Sword of Destiny

This second collection of short stories in the Witcher franchise isn’t as good as The Last Wish as a whole, but there are some stories in there that include brief moments of storytelling transcendence.

Sword of Destiny takes place later in the chronology of the Witcher saga, and, like The Last Wish, plays an important role in introducing important characters into the saga. It also explores the character dynamics between Geralt and other established characters. The first two stories in the anthology are a bit of a drag, mostly because they focus on Geralt and Yennefer’s tempestuous relationship, with its somewhat flimsy and unconvincing emotional dynamic. But the underlying themes of the series – racism and ecological awareness – are given some face time in the first story, The Bounds of Reason, which involves Geralt unwillingly joining an expedition to hunt a rare dragon.  One cannot fault any of the Witcher stories for lacking some form of social consciousness.

The second story, Shards of Ice, is probably the least compelling of all the Witcher stories so far, given that it essentially depicts Geralt fighting with another man for Yennefer’s affections. The third story is entertaining but unremarkable, featuring Geralt and Dandelion helping out a hapless halfling merchant who discovers that a shapeshifter has taken his place. It’s a light-hearted but ultimately unmemorable story.

It’s in the fourth story, A Little Sacrifice, that the series really starts to find its footing, where the stories began to have surprising emotional resonance. This story features Geralt attempting to help a Duke get together with a mermaid in order to earn some money with Dandelion in tow. In it, he meets Essi Daven, another bard with whom Geralt forms a kind of connection, but who harbors an unrequited love of him. Just as we expect that Essi would be joining our cast of recurring characters, however, Sapkowski pulls the rug out of the reader’s expectations by ending the story with an addendum that abruptly recasts it in an entirely different emotional shade – one that is wistful, meditative and tragic.

The last two stories are the best in the collection, because they debut the important character Ciri. Ciri is a wonderfully written character – an impetuous, willful but endearing child who just happens to be the focus of an elven prophecy that foretells the end of civilization. Geralt stumbles across her and becomes her protector, and develops a strong bond with her, almost that of a parent. She constitutes one of two pillars in Geralt’s emotional life, the other being Yennefer, but this bond is more affecting because it involves an element of paternal love and protectiveness. Geralt, you could say, finally finds his purpose and destiny, after having been a wandering sword for hire – even though he might reject it at first. But his destiny becomes ever interlaced with that of Ciri’s. Ciri’s portrayal has an air of authenticity about it – her character about as close to that of a real child as can reasonably be expected – childlike but intelligent, given to sulking and tantrums, but full of curiosity, wonder and pain, and her growing trust in Geralt is endearing to see.

The last story’s conclusion is especially affecting, as we see a poignant reunion between Geralt and Ciri after the former decides to accept his destiny and look for her after he hears that she is feared dead after an attack on her home kingdom. Ciri has been through much that is terrible , but her resilience and strength, not to mention her endearing cheerfulness, is the impetus for her character’s charm.

So, The Sword of Destiny is worth a read for the two important stories that introduce Ciri, but it should be read for the charms of the series as a whole – its preoccupation with darker themes, the compelling nature of its wandering protagonists, and its wry humor and compelling worldbuilding. The world of the Witcher is, in this volume, becoming more defined, less like a collection of adapted Slavic fairy tales, and more like a dark, full-fledged fantasy world in its own right. And The Sword of Destiny sets things in motion for the saga that will follow.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 Gold Dragons

The Last Wish

The first in a series of rather remarkable fantasy books.

Somewhat unconventionally, the Witcher series of books, popularly considered to be one of Poland’s most beloved literary creations, starts with a collection of short stories. In them is the titular Witcher, a man named Geralt of Rivia, a monster-slayer for hire and a mutant with superhuman speed and perception. He roams the land killing monsters that threaten townsfolk. But no higher purpose guides him, even though his reputation precedes him. He just wants to live his life working his admittedly precarious trade, but somehow he always seems to get entangled in the affairs of greats.

