How can a movie that already looks as good as Mad Max: Fury Road possibly be improved on by a black and white version? This was my first thought when debating whether or not to see the special edition monochrome edition of George Miller’s 2015 action classic. The black and white treatment, or blood and chrome edition came part of the movie’s expanded blue-ray treatment before it was set for a limited re-release.
During post-production, when supplying footage for scoring, Miller realised by accident that the black and white suddenly had a ‘more authentic and elemental’ feel. Watching it again, I soon found myself once again engrossed within George Miller’s high octane chase thriller, appreciating everything that existed before, but also appreciating the re-defined visuals that seem to further emphasise the themes and action in new and interesting ways.
Ever since Fury Road was released, it has been hailed as a modern masterpiece, perhaps the greatest action movie of the 21st century so far. The monochrome version seems to only cement it’s instant classic status. It feels less as if we are merely watching it again, but remembering it as some old silver age classic. It suddenly occupies the same space as Casablanca or Citizen Kane just through it’s limited colour palette.
Black and white was what film was before technicolour so it becomes imbued with a renewed sense of cinematic mastery. Indeed the scene of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa kneeling in the sands in despair seems to amplify the movement of the windswept sands, which feels like something out of a Kurosowa film.
Fury Road is a simple movie story wise. Set in the future, where the world has succumbed to some kind of man made apocalypse. You have Max (Tom Hardy) existing in the wasteland, made mad by the memories of all the people he’s lost over the years. His sole motivation – to survive by any means necessary. In the beginning he is captured by a band of road warriors belonging to Immortan Joe, a local patriarchal war lord who. Joe has access to clean water, he has an army of war boys all willing to die for him because he has created this kind of religious cult around him based in ideas of Valhalla.
As Max is imprisoned, his beloved car impounded. Imperator Furiosa is about to embark on a journey in the war rig – a large truck that will carry supplies with nearby settlements that will provide Joe with the resources to maintain his reign. She however, has different plans, she has arranged to sneak off with the brides of Immortan Joe, a group of beautiful women who have been confined in his fortress for the sole means of fornication – furthering Joe’s bloodline. She leaves before Joe realises, when he does, he sends out the War boys in pursuit to bring them back.
Meanwhile Max is being used as a blood donor to one of the war boys – Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who needs a supply of blood to stave his radiation sickness. Nux takes Max with him, stringing him up in his vehicle driving headfirst into battle where he hopes to earn a death where he earns glory in Valhalla. From there it’s all high speed trucks and makeshift cars and trucks cannon balling each other at close range like Spanish galleons.
Thematically, Fury Road is a movie about the binaries of good and evil, or right and wrong existing within this morally grey world. These binaries previously played out across orange sands, blue skies and rusted metal, but now they play out in a literal world of grey, the metal, the chrome, the smoke, the engines, the post apocalyptic wasteland and Mad Max himself, all imbued with a new colour code. A sense of never ending hopelessness.
It’s interesting because the brightest shade of white are reserved for Immortan Joe’s brides and the naive war boyz who believe to have this one purpose in life to be reborn in Valhalla. There’s a kind of innocence on both sides. The boys are born to die, the girls are born to breed. That’s all that is expected of them within this diminished world.
Meanwhile, Furiosa and Max are more tinged with darkness of experience. Furiosa is this force of determination and vengeance to get the women to the safe space – the green place beyond the wastes. Max is this element of pragmatic realism – the guy who knows how to survive in the wastelands. He can’t be tricked, he largely cares for himself but events in the film force him into picking a side. A decision based in morality.
The wasteland itself in black and white feels like a wasteland. A world literally devoid of any colour that existed before. On my first viewing of Mad Max, it felt obvious that the green place Furiosa hoped to get to wouldn’t exist in this wasteland, the black and white treatment only works to enhance how much of an idealistic dream this is. A hope that is shattered within every second of the film’s duration.
During the day, you can still feel the heat of the sun, feel it scorching your retinas, but at night – for instance when the party reach what is left of the green place – it has this much more soothing enchanted feel as stars twinkle in the twilight before the film revs up into it’s delirious action climax.
The action still looks amazing in black and white. The explosions and stunts all remain awe inspiring as are all the vehicles. During the sand storm scene, as the cars get lifted up by the hurricane winds, the bodies of the unfortunate war boys appear small and black but unmistakenly human as if their souls are ascending to some kind of glorious afterlife. You could see why Nux and the rest of the war boys within this world of grey may even buy into Immortan Joe’s Norse cult in the first place.
Even in the smaller moments, every frame of Fury Road sings. The war rig travels from left to right casting a dark shadow as it goes. Monochrome has the habit of emphasises the characters’s faces, any movement or shift in light just stands out. Again, this was all here before, like all great action movies what makes Fury Road so great is that there is just enough substance within the human characters to make you invested in all the explosive movie theatrics that come after. In black and white, this just comes through beautifully.
Mad Max: Fury Road was already a great movie built around a simple premise which travels far within it’s two hour duration. Reduced to black and white, the film does have a redefined thematical resonance for me. The story of black and white morals fighting within this grey amoral wasteland comes to life starkly in unexpected ways. Less is so often more in the case of cinema. Limiting it’s colour palette to the dimension of the masters, Fury Road still shines brightly as a tremendous piece of action cinema.