Just like every year, there was no real shortage of great scenes in Hollywood in 2015. Even without accounting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Hateful Eight — whose secrets are known only to the most inner circle of Rejects – the field of suggestions for ‘Best Scene’ was incredibly deep. There were votes for The Room, for Slow West, and for The Martian. More than one person cast their vote for the dance sequence in Ex Machina, the rare time in film history where you could actually feel every member of the audience falling in love with a movie’s leading man.
And then there was Mad Max: Fury Road. How to pick a single scene in a film that is essentially one long chase sequence? To make sure that the movie was treated fairly, we spent time trying to narrow down Fury Road into a single concise sequence of action; the farther we got, though, the more it seemed like the film’s first major chase – regardless of whether it be a scene, a sequence, or an act – had to be the right choice. The only alternative was to punish director George Miller for doing his job too well, and that was a distinction that none of us particularly wanted to make.
In a year where Hollywood deliberately and shamelessly tried to connect with the inner child of every audience member, it was Mad Max that wrote the script for unlocking our collective imagination. Nostalgia is limited by its own association with the past; while many movies want to recreate the feeling of being a child at the theater, a part of us is always aware that what we are being made to feel has been locked away forever. A film that lives entirely in a faithful recreation of our past can only provide us with echoes of we felt one time during one movie. To make your audience feel like a kid again, you have to overwhelm them, to confuse them, and leave them wondering if the things they saw on the screen were even really possible. You have to create a spectacle so grand, so illogical, and so sincere, that years of skepticism and cynicism are washed away in an instant.
You have to create Mad Max: Fury Road.
If that sounds like an overindulgence, then great, maybe now you’re starting to catch on. The action sequences in Fury Road work on so many levels – and have been enjoyed by so many difference audience members – that it’s easy to understate the purely visceral impact they have on viewers. On the most basic level, Miller and his army of technicians have created a movie that stuns us – that prevents us from being able to react to the movie in anything other than involuntary ways. When we think back to the great action movies of our youth, we like to describe ourselves as overcome by the senses, slack-jawed and simply plugged into the screen. Miller doesn’t simply recreate those experiences; he approaches us as adults and proceeds to bludgeon us into submission.
First, we watch a War Boy die. To this point in the chase sequence, all of the action has flowed from left to right on the screen. We’ve watched as cars accelerate towards the horizon and pale men hurl their explosives towards the bottom-right corner of the screen. Miller and composer Tom Holkenborg (also known as Junkie XL) subtly increase the tempo of the soundtrack, moving from the rhythmic pounding of Immortan Joe’s drumline to the descending string lines of the non-diegetic orchestra. And in a moment, everything is reversed. The War Boy is shot; the music drops out; as a counter to all that has come before, the dying War Boy gathers his courage and throws himself from the war rig to a fiery death. Suddenly, the entire visual direction of the movie is upset; Miller puts his audience in motion from right to left and uses that momentum to drive home an understanding of what Furiosa and Max are up against.
A few minutes later, another War Boy dies, then another, and suddenly the muted yellows and blacks of the desert have given way to an explosion of color – often quite literally – as the War Rig and its pursuers head into the center of the storm. Here Miller once more catches us unaware. Amidst the explosions and the flashes of lightning, the full range of Mad Max’s color palette explodes into being. We see quick flashes of the deepest red against the horizon; and suddenly, the War Boys’ car explodes, bathing everything in a red glow. As Nux continues in his valiant effort to die with honor for Immortan Joe, his car begins to reflect the light of the gasoline, bathing half the shots in a green translucent glow. Just as before, Miller does more than simply subvert our expectations, he uses them as a weapon against us. The sights and sounds of the film are not to be trusted.
Present through it all is a uniquely physical dimension that does not shy away from digital imagery, but rather instills every frame with the vague hint of bodily threat. We know that the stuntman playing the wounded War Boy does not leap to his death; we also know that Hardy and Hoult were never in any real danger as their car rolls wildly end over end. What we can’t do is easily explain it away. We don’t leave the theater discussing the overt usages of CGI because the seams of Miller’s universe are too neatly tucked into the fabric. Instead, we speak in a simplified language of profanity and exclamation points. George Miller has done the impossible: turned us back into the gushing children that we spend hundreds of dollars every year trying to rediscover at the movie theater.