Mad Max: Fury Road Ultra HD Blu-ray Review
After a lengthy hiatus Max Rockatansky finally got behind the wheel again in the fourth instalment in George Miller’s gloriously giddy series of Ozploitation action films. Originally intended to feature the original Max, Mel Gibson, the production was stopped in its tracks by the events of 9/11 and suffered various mishaps for the next decade or so. As Mel’s star power waned (to put it mildly) and Miller took on various family projects (Happy Feet) in the meantime, they eventually found a new Max in Tom Hardy and were at last able to put the project into motion, shooting in the deserts of Namibia in 2012. After a protracted period of post-production the movie was released in 2015 to a deluge of critical acclaim, offering up a nitro-boosted action extravaganza that put to rest any fears that Miller had lost his edge, culminating in six Oscar wins at the 2016 ceremony. Both George and Max were back, and they were madder than ever…
Fury Road begins with Max on the run in the wasteland whereupon he’s swiftly captured by a gang of marauders from an oasis known as The Citadel. This outpost is presided over by Immortan Joe, a brutal warlord who rations the water and keeps only the purest human stock to bear him a male heir, employing scores of radiation-ravaged ‘War Boys’ to be his cannon fodder with promises of glory in the afterlife. But Imperator Furiosa, one of Joe’s underlings, has gone rogue and kidnapped his "prize breeders": a quintet of gorgeous young women, known as 'The Five Wives'. She makes a break for freedom during a regulation supply run in the meanest big rig she can lay her hands on, and Max inevitably gets drawn into the crossfire. Once again he finds himself shepherding yet another rag-tag band of survivors across the expanse and into what they hope will be the promised land.
The movie is intended to be a loose continuation on from Beyond Thunderdome, Max having managed to cobble together another V8 Interceptor according to the prequel comics (hence its appearance at the beginning of this movie despite having been destroyed in Mad Max 2) and it often plays like a supercharged megamix of the previous movies, not unlike the souped-up appearance of the Interceptor itself later in the film. There are several knowing nods and easter eggs to what came before and the basic premise is nothing new, e.g. Max rediscovers his humanity as he aids the escape of others - and yet Fury Road also establishes its own clear identity within the Mad Max canon thanks to the character of Furiosa. Played by Charlize Theron, this embattled warrior woman is every bit Max’s equal with a bullet or a blade, and the film is her story as much as anyone else’s as she strives to deliver the Wives to salvation and in the process earn herself a measure of redemption. Max himself is assayed by Tom Hardy, who didn’t seek to impersonate Mel Gibson’s performance. He still feels like the monosyllabic Max of old but refracted through a different prism as his losses have far outweighed his gains and he’s plagued by visions of those he couldn’t save, and if anything Hardy’s Max feels even more unhinged and aloof than Gibson’s ever was.
Miller’s all-action style offers up a smorgasbord of “guzzoline”-fuelled delights, presenting a different challenge or adversary with every new set-piece which keeps things fresh, and the film is a master class in storytelling economy, delivering only the essential exposition as it runs-and-guns towards the finish line – the action fills in the rest of the blanks. Something that really sets the film apart is how masterful Miller is in tracking this incredibly hectic action; by insisting that the relevant information is always framed in the centre of the widescreen image it’s so much easier for the eye to follow from cut to cut. It’s not a new technique by any means but it makes all the difference compared to the haphazard “frame ****ing” style employed by other action directors. And then there’s Miller’s reliance on practical effects over CG, resulting in a tangible, visceral feel to the action that hasn’t been seen on-screen since the last time George decided to smash some cars up. It’s still got some modern digital gloss to it to be sure, what with the extreme colour scheme, the use of digital backdrops and heavy amounts of wire/rig removal to remove stunt apparatus (which amounted to some 2000 VFX shots) but the practical core of the work still shines through. Mad Max 2 remains my favourite of the Mad Max series but there’s no denying that Fury Road is one of the finest action films ever made.
