It’s really not.
Harrassed by respected and admired friends, I went to see Mad Max at the theatre. “It’s a thoughtful work of SF” they said. So too did the myriad of reviewers showering praise on the film. To be clear, this movie deserves praise, and plenty of it. Miller has updated his dystopian world with care and precision (for the most part). This is a world that feels lived-in. It has it’s own politics and culture and machinations (literal and figurative). I cannot easily state how much I admire that level of speculation and extrapolation. Even beyond that, however, Fury Road is simply a stunningly well-executed action film that does a rare and remarkable job of mixing spectacle with character and consequence. On the character side, much credit has to go to the performance of Charlize Theron, on whom most of the emotional weight of the film seems to rest. Miller employs the Peter Jackson-ian strategy of simply focusing on his best performer for a reaction shot to create gravitas for the film’s actions, and Theron delivers so consistently that the filmmakers behind Aeon Flux and Prometheus ought to shake their collective heads at the opportunity they wasted. So, in short, high praise for Fury Road.
No, however, it is not a thoughtful work of Science Fiction. We live in an era where SF concepts such as transhumanism have made huge gains into the realm of cinema. Ghost in the Shell, Her, and the recent Ex Machina are all testament to this. Audiences are willing to take their SF as more than Space Opera (though movies are still doing very well with that, such as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy). People don’t seem to mind SF that makes you think too hard anymore. Fury Road is not one such film, though…and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Thoughtful implies things to think about. What are the main messages at play in Fury Road? I would argue:
1) Home is nice.
2) Faux Prophet Warlords are bad.
3) Survival is important and desperate times call for desperate measures.
I knew all those things beforehand. I don’t really need to think about them in any great depth. And yes, there’s a strong feminist subtext with a great female protagonist, but that is also kind of obvious to me. I don’t really want to applaud them too hard for discovering that women can be badass action heroes. Of course they can.
The growth of SF depends upon a sort of genre fragmentation – a different SF subgenre for everyone, whether they want to contemplate the meaning of existence, or watch a clown-leper drive a hot rod through a desert to reclaim his harem. Again, that’s fine. Fury Road is a great film, but it’s not a “thoughtful” film, as so many are claiming. It doesn’t raise the bar in that regard because it doesn’t have to. The bar was set a half century ago by Stanley Kubrick, and, despite many valliant efforts, nobody has touched it since. The bar for Fury Road is that of truly great action film, and, in that regard, it truly earns its praise.