A dream in black & chrome

Originally published November 6, 2019

This piece discusses plot points of Mad Max: Fury Road. Assume spoilers.

When we found out that the Black & Chrome edition of Mad Max: Fury Road would be playing at Cinerama, we immediately pounced on tickets. It was my favorite film of 2015, by a very wide margin, and the opportunity to see it on Seattle’s best screen, in a version that provides an alternate view of the filmmaker’s vision, was pretty much catnip.

The Black & Chrome edition, for those not obsessively paying attention to things relating to movies like I do, is the film in monochrome, and according to director George Miller, his preferred version. It’s a stark contrast to the original theatrical release, which contains intense, super-saturated colors, a deliberate decision on Miller’s part (since he wasn’t permitted to release a full B&W cut). And while I don’t know if I think Black & Chrome is the “true” version of Fury Road, it does create a profound extension of a movie that I already deeply love.

The first thing I noticed is that the removal of the color creates a diffused, dreamlike atmosphere–while the color version feels immediate, urgent, almost painfully hyper-real, this version feels like it takes place in a world outside of reality. There’s an idea in Mad Max fandom that within the world that exists in the Mad Max films, most of the stories of the films aren’t “true,” but are instead the equivalent of oral folklore: communities pass the tales of “Mad” Max among themselves, not as verifiable fact, but as tales of a mythic figure of their world. Black & Chrome makes this case very strongly, whether it means to or not; the effect isn’t so much distancing as one of being enfolded into a world that exists on a different plane, where dream dominates. Fury Road, perhaps more than any other Mad Max film, works very deliberately in the realm of myth and the power of received knowledge as compared to the solidity of fact (I remain somewhat in awe at how well the movie created its own internal mythology, as demonstrated by the beliefs of the War Boys). Creating this effect of dreaminess reinforces the sense of myth and a larger narrative.

The next thing that really drew my attention is the places where the monochrome improves the visuals. In the saturated-color version, the sandstorm is terrifying and thrilling, but in a way that feels like spectacle to be admired. In Black & Chrome, with everything in shades of gray, the sandstorm becomes visceral and immediate, with no way to tell where the storm ends and anything else begins–but at the same time, it’s stunningly beautiful, with the movement and the texture and the sparkle of the sand being highlighted more intensely; the flare drop at the end feels almost mystical. Max’s flashbacks also become more immediate, more contained within that sense of dreamtime, and therefore more effective. And I found I was better able to focus on the designs of the vehicles; with the distraction of color removed, the genius of the details and the solutions for functional concerns became much more obvious, and gave me even more admiration for both the film’s fabrication crews, and how the people of this world might have envisioned and created these vehicles.

The same effect comes through in many of the scenes focused on the characters. In the original release, I agreed with criticisms that the scene where the Wives are bathing ran uncomfortably close to objectification. In Black & Chrome, the intent becomes more clear: they’re simply women who have been in the hot, filthy cargo bin of a truck for hours who are washing away the dirt. Furiosa’s cautious glower through the grease on her face is more piercing, more foreboding; the moment where she learns of the loss of the Green Place and allows her grief full rein is made more powerful by the starkness and the lack of color. Angharad’s sacrifice, her willingness to put her body and her pregnancy between her compatriots and their tormentor, is somehow even more shocking and deeply felt, since our attention is on what happens and not on the whirl of color and motion surrounding it. And the faces of the older women–Miss Giddy and the Vuvalini–become more pronounced, where the light and shadow plays on the contours of their expressions and highlights the sense of experience they bring. 

And I found that, without the intense saturated color taking my attention, I thought more about the themes of the film, and about the way it communicates its ideas without needing to say them explicitly. With the play of color on their bodies removed, I found it more piercingly clear that the Wives aren’t willing participants in a polygamous marriage–they are sexual slaves, their role as “breeders” brutally forced on them, and reflected by the bleached, monochrome reality in which their existence is happening. The hauntedness behind Furiosa’s eyes–the sense of trauma and defiance that many survivors of sexual violence know as part of their reality–becomes a greater focus, and her rage more distilled and intense. And the lack of color punctuates the Vuvalini elegy for the Green Place; with no color, no way to imagine what it might look like, we feel the loss of it even more deeply.

Some things do work better in the color version. The lack of color lessens the impact of Max’s line about how his “world is blood and fire” in the prologue. We don’t get the illness of the War Boys as clearly when their ghostly white skin isn’t such a stark contrast to the colors around them. The moment where Immortan Joe runs through the greenhouse doesn’t have the same impact since we can’t see the contrast of the green against the stone and desert. Some of the spectacle and visual manipulation of the Citadel war party is lost without color–I admit, not seeing the Doof Warrior’s bright red union suit and the flame shooting from his guitar makes him less absurdly awesome. And the Dead Place sequence doesn’t really work in Black & Chrome; what makes it effective in the color version is the stark contrast of its darkness against the saturated colors. 

In the end, I think both versions complement each other. Either one would be a magnificent work of filmmaking, and and we’d be fortunate to have either version. But I’m grateful we have both, and to have had the chance to see both on the big screen. 

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