Mad Max: Fury Road does not seem like the kind of movie that would suddenly start building Academy Award buzz in the middle of December.
It was released back in May, several months before the peak Oscar-bait season that dominates the last quarter of the year and, generally, the attention of voters. It is an action movie, a genre usually not taken seriously by the Academy in above-the-line categories. Despite the positive reviews it received, it seemed poised as recently as a month ago to be overlooked in favor of other releases — Spotlight, Brooklyn, Carol — that appeal to those with a more traditional statuette-worthy sensibility.
Yet here we are, smack in the middle of December, watching Mad Max: Fury Road burst into the Oscar conversation as unsubtly as a guy playing a flame-shooting guitar while chained to the front of a massive truck. In the past couple of weeks, George Miller’s ultra-dusty road warrior trip has been named best picture by numerous critic groups, including the National Board of Review, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Village Voice‘s critics poll and Indiewire’s critics poll; was nominated for Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for best picture; and was included on the American Film Institute’s list of the year’s 10 best movies. A post published earlier this week at the awards prognostication site Gold Derby said Fury Road has “skyrocketed” in the eyes of odds-makers, who now see it as a likely Oscar contender for Best Picture and Best Director.
This is good news, and not just because Fury Road is the sort of imaginative, visceral cinema experience that deserves to be honored, but also because it’s the rare, widely-seen thrill ride that intelligently resurrects a franchise while allowing women to drive its narrative.
Two of the most consistently voiced complaints about the movie business this year were: a) that too many reboots and sequels are getting green lights in lieu of original stories, and b) that women are not being represented, onscreen or off, to the degree that they should be. Neither of these concerns are new, nor have they been resolved by even the remotest stretch. But Mad Max: Fury Road does an admirable job of addressing both of them and subverting our expectations of what’s possible, which, in some ways, makes it the perfect best picture for 2015.
Like several other films this year, Fury Road resuscitates a decades-old franchise. But it doesn’t feel like a cash grab, nor does it actively court our feelings of nostalgia. More than any other reboot from the past 12 months, it is both inspired by its original source material — its setting is post-apocalyptic, its vehicles are Frankensteined and high-octane, its dialogue is spare, its aesthetic is amped-up dieselpunk — yet a wholly new experience, one that can easily be appreciated by those who never saw Mel Gibson play Max and couldn’t find their way to a life beyond Thunderdome with a GPS and the lyrics to a hit Tina Turner song.
Fury Road famously relies on practical effects and real stunts in a way that also feels fresh. Even though it was distributed by Warner Bros., the movie doesn’t play as though it went through a mainstream studio transmogrifier. It’s gritty and frenetic and while you’re watching it, it feels like some crazy shit could go down at any moment because crazy shit is going down in practically every frame. The techniques used to make this Mad Max may be old-school, but because of director George Miller’s simultaneously minimalist and go-for-totally-broke approach, you walk out of the theater going, “Man, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like that before.” This is the exact opposite effect we expect a movie reboot to have, and it’s exactly why, as long as Hollywood insists on continuing to go back to familiar wells, it should seek guidance from films like Fury Road that dare to reinvent some of their wildly spinning wheels.
The other unexpected thing Fury Road does is focus its story on women, and not just any women, but resourceful, scrappy ones who have been oppressed and abused by a male figure — the metal-masked creeper Immortan Joe — and are no longer afraid to take away his oxygen if it means they can finally breathe free, fresh air. We tend to praise action movies when they feature one particularly strong woman, like an Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow or Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. Fury Road boasts several women and is about the tragic dehumanization of an entire gender. Yes, Tom Hardy’s Max is still a big part of the proceedings. But the hero here, the character we are rooting for above all the others, is indisputably Charlize Theron’s determined Furiosa, the Moses leading her suffering flock to the promise of the Green Place. There’s something wonderfully subversive about revisiting a franchise associated with a star who once referred to a female police officer as “sugar tits,” and turning said revisitation into a feminist empowerment narrative.
The success of Mad Max: Fury Road, critically and financially, proves that reboots can be inventive and that (duh) women can play much more significant roles in all kinds of movies, even the sort stereotypically associated with testosterone-heavy ticket-buyers. Will Academy voters take any of this under consideration when they start their nomination process in a couple of weeks? It’s unclear. There are other very fine movies vying for Oscar attention that also stand as rebukes to the unimaginative reboot trend and boast strong, complicated women as their central figures. Carol, Brooklyn, and Room — none of which are attempting to inject new life into any established franchises — have female protagonists and are precisely the kind of carefully crafted, intimate relationship portraits that we need just as much of at the movies as the virtuoso sequels.
But here’s the thing: The whole point of widening the Best Picture race back in 2009 was to increase the opportunities for all kinds of movies to be represented. I’ve argued before that that effort, though well-intended, has not accomplished that goal. Making space for Mad Max: Fury Road would confirm that the minds of voters are opening more wider. The question is whether there’s room for so many box office hits — The Martian, The Force Awakens, Inside Out — to have a seat at the Best Picture table in a single year.
For a long time, there has been an unspoken dividing line between the high brow and therefore truly Oscar-worthy, and the popcorn-crunchy fare that’s entertaining and financially successful. It’s as though smart and well-crafted can’t co-exist with popular and thoroughly entertaining. Just as Hollywood’s gender disparities and excessive reliance on the familiar need to be overcome, so does that divide between quality and mainstream appeal
Mad Max: Fury Road proves that an action movie, a reboot, and a summer tentpole can also be filled with craftsmanship, intellectual heft and a rebellious streak. Some films are symphonies; this one is an electric-guitar-solo inferno. It will be interesting to see if Oscar voters value the sound of that kind of music.