The Ultra HD Blu-ray
The new 4K Blu-ray format is upon us, bringing not only a jump in resolution from 1080p to 2160p (which is in fact a 4x increase in pixel density) but also an increased bit depth for finer gradation of colour, a Wide Colour Gamut (WCG) for a more wide-ranging and accurate palette, and High Dynamic Range (HDR) which extends the visible range to include "brilliant brights and deeper darks" versus standard Blu-ray content. Please note: this review has been carried out on a high-contrast Sony KD-55X9005B 4K TV which can display the WCG but not the specific HDR encoding of these 4K UHD discs. It is being viewed via the Panasonic DMP-UB900 player’s adjustable SDR downconversion which still preserves a significant spread of the dynamic range. The screenshots seen here are from the 1080p Blu-ray and are not intended to be indicative of the UHD product.
Fury Road comes to UHD disc in a 2-disc set which includes the regular 2D 1080p Blu-ray and a UV digital copy, sleeved in a glossy slipcase. It’s framed in the intended 2.40 widescreen aspect and is encoded with HEVC. The movie was shot predominantly on Alexa and finished at 2K so we must once again assume that this 2160p 4K presentation is an upscale. I could perceive virtually no difference in terms of detail between the UHD and the standard Blu-ray, in fact the UHD has something of an over-sharpened appearance with some obvious edge halos creeping in. Whether this is the result of the UHD upscale or whether it’s exposing what was baked in to the source is unclear, as some milder ringing is also evident on the regular Blu-ray (the film was heavily processed in post, as mentioned). It’s not a constant effect, with the worst offender being the sequence when Max awakens after the sandstorm and first meets Furiosa and the Wives, but it really shouldn’t be there in any case. There’s a shot of a car’s grille which has some blatant moiré but it’s there on the regular Blu-ray too so it’s definitely a source issue in that case. Neither the Blu-ray nor the UHD has a consistent application of grain, as it can vary in severity from shot to shot (understandable given the various sources used on the shoot like Canon and Olympus DSLRs as ‘crash cams’) although the UHD tends to look a touch more like video noise at times.
Normally this is the part where I gush about UHD’s wider colour gamut but Fury Road is a difficult one to assess. Miller spoke of the modern ‘teal and orange’ combination when promoting the movie and said that was all that was available to him, and the regular Blu-ray certainly sticks to that aesthetic with yellow sands, jaundiced skin tones and teal skies. And yet on UHD that appearance has definitely been revised with skin tones looking far more healthy and distinct from person to person, and skies now veer towards a truer blue with sand that has an earthier tone. Sources of fire like flame-throwers are more of a hollow yellow on the Blu-ray but are a deep fiery orange in UHD, and while the latter effect is undoubtedly more pleasing when looking for UHD eye-candy it makes me wonder whether it’s truly serving the original intent of the piece. Most of the movies I’ve seen so far in UHD offer up logical extensions of the established look but Fury Road has the biggest alterations I’ve seen yet, therefore questions must be asked as to whether George Miller or DP John Seale oversaw the timing of this version.
Whether it’s accurate or not, the increased dynamic range of this UHD presentation certainly reveals the customary amount of details in the highlights which are simply lost on the standard Blu-ray. Shots of skies and backgrounds which are virtually blank spaces are now layered with blue sky and clouds, and the various shots of the sun blazing into camera now show Sol herself beaming down instead of a flat white expanse. There’s a stunningly gorgeous shot when Furiosa sinks to her knees in the desert and lets out an anguished cry; as she faces the sun over the horizon you can see this sheer wisp of bright light surrounded by delicate tinges of purple and pink, it’s absolutely breathtaking in its beauty (enough to make me forget about who approved what, for a few seconds at least) whereas the same shot on Blu-ray isn’t nearly as nuanced. It also makes the maelstrom of the sandstorm even more visually arresting, with the bolts of lightning looking more distinct and intense, and the colour is bolder and richer. There’s a moment in that sequence where a car blows up and is swirled around inside a twister; in UHD you can see the spout being illuminated from within as the exploding car passes through it, whereas the Blu-ray just daubs a massive red smear over the whole shot. Blacks run deeper too, to the point of crushing down some shadow detail in UHD which is visible on the Blu-ray, but it certainly gives the image a much punchier sense of contrast.
