action and story
June 5, 2015
I keep saying how the action of Mad Max: Fury Road is great because it’s supported by story. Here’s the counter example, of what happens when action isn’t supported by story.
The Day After Tomorrow was a deservedly forgettable movie, despite its fantastic scenes of destruction and classic disaster movie aesthetic. The story was kind of maudlin. The climatologist’s son is stuck in New York City, which is about to be caught in this sudden apocalyptic ultra cold snap that is going to plunge half the world in viciously cold temperatures. He and his friends have found shelter in the Public Library, where, if I recall correctly, they’re burning a Gutenberg bible for warmth because apparently they already used up all the National Geographics? I dunno. Anyway, the Girlfriend has injured her leg and is experiencing instant gangrene, so the guy decides to rush out for antibiotics, because he thinks he has just enough time before the snap hits. And because this cargo ship which likely has an infirmary has washed up on 5th Avenue because Reasons. So he makes it out the ship and is foraging for antibiotics.
Suddenly wolves attack.
To be fair, the movie set this up by earlier showing a bunch of animals escaping Central Park Zoo. But when this happened in the movie I think I laughed, because they’re bad CGI wolves (too large, for one) behaving in ways that actual wolves don’t behave, for the sake of some exciting action sequence and increased tension. Except it doesn’t work because it’s random, out of left field, and makes no sense. It must have sounded great when viewed in isolation: wolf attack in the cold! It’ll be like Jack London! But I didn’t feel any increased tension. I was already focused on the tension of getting the medicine and beating the cold snap. And now wolves? Why? It actually sapped tension from the initial plot beat rather than increasing it.
Contrast this to the bit of action in Fury Road that I believe was featured in trailers because it’s so spectacular: a Warboy spray paints his mouth chrome, screams “Witness Me!” and dives head first onto porcupine car with a pair of explosive spears, and the whole thing explodes in a ball of fire, and his Warboy friends all cheer in appreciation.
When people are talking about how great the action is in Fury Road, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about. And the plain surface meaning is clear. We are supposed to think, “Holy shit these Warboys are really messed up.” And we do.
But this scene is also so important to the story because it demonstrates the Warboy theology: that they embrace death, that they seek out spectacular deaths and try to one up each other because they believe it will ensure their entrance to their Automobile Valhalla. Because of this scene, we understand why Nux is so despondent when he keeps failing to enact his own “Witness me!” death tableau. Without a bit of explanation, we understand.
This is a really simple story. In fact, whenever I start to talk about it I feel like this is so damned obvious I shouldn’t have to explain it at all. It’s so simple and elegant it’s obvious. Or should be.