Charlize Theron has been on the Oscar stage before. She won Best Actress for Monster in 2003 and was nominated for the same award two years later for North Country. Hers is the one name from Mad Max: Fury Road that people might expect to hear on Oscar night. But Fury Road may surprise people. Here's why:
It's the 11th Best Reviewed Film of the Year, according to Metacritic, which knows these things. Fury Road was universally hailed by critics, a feat usually reserved for the odd righteous documentary, not a $150 million heavy metal juggernaut. Fury Road currently owns a score of 89 on Metacritic (97% on Rotten Tomatoes). That's better than movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Blade Runner, and The King's Speech.
The Mad Max mythology is entirely original. When a hackneyed, cliched film like Avatar can score a Best Picture nomination, why can't Fury Road? Writer/director George Miller's story is his own brainchild, coaxed through three previous films and grounded with a primal theme of revenge and redemption that anyone with a pulse can relate to.
The details are immense. There was no other film in 2015 that was so chockablock full of artistic design. Fury Road is transportive thanks to the film's incredible production and costume design. And all the details are story-driven. The ruler of the film's post-apocalyptic society is Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a decaying idol of a man who leads a cult of followers called War Boys. Joe wears a breathing mask of horse teeth and molded body armor. The War Boys are cannon fodder, promised everlasting life in the afterworld of Valhalla for loyal service in this one. They're painted chrome, given their own unique lexicon, and decorated like savages. Fury Road is a world of blood and fire and its representation of power (thundering engines) is not so far removed from today. The cult of Immortan Joe is evidenced everywhere. His screaming skull insignia is branded on all his minions. Steering wheels are elegantly designed with skulls, forks, wrenches, and doll heads to give the film its insane steampunk vision.
Symbolism is everywhere. The glorious art direction of Fury Road is apparent in every scene. But closer inspection reveals further gifts: Immortan Joe's son, Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) is a Herculean man-child of sound body and weak mind. He wears baby doll heads around his neck, waist, and on his kneepads—a nod to his childlike mental capacity. I already mentioned engines as symbols of power. Steering wheels are symbols of control. Chains, no surprise, mean subjugation. And Max's (Tom Hardy) silence—he barely says a word in the film—is a symbol of his lost humanity. Since the end of Beyond Thunderdome, Max has drifted in a Biblical struggle to survive on his own and the years have worn hard.
Fury Road has its own language. Like many great films—A Clockwork Orange, The Lord of the Rings series—Mad Max: Fury Road transports us to another world with dialogue as much as scenery. War Boys on the hunt scream "Fang it!" when they switch into kamikaze mode. Water is "Aqua Cola." Immortan Joe's five "wives" are "breeders." Words like "shiny" and "chrome" carry significant religious heft. And "war" is repurposed as a battle cry. The War Boys exist to die: "I live! I die! I live again!" And their vocabulary, or lack thereof, reflects their sacrificial nature.
Fury Road cost $150 million. Money doesn't mean a lot to Oscar voters, except when it's spent wisely. Director George Miller seemingly used every cent in his enormous Mad Max budget because it all shows up onscreen. If anything, Fury Road looks like it cost more than $150 mil. Every scene is filled with works of art, from the intricately crafted steering wheel altar to the monstrous, double tractor-tired Gigahorse which carries Immortan Joe. The sheer amount of vehicles is amazing. And they're all unique. Watch Mad Max: Fury Road and then watch The Lone Ranger, which cost $75 million more, and tell me which production came from and used money to fuel a vision, and not the other way around.
Fury Road made $375 million. Box office success doesn't mean a lot to Oscar voters either, but it's a compelling tiebreaker. The Academy wasn't swayed by Guardians of the Galaxy last year or by Skyfall three years ago. But Oscar did show love for Titanic, Gladiator, Avatar, and The Lord of the Rings films, among others, in recent years. Big budget movies only have a shot if they make money, and Fury Road was a box office hit domestically and internationally. That may win it some votes among the Academy members.
Mad Max: Fury Road deserves the Best Picture Academy Award. From a pure industry standpoint, it's unreal what was accomplished on the set of Fury Road and Hollywood knows it. The 800 person cast and crew lived together in Namibia for five months, sacrificing themselves in a hellish environment to make an otherworldly film. The amount of blood, sweat, and tears in this movie is hard to imagine. Anyone in the Academy who works behind the lens will appreciate Fury Road's hard fought production. And then there's this: Miller's film also comes with an inherent feminist subtext. Movies like District 9 (apartheid) and Avatar (environmental destruction) scored Best Picture nominations by including social themes. So don't overlook the importance of Miller's hero, Imperator Furiosa (Theron), who rebels against a monstrous male leader and takes him to war on the Fury Road.