The stories in this collection are engrossing, if somewhat unpolished reads. One can sense Sapkowski’s burgeoning literary flair emanate from the page, but held back by a series of flaws in pacing and narrative verisimilitude. They draw the world of the Witcher in bold but indistinct strokes. There is the fanciful, almost Harry Potter-esque magic one finds in more high-fantasy worlds, but also elements of incest, murder, racism and political intrigue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a George RR Martin novel. There are elves and dwarves and halflings, but they can be every bit as venal and violent as the humans. And there is science as well – this is a universe where the learned are au fait with the idea of genes and heredity, and that the stars are other suns. Just the admixture of these seemingly sub-genre-specific fantasy tropes is heady enough.

Geralt himself is quite an inspired character. He’s presented initially as a grim monster-killer, the cold and dour professional. But underneath the frightening exterior is a man who merely wants to live his life. Geralt’s no sensitive soul – he kills without hesitation when the need demands it. But he’s also guided by a set of moral codes, and prefers to err on the side of being neutral. He’s also possessed of a dryly acerbic wit and it’s often hilarious to read him putting down people who try to condescend to him because of his profession. And there’s something endearing about a man who calls all his horses Roach, and whose best friend is a philandering bard called Dandelion.

There are seven stories in this collection, in rough chronological order, and they take place within a larger chronology that has surprising repercussions throughout the entire series of books. There is a framing story that acts as an underlying structure to the other six stories. The opening story is The Witcher, a memorable story in which Geralt’s proclivity with dispatching monsters is established. A Grain of Truth is a kind of whimsical tale (reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast from the Beast’s perspective) that has an unfortunately somewhat trite and rushed ending. The Lesser Evil explains how Geralt got the (somewhat undeserved) moniker of the Butcher of Blaviken. This is a pretty dark story, but good, and highlights one of the overriding themes of the book: that not choosing is itself a choice, and no matter how Geralt wishes to absolve himself of responsibility in determining the fates of others, he is invariably drawn in. He cannot escape the inevitability of choosing sides in the moral conflicts into which he keeps stumbling. And when he does choose, evil results nevertheless.

But it is the last three stories that set the stage for the events of the saga, introducing such characters as Dandelion and Yennefer, Geralt’s love interest. Unfortunately, the two stories that do introduce those two characters are perhaps the weakest of the book, with pacing issues and muddled narratives (although the banter between Geralt and Dandelion is Top Quality). But then there is A Matter of Price, perhaps the most important story in the collection because it is the fount from which the entire saga springs, setting the stage for the birth of Ciri, a very important character later on, and Geralt’s emotional center. At the time of writing, I’m in the middle of Time of Contempt, and that novel references and clarifies ambiguities and oblique statements in that short story. It’s clear that Sapkowski is playing a long game. It’s also probably the best story in terms of pacing, narrative flow and dialogue, and there are wry and ironic references to real-world fairy tales. Geralt’s impertinent wit is also at full strength here, and the plot resembles nothing so much like a Shakespearean comedy where everyone gets married at the end after some light shenanigans. But it foreshadows a darker and much more portentous story ahead, and that is the brilliance of this story.

If this collection of short stories has one debilitating flaw, however, it’s that Geralt, while well-rounded in most respects, is a bit like the protagonist of a Japanese harem anime. Women in the book seem to want to throw themselves at him without much persuasion on his part. It’s a bit adolescent and also slightly sexist. The irony of Sapkowski is that he can create very compelling characters of any gender or race, but when it comes to sex, they all act like mindless rabbits in heat.

When all’s said and done, however, and you ignore the more sophomoric bits, this is a fantasy book with surprising depth and humor, that mines fairy tale and high fantasy for its monsters and cultures, but somehow feels fresh and innovative.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 silver swords

Jurassic World

A firmly by-the-numbers franchise milker.

Jurassic World is a classic case of sequelitis. It is a movie that tries to do everything right but nevertheless largely fails in recapturing the spirit of the original. It faithfully applies the Jurassic Park formula of puny humans being slaughtered by the dinosaurs they underestimate, in their haughty superiority. But in the process, that slavish imitation loses some of its soul. The result is a technically accomplished visual effects spectacle that nevertheless feels dull, repetitive, and utterly predictable.