If one reads the various pieces on the post-production of the film the idea wasn’t to present a dull, desaturated vision of the apocalypse but quite the opposite, Miller being hell-bent on bringing out some beauty amidst the ugliness (which the Immortan’s Wives are a metaphor for) and sky replacements were used extensively to establish what colourist Eric Whipp called a “graphic novel” look. They said that they didn’t want the “bleached” appearance that these future-shock movies usually have and yet it seems as if the standard dynamic range of the regular Blu-ray could only allow them to achieve that in some cases, resulting in the harsh blown-out vistas that are typical of SDR grading. So is the more expressive and painterly quality of this UHD edition deliberately bringing out more of that beauty with Miller’s blessing, or was it was graded by some random colourist as a piece of HDR demo material? The truth may well lie somewhere in-between and I hope we can get an answer some day.
The HEVC encode doesn’t appear to have any issues with the busiest action sequences although just a touch of banding can make itself apparent in the blue skies overhead. It’s still handled better than the Blu-ray though which has some more obvious banding, and the added temporal efficiency of HEVC means that the crunchiest moments of carnage have more bite in UHD because the debris is more finely rendered. The movie has quite a choppy frame rate but this is NOT a problem with the UHD as Miller occasionally used such a method on his previous Mad Max features, dropping frames to suggest a speed-up in the action, but here he took advantage of modern digital tools to manipulate the speed of virtually every shot in the entire movie (the regular Blu-ray is the same in that regard). Overall this UHD grade of Fury Road is plenty enjoyable in its own right, but on balance one has to wonder just where the impetus for the revised UHD grading has come from.
Warners have included what I presume to be the same Dolby Atmos mix as heard on the standard Blu-ray, and although I’m listening only in mere 7.1 TrueHD it still sounds absolutely marvellous, as most modern sound mixes do these days. Thumping bass, expressive surrounds and clear dialogue (what little there is of it, anyway) all combine to create a wrap-around effect that is a sonic delight.
The UHD disc carries no extras (as per usual) so it’s left to the included 2D Blu-ray to step in, with a selection of ‘making of’ featurettes and some short deleted scenes. The Maximum Fury piece runs for 28 minutes and looks at the pre-production and production phases of the film, while Fury on Four Wheels (22 mins) focuses on the various bespoke vehicles created for the production and how some of the bigger stunts were executed. The Road Warriors looks at the two characters of Max and Furiosa (11 mins) while The Tools of The Wasteland (14 mins) examines the ‘used future’ nature of the production design. The Five Wives (11 mins) has various insights from the actresses who played them, and Crash and Smash (4 mins) does what it says on the tin, with a furious montage of raw stunt footage. These features contain interviews with the director, producers, production designer, stunt supervisor, the actors and more, and they’re a touch more candid than the insipid talking heads you usually get in special features nowadays. They’re not shy about telling us how the isolation of the gruelling shoot slowly sent them crazy (spending months in the barren deserts of Namibia) but they’re proud of their work and justifiably so. Last up are the deleted scenes which run for barely 3½ minutes in total, they’re of little consequence to the narrative although we do find out the fate of Miss Giddy. It’s a pity we didn’t get anything about the post-production of the film but this is still a very respectable collection of supplements.
Mad Max: Fury Road
is an odd duck on UHD. Instead of expanding on the existing look of the film, the UHD grade throws it out and starts over, resulting in an experience that’s enjoyable enough (though not without some obvious kinks) but questions linger as to the provenance of this revised colour grade. There are no worries about the Atmos/7.1 sound though, it’s just as immense as it always was and there are also some surprisingly good extra features included on the 2D Blu-ray. Thankfully the film itself is still a peerless piece of modern action cinema no matter what format you view it on.