Many years ago, I once read in an old music book a simple truth that has stuck in my head ever since: a truly great song will still function even when stripped down to its basics. A soaring orchestral piece will still work even when played by a lone piano player; a catchy melody will sound appealing whether it’s sung or whistled by a milkman.
Theoretically, the same should go for a great movie: whether it’s told for $100,000 or $100m, the story beneath all the technical stuff should still function if it’s strong enough. This leads us, in a round-about way, to Mad Max: Fury Road and its Black And Chrome edition. It’s the same high-octane action movie we got in 2015, but it’s now in stark black-and-white, its dialogue – aside from a few muffled utterances and feral howls – almost entirely missing.
In an introduction on the Black And Chrome disc, director George Miller says his inspiration for this new edition came from a memory he had of seeing Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in post-production. As the music was being laid over the top, the musicians were keeping time by playing a black-and-white video. This, Miller said, was the best version of the film he’d seen.
Indeed, Miller has long maintained that he wanted to make Fury Road, the fourth film in the series, in monochrome from the very beginning – understandably, this was something that made the studio decidedly nervous.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that the default position for everyone is to de-saturate post-apocalyptic movies,” Miller told Slash Film in 2015. “There’s only two ways to go, make them black and white — the best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now. The other version is to really go all-out on the colour. The usual teal and orange thing? That’s all the colours we had to work with. The desert’s orange and the sky is teal, and we either could de-saturate it, or crank it up, to differentiate the movie.”
Fittingly, this new edition of Black And Chrome brings us a film that is as visually pared-back as Fury Road‘s plot. Anyone who’s seen the film will know what we’re talking about: after a brief reintroduction to post-apocalyptic road warrior Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson), we’re thrown into a two-hour race across the desert that barely lets up for more than a minute. Fury Road‘s co-star (and brightest light) is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a truck driver whose theft of warlord Immortan Joe’s “five wives” leads to the film’s protracted, fiery chase.
What’s doubly fitting is Miller’s suggestion that black-and-white photography is the preserve of “art films” has come full-circle. In this writer’s estimation, Fury Road always was an art film – a violent pop-art film, but an art film nonetheless. From the off, it’s an exercise in economy, like a punk rock song: it cuts back all the narrative flab and excess from a typical multi-million-dollar multiplex blockbuster and leaves us with a comic book movie in the purest sense. Max and Furiosa are characters drawn in the broadest of strokes – Max with his gruff voice and perma-scowl, Furiosa with her haunted eyes and prosthetic arm. In simple, entirely visual ways, Miller gives these characters a sense of history that is easy to grasp within a minute or two.
It’s often said in photography circles that black-and-white images allow us to focus on details better than colour ones. This is certainly true of Fury Road, where the absence of all that teal and orange allows the eye to drink in all the rich texture Miller brings to the screen: the coarse ground of the desert, the deceptively intricate design elements that have gone into all those colliding trucks and cars. Furiosa’s huge tanker has symbols of steering wheels – the tribe’s equivalent of a crucifix – embossed on its roof. The pursuing cars are covered in similar embellishments and spiky details. Viewed in glorious monochrome, the villainous Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) looks more loathsome than ever, with the lack of colour leaving the pustules, scars and bizarre armour standing out against his pale skin.
Moreover, the Black And Chrome edition shows just how little Miller relied on colour to tell his story. You might be forgiven for thinking that rendering all those colossal explosions in shades of grey would remove their heat and spectacle; not a bit of it. If anything, the new edition allows the CGI to blend more easily with the copious practical effects work. Explosions are now marked out by shimmering blasts of white flame and thick curls of black smoke; and once again, the details come to the fore. The collision between two vehicles results in a dizzying cloud of rivets and debris; the sight of Immortan Joe’s kamikaze War Boys tossed like rag dolls from their disintegrating vehicles is somehow more gratifying and appalling than ever.
Two years ago, Mad Max: Fury Road emerged as a genuine breath of fresh air. A film that, at one time seemed to have so much going against it – an immensely long and circuitous pre-production and a similarly hot and arduous shoot – instead became one of the most thrilling films of the year. Far from an overblown retread of a series Miller established with a tiny sum of money in 1979, Fury Road felt like a revitalisation of it – and a wake-up call for action directors everywhere.
“Look,” Miller seemed to say, “This is how it’s done.”
Fury Road wasn’t a hit on the scale of, say, a Marvel movie, but we’d argue that other filmmakers are heeding Miller’s advice. James Mangold’s Logan, which began filming in the summer of 2016, has much of Fury Road’s coarseness and dusty melancholy. After a couple of disappointing Wolverine movies, Logan itself took things back to basics, telling a kind of road-trip western that just happened to have a smattering of super-powers tucked in its back pocket. In another revealing parallel, Logan is getting a black-and-white reissue of its own: Logan Noir, which is getting a theatrical release in May ahead of its inclusion on the film’s home release.
It’s likely, we’d suggest, that Fury Road‘s impact on filmmakers will continue to be felt for some time to come. As for the movie itself, the Black And Chrome edition gives us a chance to look at a now familiar film with fresh eyes. Whether you’ll prefer the black-and-white version to the saturated colours of the theatrical release will be a matter of taste; what’s undeniable is that the film continues to look and feel stunning – perhaps even more so, for this writer – in its monochrome form. Miller’s a shrewd and ingenious visual storyteller, and a natural at imparting a sense of motion and violent impact. Fury Road‘s action sequences work not just because of the spectacular stunt work – though this shouldn’t be overlooked – but because Miller captures them with such precision and urgency.
Then again, one of the most powerful shots in the movie doesn’t involve any action at all. On a lonely stretch of moonlit desert, Max and Furiosa drive past what might once have been a small verdant copse. But ecological disaster has taken its toll, and denuded branches are all that remain. As crows fly overhead, three figures pick through a swamp on their stilts. Clad in rags and silhouetted against the grey sky, these lonely creatures almost look like birds themselves – vultures, perhaps, picking around in the muck for scraps of food.
To pull these images from such a desolate, violent landscape takes real spark and imagination. Thanks to Mad Max: Fury Road’s Black And Chrome edition, these captivating details are now plain for all to see.
Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.