The premise is, of course, a giant park with dinosaurs – Jurassic World, an even grander spectacle than Jurassic Park before it. In the name of pursuing bigger profits, scientists create an even bigger, badder, smarter dinosaur called Indominus Rex out of the genetic material of a T-Rex and several other dinosaurs. Human hubris rears its ugly head and the Indominus Rex escapes, and wreaks havoc on the park in the customary fashion. Amidst this carnage we have the human interest angle – two brothers, in a van – no, I mean, two brothers Zach and Gray Mitchell, on a field trip to see the park in the midst of their parents’ impending divorce, and their aunt, Claire, the park’s operations manager, who is portrayed as the typical career-focused executive who barely spends time with her family. The film sees the three of them, plus Owen, the badass velociraptor trainer played by rising action star Chris Pratt, at the centre of the action to take down Indominus Rex, and in the process, get some valuable family bonding time together.

The formula is strong with this one. I have three criticisms to make about this film.

First, the film gets bogged down with all that tiresome exposition about human hubris and the evils of corporate greed and abusing our knowledge of genetics. It’s unoriginal, it’s condescending, and it’s largely pablum – and it also has a kind of insidious anti-science undertone, the kind that causes people to criticize GMOs and rail against vaccines – you know, misplaced rage against The Man in a white lab coat who mindlessly fashions monsters in lab as part of an insane quest to crack the mysteries man was never meant to crack. That kind of theme has been inserted into every two-bit science fiction film since Frankenstein, and frankly, it’s getting stale and needs to stop.

Second, Jurassic World is, in typical fashion, a litany of stupid people doing stupid things that serve to aggravate the situation until the climax. That’s an uninspired and plain lazy way to ratchet up tension in the film. The film establishes Owen as the only sensible guy who has a handle on what’s going on, while everyone else is milling about in confusion, trying to clamp down on the situation in the worst possible way. In other words, Owen is the only trope-savvy member of the lot, a lone Cassandra in a bunch of wilful idiots that the film invites the audience to pour righteous scorn on. The most egregious example of this is the obnoxious Vic Hoskins, a private security firm contractor who wants to weaponize a bunch of velociraptors and use them to pursue the Indominus Rex. Minor spoiler: it doesn’t end well. Later he gets his comeuppance by being eaten by said velociraptors. The writers clearly intended his unfortunate demise to be maliciously welcomed by the audiences – but they made him such a caricature of the overweening alpha idiot that it just seems patronizing. Then, of course, when the park is in ruins and everyone’s dead or fled, our heroes can pull a couple of tricks out their asses and save the day. (Also, spoilers: that ending was such a cop-out megathirio ex thalassa…but a little fitting in that way: those with the biggest teeth need to assert their dominance in the food chain, after all…)

My last criticism is perhaps my biggest gripe. It’s that this film seems to have just looked at the Jurassic Park films and came to all the most wrongheaded conclusions on how to update the formula for contemporary audiences. The new film just focuses on setting up the disaster and going through its carefully-selected laundry list of “things to put in a dinosaur film”, while missing out on the qualities that made the first films iconic – the sense of wonder associated with just the idea of witnessing dinosaurs roam about in their own environment. I almost feel like the film’s teenage brother who just tags along, bored – like, this is all something I’ve seen before. Can’t dinosaur films do something other than “giant dinosaur escapes and goes on a carnage, eating hapless humans who obviously had it coming in their wrongheaded arrogance”?

Ultimately Jurassic World is a little bit like its namesake, ironically – big, flashy, over-corporate and over-processed, somewhat disturbing in how its main attraction is seeing dinosaurs eat and kill things, and lacking in that primal excitement, that spark, that verve, that drives a sense of wonderment. It’s palatable summer spectacle, but ultimately, it’s not a film that I’d revisit again.

I give this film: 2.5 out of 5 gyrospheres (how do those things not get dirty as they roll on the ground?)

L.A. Confidential

This film is simply a noir classic.

Film noir is famously very difficult to categorize, but somehow its conventions and tropes have percolated down the public consciousness in such a way that they are almost immediately recognizable to those that view them. To paraphrase Justice Stewart’s famous line on pornography, I don’t know what film noir is, but I’ll know it when I see it. To me, L.A. Confidential embodies what I imagine noir to be; it hits all right notes that I’d expect of the convention, and does so in a supremely confident and masterful way. This is not just a good noir (or neo-noir) film, this is a masterful work of art in its own right, a film that demonstrates an impressive grasp of narrative, pacing and dialogue. This is a film that really nails the craft of filmmaking.

