I recently saw the fourth installment of George Miller’s Mad Max franchise and my review rubbed some people the wrong way. While I did thoroughly enjoy the film, I came out of the cinema feeling a little bit short-changed when it came to characterization and contextualization of the world. The film has received wide critical acclaim, though while I enjoyed it; I felt that the characterization was sadly limited, along with the contextualization of the setting. It was always going to be a controversial opinion, given the Internet’s unconditional love for the film, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the outright dismissal of what I felt was a reasonable response.
My desire for more of this kind of information was met with cries of ‘SF cinema does not need more exposition dumps’ and ‘Look at Star Wars, that didn’t spend a lot of time on backstory or context’. These comments stayed with me, and over the course of several days I mulled this over. The more I thought about it, the more I had to disagree – Star Wars actually has a lot more characterization elements than Mad Max: Fury Road, and it actually does it quite well (who would have thought I’d say George Lucas wrote something well! Or at least, to an extent – the dialogue’s still hella clunky.).
Elements of story
There are three integral parts of any fictional story, no matter what the format. Those are: character, plot, and setting. These three elements create the narrative aspects of the story while style and theme are how the story is told. Even if you haven’t spent as much of your life in literature or creative writing classes, these concepts should be familiar to most of you. We are all exposed to stories all the time. Be they books, TV shows, films, or even real-life stories we observe or are a part of.
While these elements can be pulled out as separate pieces, they are also intrinsically linked. Without any one of them, the story falls apart. Characters must develop and change through the course of the events in the plot. These characters and events must also exist somewhere – a time and place with it’s own context – in other words, the setting.
The point to fleshing out these pieces of a story is so that the viewer or reader will come away from the completed story and have no (or at least only a very few) ‘why’ questions. They should be able to easily identify why I character acted the way they did, why the world was the way it was, and why events happened as they did. If the story’s audience finds themselves asking ‘but why’ time after time, that story has some big problems.
Star Wars: Characters, backstory, and motivation
So why do I feel like Star Wars gave us enough to hang the character motivations on where Mad Max didn’t?
Let’s think about the main characters in Star Wars… Luke is a farm boy, desperate to get away from his dead end life on a dust planet – that’s pretty self-explanatory. Even if it wasn’t, all of this is quickly and easily given to the viewer with a few lines of dialogue between Luke and Uncle Owen. He is driven forward by his own desire and circumstances that are traumatizing while finally providing the opportunity he longed for. He is a good person, spurring him to help the Princess, but the bigger impetus for him is his dreams of being a great hero. And hey, who wouldn’t want to be? All of his actions lead him to his original goal: of being a pilot for the Rebel Alliance.
Leia is a rebel spy. She’s been trying to recruit Obi-Wan Kenobi (we don’t know why she’s reaching out to him now, but given the rest of the context, we’ll overlook this piece). When the Empire boards her ship, she takes action to save the intel she’s recovered – pretty standard spy behaviour. From her defiance of Grand Moff Tarkin and withstanding multiple interrogations, we learn she is passionate and tough. And while she is a kind of ‘damsel in distress’, locked away in a prison cell, once she’s given the opportunity to escape, she takes charge. Everything Leia does in A New Hope is for the protection of her people and to further the Rebellion’s cause. There is potentially a question of ‘why does she believe in the Rebel Alliance so passionately’, but given the depiction of the Empire, it’s hardly one anyone would dwell on for long – and if there was no answer to that at the beginning, once Alderaan is destroyed, she has more than enough cause to want the Empire to suffer.
Han Solo is also introduced while relying on tropes and stereotypes any audience member should be familiar with. He’s the smuggler but he’s got a good heart. At the end of his first scene he mentions the price on his head, giving him the ultimate reason to not only want the money from helping Luke and Obi-Wan, but to need it. Han has no choice in entering the Death Star, and once there, he only helps rescue Leia because of the potential reward. While he does receive his handsome reward, he has bonded with his companions over the course of their journey and doesn’t want to see them killed in action. So, he comes back to help.
All these characters, their motivations and backstory are given to the audience in a way to quash any ‘why’ questions. Sure, there could be a lot more given, but there’s more than enough here to build out characters with their own personalities and agency. Meanwhile, a lot of elements that build up the characters also provide the audience with an insight into the world the characters inhabit, giving us elements of character, plot, and setting all in one.
Mad Max: How it is… because it is
Mad Max: Fury Road spoilers obviously follow…
There are only two characters given any amount of characterization in Fury Road: Furiosa and Max. It really is Furiosa’s film. She drives the plot from the beginning and has the most agency, making decisions that change her and the world around her. However, the characterization that does exist is very minor and leaves the audience asking ‘but why’ on countless occasions.
The film jumps into the action sequence almost immediately – the long chase scene across the desert. I was immediately asking, ‘but why?’ Sure, Immortan Joe is an asshole and the whole set-up of his cult/community is abominable but there’s no hint as to the inciting incident for Furiosa to take the wives on this escape attempt. Later we find that Furiosa was kidnapped as a child, which gives us a clear reason for her to hate her captors, but I was still asking ‘but why now?’ And that is never answered. Her voyage to Gas Town is presented as something fairly ordinary, not like it is the first time she’s done it (so not her first opportunity). We’re told the wives begged Furiosa to take them, but how did they even know her? They were kept locked up separately. And why would they trust Furiosa? (And again, ‘why now?’ They had presumably been locked up for a while now, what changed?)
With Max, we have even more unanswered ‘why’ and even some ‘how’ questions. When we first meet him, he’s existing on his own in the wasteland – there’s no hint as to how he’s managed to escape capture before now (and the rest of the film shows how unlikely it is that he’s managed to avoid it), how he gets food, water, bullets, guns, fuel, and so on, who he was before, and what he is doing out there on his own (is he looking for someone? Running? What?). Sure, some of this can be built up from knowledge of previous films, but there’s nothing within this piece to give the audience these clues (except a brief look at his tattoo to say he’s ex police). Once captured, his motivation is fairly simple: escape and survive. That’s fine, but once the worst is behind them and the women are about to set off over the salt, why does he chase after them to give them the idea for the film’s climax (other than because he’s had absolutely nothing to do in the film so far…)? Even if we can argue he’s come to like and respect them, there’s still no reason for him to go along with them, especially as he leaves again once it’s done. Why? If his only goal is survival, surely his best hope for that is in the land run by his friend Furiosa? Why not just give her the idea and ride off into the desert, carrying on the life he led before? Why? Why? Why!
There’s no denying that Mad Max: Fury Road is a full-throttle action-packed film with a lot to enjoy, but with each new time you have the audience ask ‘why’, their belief in the film falls a little. Just giving us a little more, even to hint at why the characters did what they did, how the events of the film came to be, and so on, would have made the film a far more rewarding experience. When we start wondering why Furiosa has chosen to act the way she has – why now, why in this manner, and so on – the plot begins to unravel. For such an otherwise strong and fascinating story, it looks like just a few answered questions could have given us a truly brilliant film.