Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road as worship of classical physics

Three women gaze with concern out of a car, binoculars and telescopes in hand.
Still from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Mad Max: Fury Road is thematically rich. There's bodily autonomy (I count at least three different invocations of the motif); femininity and choice; culture and identity. But as a newcomer to the franchise, I was most struck by how raw physicality plays into it all.

Earlier this year, Venkatesh Rao (riffing on Penrose) described a trichotomy of ways reality and fiction give us affective experiences: physical, social and mathematical. Think Matthew Reilly vs. the Bront√ęs vs. Agatha Christie; Angry Birds vs. The Sims vs. Tetris. (As with most systems of classification, it falls apart quickly when interpreted as a sharp-edged "either-or", but it does provide a useful framework to begin from.)

Action movies, as you'd expect, deliver most of their gratification through the physical. But it's not just these. Interstellar, for example, achieves a great deal of its emotional highs through moments of pure physics -- conservation of momentum, torque, thrust. It's an ode to the raw mechanics of piloting a spaceship (much as The Hunt for Red October is an ode to submarine piloting).

Similarly, Mad Max: Fury Road is a panegyric to the automobile, but its homage to physicality extends beyond that.

Still from *Mad Max: Fury Road* (2015).
War culture. Ibid.

Conservation of energy

In a world without electricity, energy isn't abstracted away behind light switches. Giant pulleys are moved by human pedalling, cars are pushed out of mud with sheer grit, waterways open at the pull of a gargantuan lever. Every reaction is directly caused by an equally visceral action. This is a world without power steering.

The war drums (and war guitar, of course) embody this -- camera shots lingering on the drummers as their entire bodies swing into beat after beat, so entwined their riggings that they seem to be an extension of their war machines.

Indeed, even social power in this world is only ever a single level of remove from physical power. The characters with high standing -- Immortan Joe, Furiosa, and so on -- are characterised by martial prowess and brute strength.

This all certainly borrows heavily from the pre-feudal warlord culture the film riffs upon, but it's tangibly a part of the film's direction, not some contingent bit of stylistic afterthought. Energy and physical motion is currency.


And if physical motion is currency in Fury Road, then engine fuel is its most fungible manifestation. Fuel is the resource that raiding parties are sent out to hunt for; fuel is the bartering chip that gets the War Rig into the canyon. Unlike paper currency, its value is intrinsic -- characters count the fuel they have left, the number of days' mileage they can make on it. Even in a dystopian wasteland it can meaningfully be hoarded and stolen. And, of course, it can be destroyed.

Fury Road both depicts and embodies the worship of scarce resources. Fuel, water, bullets: everything is in short supply. Every shot fired, every extra gallon of gas, counts.

This attitude pervades the entire culture -- even the most cloistered of the escapees know like second nature how to count bullets and match them to their firearms. Water is coveted and fought for; its long-forgotten cousin, "green", spoken of with religious devotion. Human bodies are treated as scarcely more than sources of scarce commodities -- milk, blood, physical labour.

Still from *Mad Max: Fury Road* (2015).

Physicality embeds itself within the film in plenty more ways: the fetishistic cultural artefacts of the different factions; the motif of Furiosa's arm as both source of strength and mask; literal masks and exoskeletons and cyborg symbolism; telescopes and rifle scopes as an extension of the body. It's pervasive. The physical is everywhere. That's what makes Fury Road so effective as an action movie -- everything about it is written in the same dynamic language of force and momentum that underlies the genre.