L.A. Confidential ticks all the right boxes for a noir crime thriller. We have a trio of protagonists – the grim, violent Bud White (Russell Crowe) with a penchant for going to extreme lengths to protect vulnerable women, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the cerebral, by-the-books straight-A star of the academy, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a well-connected and cynical veteran of the narcotics department who initially appears more interested in leveraging his position to receive kickbacks from tabloid writers than to pursue justice. Each has a different relationship with the institutional authority – the LAPD – to which they belong: White is the tough used by the commissioner to extract confessions from criminals through violence, Exley firmly believes in the rule of law and the mission of the police force, and Vincennes, of course, is the typical corrupt cop who distorts the process of justice to his own ends. But each of them finds out in his own way that the institution to which they belong hides a moral rot below its surface, and they must attempt to negotiate their differences in order to pierce the veil of mystery and apprehend the institution’s true nature.

Of the three protagonists, Bud White is perhaps the most typically hard-boiled, a man who wallows in existential bitterness underneath his tough exterior, whose only recourse to the faithlessness and hypocrisy of society around him is violence. There is also a kind of femme fatale character in the form of Lynn Bracken, in whose charms White is ensnared, who acts as a catalyst to his vulnerability, but who also serves as a point of contention between Exley and White, in the typical femme fatale fashion. Los Angeles is prominently featured, of course; its sunny weather and freewheeling lifestyle of glamor is often used as an ironic theater that contrasts with the falsity and corruption of society, a common theme in noir. This is a film that liberally applies noir tropes in a way that is not particularly innovative, but instead uses them as tools and narrative aids to set certain moods, tones and expectations for the viewing audience in the process of telling a riveting story.

And it does so in expert fashion. Telling the parallel character arcs of three protagonists in one two-hour package in a way that is compelling and complete is no mean feat, but L.A. Confidential manages it quite expertly. Its use of snappy, curt dialogue complements its noir sensibility, and what is said usually has a subtext that unpacks in relation to the other parts of the film. The way the narrative unfolds resembles a finely-crafted puzzle box that reveals successive layers of complexity as you continue watching and unpacking it. The pacing is quick but never too fast, and the film never devolves into bloated exposition, trusting its audience to follow its twists and turns, never pandering to the lowest common denominator. That kind of trust elevates the film into a reciprocal experience because the viewer derives pleasure and satisfaction from the process of unpacking and understanding the film just by watching it attentively. That is a supremely rewarding feeling, and it is hard to pitch a film’s narrative at a level that makes it just hard enough to get that reward response, but not too hard that its complexity is lost to most viewers in its intended demographic profile.

This is quite a masterfully made film. It is made in the best tradition of noir, using its tropes in a way that populates the tone and mood of the film, and drawing on their underlying cultural permeation to build the groundwork for the viewing experience of the audience. While not groundbreaking in its use of comforting trope conventions, it nonetheless tells a compelling story by layering in a dense but not impenetrable plot. In doing so, it also manages to include a fair bit of compelling character growth into the mix. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m impressed at how the film packs so much into the confined space of two hours, and yet comes across feeling streamlined and well-paced. There is not an ounce of expository fat – and the film really puts its trust into the competence (and genre-savviness) of its audience. The result is a well-told, compelling and captivating film that deserves its place in the pantheon of noir greats.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 Rollo Tomasis

The Imitation Game

Behind every Oscar-bait film lies a glib and self-aware conceit.

The Imitation Game is a great film marred by its own dishonesty about the historical record. It is a dramatized account of the Enigma code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park, led by the cryptographer and ur-computer scientist Alan Turing. It is a study of Turing’s psychology, of his slow development from arrogant and socially inept misfit to equally inept part of the team, and, to a smaller extent, of his homosexuality and the effect it has had on his life and relationships.

Or at least it purports to be.

