by Matt McKenna
Not since last December's American Sniper has a simple blockbuster action film generated as much serious discussion as Mad Max: Fury Road. Where American Sniper seemed to tie people in knots about its stance on war, Fury Road has divided moviegoers as to the film's feminist credentials. Is it really a feminist film? Is it merely a film that has non-terrible female characters? Or is it actually an anti-feminist film in feminist film's clothing? Who knows, but what both American Sniper and Fury Road make quite clear is that a straightforward action movie is wide open to interpretation as writers transform its explosions into exegesis, its car chases into consternation, and its body count into boycotts.
The plot of Fury Road is terrifically thin: Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by a violent totalitarian post-apocalyptic dieselpunk gang but has the good fortune of being set free during a calamitous rebellion lead by the gang's once-loyal lieutenant, Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Max and Furiosa eventually team up, blow up a lot of cars/people, and–excuse the spoiler–kill the bad guy. That's all the plot there is, but that's all the plot the movie needs as the attraction of the film has nothing to do with story and everything to do with its wonderfully cinematic action sequences. It may therefore seem odd for so many words to be written about a film whose story can be losslessly compressed into a compound sentence or two, but it turns out this lack of specificity in the film is precisely what is required to generate such high-minded dialogue between interested moviegoers.
There's a segment in the Sophie Fiennes directed, Slavoj Zizek narrated film Pervert's Guide to Ideology in which Zizek describes the first half of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as being a capable vessel for ideology because of its “universal adaptability.” In the film, Zizek explains that the symphony has been used at different times to promote all sorts of conflicting political ideologies such as Nazism, communism, and a host of other -isms. Zizek attributes the symphony's ideological flexibility to its being “an empty container, open to all possible meanings.” He doesn't say it exactly like this, but I think Zizek is calling Beethoven's Ninth the musical equivalent of Murphy's Law. Where Murphy's Law is usually stated something like, “anything that can happen will happen,” Zizek's Law takes the form of “anything that can be read into this thing will be read into this thing.” Doesn't that pretty much describe Fury Road as well?
Can the film be read as a critique of gender inequality? Definitely–people are doing just that. Can it also be read as a warning about damaging the environment? A quick Google search shows some writers are taking that angle too. Can Fury Road even be about my favorite subject, the absurdity of taking national politics seriously? I think so (okay, let me try: Max represents a voter in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of American politics who is forced to take part in what is essentially infighting in a doomed political structure; Furiosa represents Barack Obama as the outsider who looks as if he's going to fundamentally change politics; Things seem to work out eventually for Max and Furiosa just as they did for Obama, but even with the happy ending, the world of Fury Road is still out of water and the landscape of American politics remains unchanged even after Obama had eight years in office; nothing is different; nobody is happy; cue the sequels).
Fury Road is so open to whatever interpretation one would like to attribute to it, websites that usually find themselves in utter ideological disagreement have praised the film for being a fantastic example of the topic they normally write about. Jezebel, a popular feminist website, calls Fury Road a “feminist blockbuster” and praises it for confronting the “the obsession of fertility” referring to women's reproduction rights back in the real world. Breitbart, a comparably popular conservative website that one would assume shares little overlap in readership with Jezebel, likewise praises the movie and its depiction of women, but instead of referencing the female characters' independence regarding reproductive issues, the Breitbart writer focuses on the female characters' “breaking away from a cult of personality and its tyrannical central government.” Depending on which site you're more likely to frequent, you may find either website's take on the movie to be reaching/reasonable. I think this is exactly what Zizek is saying about some works of art functioning as empty containers, open to all possible meanings. By being about nothing, Fury Road can offer everyone something.
Fury Road puts me in a weird position because the joy in writing these Strained Analogy columns comes from trying to stretch a movie's plot around the body of a real life issue and getting a kick out of the poor fit. But upon reading the profligate words used to dress Fury Road on the topics of the day, it has become clear that the film's meaning truly is one-size-fits-all and looks reasonable wrapped around just about any issue a person wants to bring to it. In terms of strained analogies, Fury Road is a tough nut to crack and goes to show that the most poignant films are frequently the most pointless, the films most conducive to providing meaning are frequently the most meaningless, and the films most likely to spur deep conversation are frequently the most shallow.