The single, seminal movie that would define my taste in films came in the mythical Summer of 1982 (a spectacular season that saw gave us Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Tron, Conan The Barbarian, Poltergeist and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, among others). I was only seven years old back in '82, so I wouldn't see films that would become obsessions for me until later (Blade Runner, for example). The movie that captured my imagination and forever molded my taste in film would be E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Steven Spielberg's blockbuster deeply resonated with me, to the extent that I made my parents take me to see it SEVEN TIMES. I became so obsessed that I became angry at Mohandas Gandhi when E.T. lost out in the race for Best Picture. Not mad at the film "Gandhi," but mad at the actual historical figure (I wasn't the most level-headed child). To this day, I cry every time I see it. E.T. falling ill still just WRECKS me, and the emotional catharsis at the end is still overwhelming.
The larger effect of E.T. on me was the creation of a life-long fixation on that rarest of film achievements: The successful combination of big-budget spectacle with an emotionally arresting, well-told story. Say what you will about Spielberg (especially in terms of his problems with endings), but at his best he's the MASTER of this tricky alchemy (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of The Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report all spring to mind). I am capable of enjoying low-budget indie films, and even occasionally empty effects-laded blockbusters, but I was beginning to think that this was becoming a lost art (even the recent Champion of this sort of wizardry, Christopher Nolan, faltered with his recent misfire Interstellar).
In a larger sense, I had started to worry that I was losing my ability to be truly awed by films any more. I could make coherent arguments about why this was happening: Television as a story-telling medium is ascendant, and the major Hollywood studios have become obsessed with creating massive multi-film franchises and wringing every last monetizable cent out of any familiar property they can get their hands on. This, combined with an overabundance of computer-generated effects have robbed big studio films of any sense of unpredictability or danger.
When you watched Avengers: Age of Ultron, did you have any sense that any of the main characters were in actual danger? When you know there are a dozen related Marvel films yet to come, you also know that there will be no concrete resolution to any of the movie's conflicts. The stakes plummet. The mayhem on screen starts to look like a particularly well-done cut scene from a video game. A depressing sameness sets in (Don't believe me? Behold that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy have the EXACT SAME ENDING). To paraphrase Christof in The Truman Show, we've become bored by special effects. At least that's what happened to me. The last Hollywood film I truly loved was Her. I started to believe that at age 40 I had become a sour, curmudgeonly bitch.
Then a reboot/sequel (it's never explicitly laid out) made by a 70-year-old director came along and totally renewed my faith in the creative potential of Hollywood. Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action film of the decade so far, and easily the best film of 2015 (it might just hold onto that crown all year- It's that good). It's not just a mesmerizingly blood-spattered, nitro-fueled, two-hour demolition derby- It's a capital-I Important film that subverts expectations and subtly delivers a deeply feminist/humanist message.
Another film from the Class of '82 was George Miller's The Road Warrior, the 2nd film in his original Mad Max trilogy. The movie made Mel Gibson an international superstar, thrilled audiences with its death-defying stunts, and created a cultural short-hand for "post-apocalyptic wasteland." Another sequel would follow in 1985, but plans for another Mad Max film stalled after that. Miller's focus wandered to children's films like Babe: Pig in the City and the Happy Feet movies, and Gibson's star fell after he revealed his sexism and antisemitism to the world. Miller struggled to secure backing for another tale of the Wasteland, and finally got Warner Brothers to shell out $150 million for a new film starring Tom Hardy in the role of protagonist Max Rockatansky.
The film is ambiguous about whether this is a "reboot" of the Mad Max story or a sequel to the original films. but Miller pointedly kept Global Thermonuclear War as the apocalypse that "Killed the World." Post-Cold War that seems like a retro choice, but it turns out to be crucial in at least one character's arc. The big surprise? While Hardy capably fills the role of Max, he's not the main character in the film. That's Charlize Theron, as Imperator Furiosa. She's a trusted lieutenant of local warlord Immortan Joe (Never let it be said that Miller doesn't have a flair for names), and is sent on a mission to retrieve fuel and ammunition for Joe's "Citadel." Joe controls the local population by monopolizing the water supply and via an army of "War Boys" who are brainwashed into suicide-bomber levels of fanatical loyalty. The Immortan's prize possessions are his five "wives," who are enslaved as "breeders." When it dawns on him that Furiosa is actually on a mission to help the wives escape, the chase is on.
And what a glorious chase! The vast majority of the film consists of elaborately staged automobile chases across the irradiated Australian outback (actually filmed in Namibia), and Miller is constantly upping the ante without losing narrative cohesion. The chases are breathtaking and (relatively) free of CGI, which lends them the feeling that the actors on screen are in actual danger. The effect is exhilarating, but Miller's most impressive trick is that the viewer is never left thinking "Who's that? Why are they doing that? Huh?" Just based on its technical merits, this is one of the best action films of all-time... But Fury Road delivers much more than one long mind-melting chase.
Theron gives one of the best performances of her career (it's hard to reconcile that she was also the vapid Mavis Gary in the brilliant Young Adult), and hopefully she'll get an Oscar nod like Sigourney Weaver did for her work in Aliens. Furiosa instantly stands with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner among the best female characters in the annals of action/sci-fi cinema, and anchors one of the most blatantly feminist films to ever come out of a Hollywood studio.
While most Hollywood films struggle to even pass the Bechtel Test, Fury Road goes far beyond that and deconstructs/implodes the typical structure and visual language of male-centric, testosterone-fueled action films. Without giving too much away, the film takes a sledgehammer to patriarchy and sexism. A question asked more than once is "Who Killed The World?" Fury Road's answer seems to be: Boys stunted by Toxic Masculinity.
Importantly, Miller makes it clear that this toxic culture poisons EVERYONE. It doesn't just harm the women who bear the brunt of its effects- From Immortan Joe to his War Boys to Max himself, sexist assumptions lead to catastrophic decision-making. Another common refrain in the film is "We are not things." It is only when the characters work together collaboratively and view others as people rather than things do they succeed- Max is described as being motivated solely by survival, but he quickly figures out that lone-wolfing it action-hero style is a losing play.
The shorter version: Come for the astounding action, stay for the astonishing gender politics.
The stunning contradiction at the heart of Fury Road is that even though it's a throwback component of a decades-old franchise, it feels like a huge gulp of pure oxygen. It feels vibrant, new, and one is left with the feeling that every big summer blockbuster that hits theaters for the rest of the summer will be left looking superficial, superfluous and downright silly. How can I take Jurassic World seriously after this? How you gonna keep them on the farm once they've seen Fury Road?