A little dramatization is acceptable, even necessary, in biographical film. But the line should be drawn between dramatization to fit the narrative into the constraints of the medium, and dramatization that somewhat gratuitously shoehorns thematic elements foreign to the source material into the film, especially if the film itself is marketed as being an honest adaptation of the historical record. The Imitation Game appears to commit the latter indiscretion by portraying Turing as a maladaptive social misfit with no understanding of humor, when by all accounts he was perfectly sociable and good humored. The film does this in an attempt to take advantage of two things, I think: the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the delicious irony in having a cryptographer who can break any code, except that which governs the human heart.

It almost seems like the role of Turing was written with Cumberbatch in mind. The Alan Turing of the film is kind of like a gay Sherlock Holmes whose antisocial traits are dialled up to eleven, at least at first. Make no mistake, Cumberbatch gives a wonderful performance as film-Turing, one bursting with sensitivity and pathos, but it happens to be a niche that he’s proven himself to be very good at, by virtue of his popularity as the world’s most famous detective. But of course, one would expect that in a biopic the actor becomes the person he’s playing, and not the other way round.

But perhaps one can understand the decision in light of the fact that the choice to warp Turing’s character that way allows the film to generate a compelling character arc for Turing – one in which he starts to forge an emotional bond with his team of fellow cryptographers, particularly Joan Clarke, the female “romantic” interest (played by Keira Knightley) that the film tries to set up. The film, of course, sets up a parallel narrative journey – one in which Turing and his team crack the indomitable Enigma code amidst the difficulties imposed upon them by an uncooperative military administration, and the other in which Turing learns to navigate an altogether more profound mystery to which his talents are poorly placed to handle – human relationships. The film draws upon the popular folk psychology of people on autism spectrum disorder to hammer this point home, and it necessitates that Turing’s character be rewritten in this way.

The film takes other liberties with history. For example, it depicts the operation at Bletchley park as a small, six-person operation, when it was actually composed of thousands of people. The scene in which Turing and gang must make the painful decision not to act upon their intelligence to save a cargo ship about to be attacked by German U-Boats would not have taken place at their level, but would have been a top-level executive decision. These and other liberties are plentiful in number, but none is as uncomfortably gratuitous as declaring creative license to go to town with the image of a historical figure for the sake of an aesthetic ideal, especially one whose homosexuality made him the victim of a monstrous crime by the state. This is one figure whose historical legacy still casts shadows over the battle for LGBT civil rights today, and to caricature him as socially maladjusted is to invite its invidious conflation with his status as a gay man.

Historical accuracy is not a be-all and end-all requirement in fiction. But I do think that the application of the creative brush should respect sensitive points of legacy. If my MA degree has taught me anything, it is that historical memory should not be underestimated as a source of contemporary contention, and this is especially relevant, not just for political battles over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, but also to the people who look up to Turing as a hero and an inspiring figure. It would not do for them to see his legacy somewhat warped by one (otherwise excellent) film’s attempt at changing it to suit its own self-serving aesthetic ends.

I give this film: 3 out of 5 Universal Turing Machines

Cool Gray City of Love

San Francisco. No other place on Earth moves me quite the way it does. The way the fog curls silently around Sutro Tower as it slowly engulfs the city. The red of the Golden Gate Bridge against the Martian tan of the Marin headlands. The way the fickle weather constantly changes – from hour to hour, district to district. The ravings of a harmless lunatic as he stumbles along Market Street. The sleepy afternoons in Japantown. The endless milling crowds at Powell and Fishermans Wharf. The invigorating, slightly biting breeze as I cycle down the sunlit Marina. San Francisco is a city unlike any other, an urban agglomeration teeming with life and industry, yet perched precariously at the gates to another world – a wild, cold world of sun and fog, implacable and recondite. For me, San Francisco is a collection of moments from the grotesque to the sublime, a heady mass of contradictions, a city so simultaneously ugly and beautiful and endlessly fascinating.

