Two of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, seem vastly different at face value.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a personal, intimate true tale of an explorer enduring the harsh realities of the untamed American frontier to make things right by the man who kills his son and (sort of) buries him alive. George Miller’s return to the world of Mad Max, by contrast, is loud, bombastic and unafraid to indulge the audience with as much over-the-top spectacle as they can handle.
Despite the cinematic differences, they are incredibly similar in the big picture: they both rely on visual spectacle, setting, and weighty action to fortify the stakes, and both works were created by two established directors who know how to grasp the spirit of a script and bring it to life with sincerity and passion.
But at both films’ cores are stories of survival. The main difference at hand? Mad Max: Fury Road is a story that captures that theme more elegantly and strongly than The Revenant, resulting in a payoff that is comparatively more emotional and viscerally aware of its message.
Sure, it’s easy to make that claim when the stakes in Miller’s story are much higher; Furiosa leading Immortan Joe’s wives to a place of hope, redemption and new life versus The Revenant’s Hugh Glass’ journey for the blood of one man.
But it goes deeper than that, straight into the minutiae of Miller’s and Iñárritu’s respective worlds. For starters, there’s an acute – albeit subtle – attention to detail in Fury Road that alludes to what Furiosa is fighting for that is much more powerful when compared to what Glass strives to achieve – simply trying to live another day.
Iñárritu deliberately makes Glass’ motives ambiguous – indeed, there are only a few, crafy hints in Leonardo DiCaprio’s largely dialogue-less performance that alludes to Glass’ intention to go after his betrayer, John Fitzgerald. For the most part Iñárritu channels his inner Terrence Malick, scattering fleeting imagery reminiscent of Glass’ past that is a little too dreamlike for the audience to decide whether these visions are worth investing in or simply a representation of Glass’ inner struggle that parallels his external ones.
It’s a tough duty for the average moviegoer to take on. DiCaprio tries to compensate with a performance that strives to be emotional but for the most part seems like he’s in an overlong episode of Fear Factor. Despite Iñárritu’s direction, some more dialogue would have done DiCaprio some good.
Conversely, Fury Road isn’t shy nor secretive about the world it conveys on the screen. Both films excel at visually portraying the brutalities of their environments, but Miller elects to be straightforward, not ambiguous.
It starts with Max Rockatansky’s opening monologue confessing his confusion over who is crazier, “Me or everyone else.” After 20 minutes viewers have an idea of the deeply-rooted anarchy that lays the foundation for the Wasteland, run by dictators who rule through the concept of reaching a Valhalla.
It’s a vibe that’s almost religious in a world without any semblance of order, and it’s one that never lets up through the film’s running time. It’s worldbuilding at its finest; a future that, despite looking bleak and tainted in its gasoline-drowned deserts, is one that we’re immediately invested in from the start.
And that’s because of Furiosa’s journey. She’s searching for “the green place” where she once came from, and though we aren’t offered specifics of what such a place is like, we have an idea simply based on the name that screams themes of hope and redemption where there is simply no green to be found, whether literally or metaphorically. That connotation, along with Immortan Joe’s ruthless implied tyranny and supremely patriarchal agenda, is more than enough for us to cheer on our heroine.
Again, these observations aren’t reached simply because Fury Road’s presentation might be more entertaining to the average movie-goer – what with pace, script, spectacle, etc. all more accessible – but it also makes a superior effort in conveying a journey that continuously has substance to offer.
With The Revenant, Glass’ journey essentially over once he gets back to the rest of his crew. The company’s leader, Andrew Henry, immediately understands Fitzgerald is at fault, and he and Glass set out for him. As satisfying as the final encounter between Glass and Fitzgerald may be, it is devoid of anything we don’t expect, whether in plot or emotion.
It’s evident that the duration of The Revenant was essentially getting from Point A to Point B for Glass, and even then the film’s credits roll literally as Glass is just starting to contemplate his journey and what it has done for him, if anything, internally.
Miller takes a different approach, not just by fooling the audience when it is revealed that “the green place” has also drowned in the anarchy and sands of the Wasteland, but by setting his characters on another quest for redemption entirely: making their own refuge of hope and salvaged civilization by going back to the place where the only order resides in anarchy, despite unfathomable odds.
The result is newfound emotional investment in Furiosa, Max and also in ourselves, as Miller teaches us that redemption lies through the road we’d like to travel the least, one in which our adversaries have the upper hand.
Max, the lone wolf, himself struggles internally, skeptical about “the green place”, until he realizes the hope he didn’t know he was searching for has to be made, not found, in the Wasteland. In the process, the redeemed War Boy Nux also reaches his own self-made Valhalla as he sacrifices himself for this newfound kind of hope he never thought existed.
Both Iñárritu and Miller strive to tell stories of survival and the power of will. But simply by comparing each film’s final moments, Mad Max: Fury Road is the more complete movie, effectively portraying the conflicted ambitions of its characters, and the powerful effect of them reaching their own Valhalla, versus Glass’ Boy Scout tale that strives to keep emotional and thematic momentum through teasing the audience with substance, but never truly delivering.
In the end, Miller – unlike Iñárritu – reaches a conclusion that is straightforward, not ambiguous; thoughtful, not predictable; and, most importantly, respectful towards its audience.