Furiosa Fails the Mad Max Series — and the Summer Box Office

Anya Taylor-Joy revs up her engines for Furiosa, but this Mad Max prequel is running on fumes.

Still from <citeFuriosa: A Mad Max Saga. (Warner Bros)

I thought it was odd, and even a little eerie, when I found myself watching Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga entirely alone in a gigantic empty theater during a holiday weekend that’s supposed to kick off the big summer movie-going season.

But reportedly, in spite of Furiosa premiering in the number one spot, it’s a record-setting low for a number-one movie opening on Memorial Day weekend, unmatched (other than the year of the COVID lockdown) since Casper led a weak field back on the same holiday weekend in 1995. Just to give you an idea of how bad the “box-office meltdown” is, Furiosa just barely edged out The Garfield Movie for meager returns.

This is interesting, because Furiosa, George Miller’s sequel to his 2015 postapocalyptic fan-fave Mad Max: Fury Road, seemed as close to a guaranteed smash as could be dreamed up in Hollywood. Though if you actually read up on it, Fury Road — despite being a major critical hit and an object of obsessive fan adoration — was only modestly profitable.

As the commentary class weighs in on the “disastrous” opening of Furiosa, it seems that Fury Road fans were worried all along about the quality of the follow-up from the very first Furiosa trailer, especially about the casting of thin, slight, huge-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy to play a younger version of the title character, a character defined by tall, strong, action-ready Charlize Theron in Fury Road.

Then there was the concern about the trailer’s “bad CGI.” Hoo-boy, let’s talk about the CGI.

Furiosa is sick with it. Every bit of landscape looks visually “sweetened,” and therefore none of it looks like real desert outback, which is terrifying terrain that did so much to make early Mad Max films memorable. Most of the nearly nonstop chase scenes have that boring, no-stakes quality of constant violent events that seem to have no reality in “meat space.” No meat, no interest.

When lead characters carry on unhurt after plunging to the earth or taking multiple pistol-whippings to the face or surviving metal-rending car crashes that should dismember the human form, it’s no longer even surprising in this cartoonish world. There are dogs in the film that don’t look or move like dogs at all. There’s no ignoring the weird, rubber-legged way they walk and run, and the impression that they float slightly because CG artists haven’t represented correctly how their mass and poundage would be registered when they move. This might not seem so important, except that the dogs play a central role in a late scene in which a character is gruesomely killed by being dragged to death while also being chased and chewed to pieces by a pack of these dogs. And patently fake dogs aren’t scary.

Remember that great pit bull chase in No Country for Old Men, and how nerve-racking it was to see Josh Brolin’s escaping character Llewelyn Moss plunge into a fast-moving river with that crop-eared pit bull’s goblin-like head right behind him as the muscle-bound dog churned through the water, hell-bent on ripping him apart? Terrific, right? But then when Moss staggers out of the water, there’s that one terrible shot that momentarily stalls the effect of the scene, when he shoots the pit bull as it’s hurling itself toward him, and it’s clearly a fake animatronic dead dog that bowls him over. At least it looked like a real, weighty thing in the world, but there was no mistaking it — fake dog.

The word is that Furiosa is being unfavorably compared to Fury Road, which has the reputation of being unsparingly realistic. That reputation was fostered by people believing director George Miller who kept bragging about the film being “not a green screen movie.” It seems that people actually bought the hype that the film was 90 percent practical effects.

Still from Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. (Warner Bros)

Anyone who has ever worked in film production, even briefly, develops total cynicism about these kinds of claims, and no longer believes in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or the wild tales told in promotional interviews. The insane hyping of movies as they premiere virtually guarantees lying or at least exaggerating on an epic scale. Believing the hype is how people come to accept the claims that several top action film stars do all their own stunts, as if insurance companies would sign off on any such mad endeavor as a zillion-dollar action film that’s risking the life of its main moneymaker practically every day. That kind of no-guts-no-glory risk-taking went on among highly trained martial artists in the old Hong Kong film industry, with its astounding lack of safety regulations — nothing like the contemporary American version of action filmmaking.

So you shouldn’t even need to read the quote from the Fury Road cinematographer John Seale — who apparently didn’t get the urgent PR memo informing everyone about what lies to tell — saying that a lot of the film was CGI:

There was an enormous amount of green screen. The 40 to 45 percent of the film with the beautiful Charlize Theron and five beautiful girls in the backseat who are all involved in getting that truck to a certain point and back again is done without the truck moving. The visual effects boys built big hydraulics rams and could put the entire semi-trailer tanker onto rams and rock that thing. They could throw you off of the roof if they wanted to, which they nearly did a couple of times on-set! George and Dean, as far as I was concerned, had honed the use of simtrav [simulated travel] on the other Mad Max films. George has learned the value of wind. Whenever we did simtrav we had the biggest wind machines. They were stirring up dust, and making the hair and wardrobe move.