It’s that sentiment that led me to pick up this book, written by longtime SF resident Gary Kamiya as an ode to the city from 49 different perspectives – a study that takes us on a mind’s tour of the city through space and time, much in the tradition of Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Kamiya loves the city far more than I ever could – a bond established through decades of wandering the city’s forgotten paths, both as a taxi driver and as an inveterate urban explorer. In the book, Kamiya describes undertaking the equivalent to the Knowledge for San Francisco, wending his way around the city’s many places, both famous and forgotten. He shies away from nothing – not even from taking a trek into Bayview/Hunter’s Point, often considered the most dangerous part of the city. From his travels comes this book, written in two interwoven strands – one strand in which Kamiya talks about San Francisco’s places in respect to their contemporary psycho-social and literary significance to the city; the other in which Kamiya takes us on a historical odyssey, using the city’s places as launching points to narrate its rich and varied history – and what a history it is, a tale that shows up the city at its most ridiculous, tragic and sublime. San Francisco is the protagonist of its own magnum opus, the star of a storied narrative that rivals anything the world has ever seen.

Kamiya is at his best when penning down his wry thoughts on the city’s most famous neighborhoods. His knowledge of the city’s sundry spaces is encyclopedic, his prose elegiac and compelling, and his empathy and sheer understanding profound. His chapter on the Tenderloin is perhaps the single most interesting chapter of the book, combining autobiography, sociology and economics to paint a picture of the city’s most dystopian district in vivid and macabre colors. Another standout is the chapter in which he describes the slow wasting away of the indigenous peoples under the not-so-tender ministrations of the Spanish Mission, embodied today in the Mission San Francisco de Asis, a picturesque church by Dolores Street whose pleasant facade belies its less-than-noble past. His chapter on the Castro shines with a tragic account of the HIV/AIDs epidemic of the 1980s, where the district rallied to look to “the nursing, cheering, burying” of their own. But Kamiya is a great admirer of nature as well; his tramplings lead him across the city, on sylvan dirt paths that traverse the city to its many and sundry stairways, the grey rocks of the Farallon Islands, miles from the coast. He is a great conoisseur of the city’s geology, and with reason. The city is unique in how closely tied to natural forces it is. The last bastion before the Pacific, it is a city enveloped in clouds, susceptible to earthquakes. It retains a strange quality of wildness, of being untamed by man. Great natural spaces – Bernal Heights, Glen Canyon, Ocean Beach and Land’s End – persist as uncultivated spaces that retain the harshness and wildness of what came before, great holes in the urban fabric that reveal the naked essence of San Francisco beneath. Kamiya also dwells on some of his personal haunts, quiet spaces unknown but having great personal connotation to him. Those are somewhat more hit-and-miss, at least to me. Kamiya has his sacred spaces, and that’s okay. But many of those vignettes accrue not from the city’s history but his own association with it, and are less compelling than the chapters that tell of the story of the city, told in the silhouettes of its buildings and hills amid the rolling fog and the brilliant sun.

The book’s great virtue is its understanding of San Francisco as an idea that endures across a swath of time and tide. It tells us that the city has always been a harbor, a haven for the wretched, the weird and the excluded. It was the idyllic and pastoral village of Yerba Buena, the teeming city of the 49ers, the disembarkation point for Chinese and Japanese laborers and immigrants, the refuge of hippies and homosexuals. It had its blots, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, but those were transient and ultimately contrary to the city’s inherent nature. And San Francisco retains that essence today, even as it welcomes throngs of tech workers into its streets and precipitates yet another conflict over what the city ought to become. Kamiya never quite reveals who he sides with, however, never quite says where he stands on the city’s contemporary issues. It is the only good choice for such a book. It suggests that he sides with the city as a whole, in defense of its heterogeneity, its imperfections, and its weirdness, and the tensions and dynamism that that brings. A city of sin and hope, a harlot with a heart of gold, luxuriating on the rocks at the ends of the earth.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 stolen taxis

Mad Max: Fury Road

I hadn’t intended on watching Mad Max at first. But after being cajoled into watching it as part of a social event, I’m glad I did.

Fury Road isn’t a particularly sophisticated movie. But it does benefit from the confluence of three things. The first is a simple but powerful thematic backbone. The second is pure, kinetic spectacle anchored by a strong and coherent visual direction and language. The latter benefits greatly from the presence of the former, giving us a reason to care about the pyrotechnics on screen.

