ninth Fast films, released in 2017 and 2021 respectively, continued with their huge casts of characters and sub-plots, and action scenes where gravity-defying CGI often overshadowed some impressive real-world stunt work.
Given that Terminator movies have long been extended chase sequences, it’s also interesting to note that 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate didn’t take a Fury Road-style back-to-basics approach. Instead, it seemed intent on recapturing the past glories of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with action scenes that become increasingly green-screen heavy and detached from reality as the film wears on (the frictionless fight on the back of a moving cargo plane being a prime example).
The James Bond franchise, meanwhile, which is often quick to jump on trends, didn’t seem to take too much notice of Mad Max: Fury Road singular approach to filmmaking either. No Time To Die’s plot was anything but streamlined. Compared to Fury Road, its action scenes actually seem quite modest, though a car chase and gunfight in the Norwegian countryside has a raw quality that George Miller might appreciate.
So why does Mad Max: Fury Road remain such a singular moment in film? There are a few possible reasons, all closely intertwined.
One is practicality: despite the heat and logistical problems of getting all your equipment out there in the first place, Mad Max: Fury Road’s desert setting made it an ideal location for crashing lots of vehicles and setting off explosions. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine being able to stage such elaborate stunts in the middle of a city without resorting to a huge amount of CG trickery. In short, there are stunts in Fury Road that would be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate anywhere else but desolate locations like the Namibian desert.
Another consideration is sheer skill: it takes an incredible level of planning, craft, and ingenuity to stage and pull off scenes like those in Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller’s movie required the perfect alignment of multiple disciplines to get right: it needed the director and cinematographer John Seale’s keen eye to create images as distinctive as those white-painted Warboys clinging to the side of ramshackle vehicles or spiralling through the air in a plume of fire and wreckage.
But then it took expert stunt coordinators to plan those sequences so they were safe to shoot; and it took the genius of Margaret Sixel to edit everything together into a coherent whole (Sixel richly deserved the Best Film Editing Oscar she received for her work here).
All of this combined might have created a kind of shock-and-awe effect in the minds of other filmmakers. In 2017, director Steven Soderbergh perhaps crystalised the feeling a lot of his peers were having after they saw Fury Road. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Soderbergh said, “I Just watched Mad Max: Fury Road again last week, and I tell you I couldn’t direct 30 seconds of that. I’d put a gun in my mouth. I don’t understand how [George Miller] does it, I really don’t, and it’s my job to understand it. I don’t understand two things: I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead.”
Soderbergh went onto talk about the level of precision that went into Fury Road’s seeming chaos: each shot was storyboarded and planned so that the action was easy to follow. It’s a level of craft, Soderbergh argues, that is beyond the reach of many filmmakers.
“We’re talking about the ability in three dimensions to break a sequence into a series of shots in which no matter how fast you’re cutting, you know where you are geographically. And each one is a real shot where a lot of things had to go right,” Soderbergh said.
“[Miller’s] off the chart. I guarantee that the handful of people who are even in range of that, when they saw Fury Road, had blood squirting out of their eyes.”
With the bar of quality set so high, it’s understandable that a fair percentage of filmmakers would balk at capturing a shred of Fury Road’s brilliance themselves. It takes guts – and studio persuasion – to make a movie with a minimal plot like Fury Road’s. Dragging real vehicles, actors and equipment out into a desert to shoot complex, lengthy action sequences, and somehow make it all cut together, takes skill, bravery, and perhaps even a flash of madness.
Fortunately, while few other filmmakers have managed to make anything quite like Mad Max: Fury Road in the past seven years, Miller’s still not calling it a day just yet. Now aged 77, he’s currently making Furiosa: a prequel to Fury Road. If nobody else can make action movies like Miller, we can at least be grateful that he’s still out there in the desert, showing the rest of us how it’s done.
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