Admittedly the Fury Road CGI is comparatively artful, and Seale attests to Miller’s skill in using so much of it:

George’s manipulation of the image that I gave him is incredible and intense, and was always meant to be that way. George has learned by doing animated films the value of the computer and what it can do; he knows also the value of how live-action can be integrated into computer generated imaging.

But you really should rely on your own eyes and look at the damn movie, people. You honestly believe all that death-defying chaotic flying around in Fury Road action scenes was done in real life, with nothing digitally altered except for erasing the safety harnesses? You bought those Vogue shoot landscapes of glossy, gorgeous red desert as real places?

I can’t stand it. All this media saturation ought to make people more savvy about it, not less.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I write about Furiosa, since action films have their own critic-proof pull. Even if not in the numbers the producers were hoping for, people will go see it and come out raving about what an epoch-defining feminist masterpiece of realism it is. The bar is set so low now for feminism and film, we’ve got masterpieces coming out every other month to hear people tell it.

Furiosa is all about how, as a child, the title character got kidnapped by Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) and his gang of wasteland barbarians. Dementus is a strutting, long-bearded idiot always holding forth in a broad Australian accent and pulling dumb moves that get his people killed in big careless numbers. But he’s so persistent in his spectacular acts of hubris, he manages to hold onto a sufficient horde of followers to stay competitive with Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), the deformed ruler of the Citadel. It’s typical Dementus swagger when he rides up in front of that virtually impregnable stone fortress in a chariot pulled by two dune buggies and shouts up the rocky hilltop to demand the immediate surrender of Immortan Joe and his sons and advisors. Naturally, Immortan Joe says “Kill them all,” and Dementus and his boys have to hightail it out of there. Hemsworth seems to enjoy playing this sadistic, adage-spouting buffoon, so at least somebody got some fun out of it.

The most memorable chase scenes in Furiosa are probably the first and the last, because some sort of poignant human emotion is animating the action. There are so many mad dashes through the desert, as gangs chase down enemies or escapees, or as supply runners returning from Gas Town or the Bullet Farm flee from bands of marauders, or as warring armies race into battle that after a while it’s quite numbing to see characters once again suiting up, arming up, and going vroom-vroom.

Remember when the crippling shortage of gasoline was a harrowing and memorable part of the logic of these Mad Max films? No? Well, it was a long time ago.

Still from Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. (Warner Bros)

The first chase scene dramatizes the abduction of Furiosa, who’s with her little sister picking peaches in an edenic place of plenty, apparently the only one left on the desert continent. She gets snatched by two Dementus scouts eager to take her back to their leader and get credit for finding this last bit of paradise for their gang to plunder. But they haven’t bargained on Furiosa’s mother, Mary Jabassa (Charlee Fraser), a sharpshooter who tracks the scouts and gets Furiosa back.

Dementus’s gang gives chase — in this movie, everybody always gives chase — and Mary J. sends Furiosa ahead on a dead scout’s stolen motorcycle, staying behind to slow down the pursuing gang, knowing she’s sacrificing her own life for her daughter. A wasted effort, because Furiosa returns and becomes a captive eyewitness to her mother’s torture and death.

A variation on the same thing happens much later to young adult Furiosa in this hundred-and-forty-eight-minute film, and it can’t help but make you feel impatient. For God’s sake, Furiosa, when somebody sacrifices themselves to save you, let yourself be saved. Don’t make your would-be rescuer’s last deed on earth look like a foolish empty gesture.

The movie is mostly a revenge-and-return saga, with Furiosa determined on a bloody reckoning with Dementus and a return to her idyllic matriarchal homeland. But you know how these things go — not only that you can’t go home again, you can’t get proper revenge either. Wait’ll you see the five different waffling tales spun about what Furiosa might or might not have done to Dementus, all cast into an unsatisfying storybook yarn from the past, narrated in lofty tones, about Furiosa, the myth, the legend!

Look, we’ll be the judge of whether or not a character gets legendary status. If anything, this sequel demotes Furiosa, and the reputation of the whole Mad Max saga shrinks. Here’s hoping that weak profits end it, at least until we get a neorealist backlash against our current visual hell of digitally prettifying, falsifying, and glossing over everything.