The film sits in a post-apocalyptic thematic space, but is distinct from other films of its type because it sits in the boundary between civilisational collapse and civilisational renewal. The scene is the blasted desert of the post-nuclear Outback, where rabid warlords rule with psychopathic impunity over their wretched subjects through monopolising scarce resources like water and “guzzoline” (gasoline). The war has occurred within living memory of our protagonists – they attempt to navigate a strange new world where nature and civilisation have all but been burnt off the face of the world, where power resides in the squeal of the tire. This is a world where the petrolheads rule, where fleets of armored vehicles charge at each other like brazen knights, where facepaint-smeared War Boys spray their mouths with chrome paint as they hurtle into the jaws of death, believing that their deeds in battle will transport them to Valhalla. It is post-apocalyptia without zombies or mutants, where humans have become their own worst nightmares, pillaging and killing in the name of a tinpot cult ideology amidst the howling dust. This is the anti-Waterworld, that other post-apocalyptic film starring Kevin Costner.

The film starts with the titular Max in a state of insanity, wandering the wasteland alone. But he is soon captured by warlord Immortan Joe and made to become a blood bag – a supplier of nutrients through IV drip – of one Joe’s fanatical War Boys. As Max escapes, he joins up with Joe’s harem of girls, who have escaped with the assistance of the (awesomely-named) Imperator Furiosa, a one-time lieutenant of Joe who has made it a point of conscience to bring the girls to a better, freer place. Naturally, the furious Immortan Joe assembles his warband and sets off in pursuit of Furiosa and her War Rig, a retrofitted, armored and weaponized cargo truck. Thus does the chase on Fury Road begin.

The world of Mad Max is its own character – a surreal expanse of posthuman weirdness, almost an alien planet. One of the most amazing set-pieces of the movie occurs when an immense dust-storm envelops Furiosa and her pursuers. It is an awe-inspiring and terrible sight, one that instils genuine trepidation in the viewer, a phenomenon of such magnitude that it assumes an almost Biblical sense of terror.

The movie’s action sequences are without parallel in recent action film, ranking up there with The Matrix and 300 in its potential for achieving cult status among the cinematic pantheon. It has its own frenetic tempo, a hyper-violent yet graceful choreography of knives, guns and bombs, and everybody is moving all the time. The most awesome thing about Immortan Joe’s army is the Doof Warrior, a blind War Boy who whips up the army’s blood frenzy by jamming on an electric guitar that spouts fire out of one end. His dedication to the cause is hilariously admirable – he never stops playing even after being elbowed in the face by Max at one point. Other luminaries include the BDSM-themed People Eater, an ally of Immortan Joe who has two holes in his shirt to accommodate his nipple chains and is so grossly corpulent he needs to be hoisted into his car by three henchmen, and the Bullet Farmer, another of Joe’s lieutenants, who grafted bullets into his teeth. There is a trend here – the Wasteland has forged some truly deranged tyrants. Max himself is mad, plagued by his past and the events of the past two movies. But his insanity is lifted by the call to heroism, which provides him the redemption he needs as a curative to his madness. But he is Mad Max, after all, and his demons will undoubtedly claim him again in time for the next instalment in the franchise – and there will likely be one.

But Mad Max also has a deeper appeal underneath the chrome, cars, guns, crazy antagonists, and action sequences. This is a film with considerable metaphorical interest. The desert, the wasteland, is a place that forges the world of Mad Max. It resounds with the voices of the dead, questioning who killed the world. Gasoline is the essence of war, water of peace, but both are crucial ingredients in survival. And water, ultimately, is the symbol of salvation, and the reason our protagonists ultimately return to Immortan Joe’s Citadel, from which they had escaped – to release the water that he has hoarded and bring back peace and sanity to the frenzied and wretched denizens who wallow in their madness and their hopeless adulation for the false deity who is Immortan Joe. These elements are what makes the film stand head and shoulders above similar action films – the intelligent use of such symbols to give the world of Mad Max its particular brand of thematic texture. The film can teach us about the human condition – about our follies, our penchant for violence and our need for redemption – without shoehorning it in in an overly in-your-face way. It is an action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, visually resplendent package of a movie – and surprisingly deep at that, as well. And high-octane enough that I left the theater experiencing heart palpitations.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 War Rigs