McKee teaches that spectacle isn’t meaning, but in an action movie isn’t spectacle itself the meaning? It seems like the whole point of an action movie is the spectacle, after all. Here, Robert McKee explains how spectacle is a form of expression while answering this early question from Bass Wakil.
Quotes of the Week
“Which do we read in a newspaper with greater absorption and involvement, the story of a flood taking thousands of lives in the interior of China or the story of a single miner trapped in a cave-in, an individual man whose name we know and whose family we can visualize and suffer with. To us reading about it; the flood in China is spectacle; the single miner’s fate, enlisting our own hopes and fears, is story.”
- Cecil B. De Mille
“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”
Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.
The great joy of the Action Story rests in excitement; the thrilling balance between safety and danger. Too much puts the audience off. Too little, bores. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD rides that balance, expertly modulating the intensity of excitement around moments of great kinetic spectacle that exposes the snobbery of cinematic awards ceremonies: stunt choreography is as much an art form as dance.
Much like farce, stunt choreography lives and dies on the precise, clock working of kinesis — yet, appearing effortless.
In MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, we see road warriors leaping from the top of a truck to underneath a car, then landing on a motorbike. We see “polecats”; warriors on giant arcing poles, bending downward, then back up, like some nightmarish bungee.
A fight in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD involves Mad Max, Impriosa Furiosa and Nux in which, wrestling over a single handgun, the only working firearm available, Max is chained to an unconscious Nux, who wakes up during the fight. Choreographic ingenuity reminiscent of the master, Jackie Chan.
These talents are hard to find, often ignored, and when lauded, are done so only as “dumb fun” instead of what they are: an intensely disciplined art form. A ballet of carnage.
Beyond this, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD also exposes another recent problem in the industry of the Action Story; the over-reliance on CGI and green screen.
George Miller, in directing MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, keeping dialogue to a minimum, focused on using storyboards in lieu of a typed out screenplay, carefully planning and focusing his attention on the kinetic stunt choreography of his story.
Carnage that took years to design.
So MAD MAX: FURY ROAD doesn’t have CGI cars bouncing weightlessly across a desert, kicking up weightless sand. It has real cars. Really driving. Across a real desert. And CGI is there to get rid of strings, harnesses, and to add in elements that would be too dangerous to do like exploding shrapnel.
The combination of practical effects and CGI is as difficult as the balance between excitement’s need for safety and danger, and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD shines here too.
Hopefully, this will lead to a resurgence of the practical effect and the world of the prepared stunt.
But lest one think that MAX MAD: FURY ROAD only shines in the superficial world of spectacle, as one may think for a film that was filmed almost exclusively from storyboards, the Action writing of FURY ROAD shines too.
I’ve already mentioned the ingenuity of stunt choreography; which itself, is a key part of Action writing as important as the architecture of character-psychology and backstory is to the drama, and just as complex.
George Miller’s team don’t just repeat the same sort of violence, rather, it’s modulated in a way much akin to Escher’s stairwell; lowering one area of intensity and raising another to give the impression of an endlessly rising intensity. We see a frenetic car chase turn into a blustering ride through a hellish storm, to a hand-to-hand fight next to a stationary truck, then back to a fast-moving car chase. We get a car chase in a swamp; the quagmire makes it the slowest car chase ever filmed, and yet, one of incredible tension. One set-piece has them fleeing from pursuers, another has them rushing through a gauntlet of motorcyclists and monster trucks. Variation within a small spectrum, with great consideration as to pace and structure.
More than this, the world-building of FURY ROAD is not only well designed, but excellently presented.
Instead of lengthily expositing on why characters or sets look the way they do, we pick it up the best way possible; by watching people live consistently within their world. We don’t need an explanation in dialogue when we see, called to war, the halfboods rush to a wall of steering wheels and pick one for a car to ride into battle. We intuit the viking-like culture. We don’t need Furiosa or Max explaining why they know where every single hidden weapon is in the War Rig. It’s Furiosa’s War Rig. She lives in it and has to deal with raiders. Mad Max is a road warrior; he lives in his car and so knows all the tricks of the trade.
We understand too, that these vehicles have multiple weapons and defenses for different kinds of attacks; a giant plow to kick up sand to deal with motorcyclists but an ineffectual tool against the high-riding polecats. We also grasp immediately that you send the smaller vehicles with spikes first to puncture and slow down the target before bringing in the bigger, gas-guzzling claw-trucks.
The writer and set designers have lived in these worlds in their head, rehearsed and researched so intensely that when brought out, they can show us a lived-in world, rather than tell us about one they saw distantly at 3am in desperate need of coffee and ten new pages.
As for character, the Action writer’s focus turns to their imagined external world, not the internal world of their characters and so what is required and wanted is often very little. And FURY ROAD is no different; Mad Max is a marvelous invention of two simple dimensions.
Mad Max, beset by guilt-ridden fevers of past failures, tries to save everybody, yet has no compunctions in leaving people to die. He also is willing to die to save others, yet almost everything he does is an attempt survive, even at the cost of other lives.
These two dimensions are magnificent for the protagonist of a Post-Apocalyptic World that focuses on how the savagery of humanity not only killed the world, but now, when the dominant feature of humanity is such selfish savagery, the concept of morality now left a fragile notion, easily quashed.
However, while MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is really very good, it is not great.
It has one serious failing; there is no core event. Every story genre has a core event; and in Action this is the moment where the Hero is at the Mercy of the Villain. The Hero, helpless to stop the Villain, lies at his Mercy.
This scene is the most intense, the most exciting scene that can be told because the disparity between the power of hero and villain cannot be greater, the villain’s success cannot be closer.
And MAD MAX: FURY ROAD never does it. Neither Max nor Furiosa are ever truly helpless before the villain, Immortan Joe. They come close, but it never happens. And so the audience, happy with the expert delivery of the tale, leave still somewhat unsatisfied. Something was missing. Max wasn’t enough of a protagonist, they think.
It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is a sad omission in what separates films like this from the greats. It certainly doesn’t mean it’s a failure; It is much harder to go from “very good” to “great” than “mediocre” to “very good” (though that itself, is not easy). And it’s not the first in recent memory: THE DARK KNIGHT also lacked such a scene.
Perhaps it’s worth noticing just how marvellous FURY ROAD and DARK KNIGHT had to be to overcome the fact they didn’t have a good mercy scene, to see just how centrally important to the Action Story the mercy scene is.
Bass Wakil is the co-author with Robert McKee on their upcoming book on the Action genre, ACTION: The Art of Excitement. Bass shared the stage with Robert McKee in New York City and Los Angeles to give a day-long lecture on the subject.
Like this review? Read more about action and spectacle here
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