Dueling Car Movies: Mad Max and Furious 7
So in the span of one week I’ve seen two big-budget, high-octane car chase movies. I went and saw Mad Max: Fury Road and a few days later watched Furious 7, the latest installment of the insanely profitable Fast and Furious franchise. Both films featured lots of vehicles, lots of explosions, and pushed the limits of what an action film can be. But as I look back and contrast the two, it has become very apparent of what is happening to the modern audience.
To begin, the numbers: Mad Max: Fury Road has been in the theaters for two and a half weeks now, and worldwide has accumulated a box office of $230m against a budget of $150m. When one factors in P&A costs, the film will need to earn another $60m to break even. Furious 7 has has accumulated a worldwide box office of $1.5b against a budget of $190m - it’s break even would be around $400m, which means the film will have made over a billion dollars in profit. A billion. Both films are certifiably fresh with RT ratings of 98% for Mad Max, and 81% for Furious 7.
And now the subjective analysis. Mad Mad: Fury Road is an outright masterpiece of pure cinema. I could see no flaw in it, I was enthralled, I was in sheer awe of its spectacle. It is the most heavy metal movie I’ve ever seen. It has been critically lauded as one of the greatest action films ever made, and normally I’d read that as hyperbole, but having seen the film I think it is warranted. It is also underperforming.
Furious 7 is like watching a Wile E Coyote cartoon or a six-year old play with his Hot Wheels toys. It is a popcorn movie, it defies all logic and common sense, is poorly scripted and contains more plot holes than Josh Duggar’s childhood. But I laughed in the theater. Not with the movie, but at the movie. It insulted my intelligence but didn’t apologize for doing that. It is resoundingly stupid with nothing real to say, just two hours of stimulus. But it is entertaining in the most basal form, and it is massively raking in the profits.
And here we have the divide, the age-old debate of art versus commerce, the condition of the mainstream audience. The press against Mad Max is regarding the film’s feminist viewpoint - and I agree is it a feminist film, beautifully so, embodied as Imperator Furiosa, the greatest female character since Ellen Ripley - and yet there has been no press regarding Furious 7′s blatant misogyny, of which there is plenty (the Rock referring to female characters as “woman,” the objectification of women as hood ornaments and glorified strippers in a male world, the overtly testosterone portrayal of women fighting, it goes on and on). Furious 7 is sloppily made, overrun with muddy CGI, and lacking craft in its most basic scenes.
Now I’m guessing you can tell my bias with Mad Max - it appealed to me both as a fan and as a filmmaker, and I’m wondering why that can’t be the case with the general audience. You don’t need to be a working filmmaker to appreciate screencraft, you have to simply sit back and allow screencraft to happen to you. George Miller and DP John Seale - who at 70 and 74 respectively created a film with more energy than a gaggle of 20-year old filmmakers - imbue their film with the fundamental basics of cinema; mise en scene, montage, framing, color, composition and practical and computer effects. Furious 7 is the equivalent to watching a pinball game on a computer screen. It exists only to propel, and not to tell a story using visual tools.
It is also being rewarded mightily for that. It made me think of the Simon Pegg quote I posted recently, where he talks about the “infantilization” of society, where we engage the nostalgia of childhood as a means of escape. Furious 7 was that in its entirety, playing out like a Looney Tune cartoon for kids, except that it is for adults.
Mad Max was also a means of escape, but to a world that has gravity, both literal and figuratively. It presents us details that ground the fantasy in some relevance. Furiosa is a woman who fights like a strong woman, and not like a strong man. She is Max’s equal, but they are not the same. Both are forces of nature. She is physically disabled, but that is never a plot point. He is also disabled, but in his mind. There is so much to chew on here, and it is not in our face like a European arthouse indie. This is big-budget, bombastic studio filmmaking on display, with actual explosions and stunts that take place before our eyes and not in the joystick-driven world of a CGI house.
In my mind, Mad Max: Fury Road deserves to be seen by just as many eyes as Furious 7, if not more. It will and already has become canon. But it is not, because - in my opinion - it is an adult film that has to be sold to a bunch of children-posing-as-adults. Mainstream audiences seem to shudder at even the slightest hint of weight - of gravity - and the “escape and don’t challenge me” reflex is the strongest its ever been, and it is harming us as a culture. I take solace that Fury Road has at least made the kind of money it has, and perhaps home video will likely take it into profitability, but it’s performance also factors into any future metrics of such a film being made again. Some gutsy studio executive took an awesome gamble on Mad Max, and that gamble may have just barely paid off. But that’s not the game studios play, and given the choice between making a sequel to Fury Road or doing Furious 8, based on the margins alone guess which one they will chose.
The issue is not with the studios, the issue is with us. We dictate what gets made, we speak with our patronage. Frankly I’m not even sure how Mad Max got made, but I’m sure as hell happy it did. It is a magnificent film, every shot seared into my head, I’m in love with Furiosa and I can’t wait to watch the film again and again. I’ve already forgotten everything about Furious 7 and that’s okay, it was designed to be a fleeting, blurry memory aside from a touching tribute to Paul Walker at the end of the movie. Both movies will have a legacy, but one from sheer craft and ingenuity, and the other from a series of remarkable marketing and sensory decisions. I will take the former every day, any day, all day. We deserve that.