“Mad Max” and the Redefinition of “Great”

The 2016 Oscar nominations were announced recently. It’s an announcement I used to look forward to with great anticipation, but I barely notice anymore. Judging be recent ratings of the Oscar awards ceremony, I think a lot of people feel the same.

Of the eight Best Picture nominees (five nominees aren’t enough anymore because there are sooooo many GREAT pictures being made nowadays–please pause here for a few minutes to let the sarcasm breathe), I’ve only heard of five and I’ve only seen one. But it was that one movie whose nomination really provides a bright, shining object lesson about where movies, and the culture in general, are right now.

I’m a fan of the “Mad Max” series of movies. So when I heard a new one was coming out, I was excited about it. When I saw all the reviews, hoo boy, I was really excited. Critics gushed to a degree usually reserved only for movies where manic depressives talk to each other about about sex and emptiness for two hours and then kill themselves in the bathtub. I heard more than one person say, “Greatest action movie ever!”

Single Jason would’ve run to the best IMAX-Dolby-Surround-Cushy-Reclining-Seats theater to see it at the first opportunity. Married with Two Kids Jason wasn’t able to get around to it until the end of its run, in the Bad-Part-Of-Town-Slightly-Fire-Damaged-Did-I-Just-See-a-Rat? dollar theater. No matter; the movie was the same, so I feel I can give it a fair review.

Mad Max: Fury Road is not the greatest action movie of all time. It’s not even the greatest Mad Max movie of all time (maybe 3rd, depending on how you feel about Tina Turner). It is a bag full of crazy from beginning to end. It’s a big, manic car chase scene cut out of a better movie with more fully-developed characters and stretched out to two hours. It’s telling that the most memorable image from the movie is a guy in red long johns riding on top of a truck made out of speakers playing a flame-throwing guitar (remember, the premise of the movie is that they’re in a post-apocalyptic world where every day is a life-or-death struggle for meager resources, so naturally the first thing you do in that world is build a flaming amp truck and hand it over to the guitarist from a Slipknot cover band).

There’s a huge gulf between my opinion of this movie and the opinions of professional movie critics and now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. What accounts for that? Again, it’s not an artsy-fartsy French film on which you expect elite snoots to disagree with lunks like me. It’s an Australian action movie. And I may not know much about much, but extensive study has made me a PhD of action movies, with a concentration in Jackie Chan.

What we have here is not a difference of opinion on a movie, but a cultural shift in the meaning of the word “great.” “Great” now just means, “that which is empty enough for me to pour into it everything I want to believe.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a “great” movie. Donald Trump is a “great” presidential candidate. Obamacare is a “great” idea. See how it works?

It’s a function of living in the postmodern world, where there are no objective criteria for “good” or “bad.” Whatever gets the approval of opinion makers is therefore “good.” Luckily for Mad Max, someone decided that it was a feminist action movie because of the prominence of a female character (despite being preceded by thirty years by the aforementioned Tina Turner). Since feminism is “good” the movie became “good” too.

The world makes a lot more sense once you understand this cultural shift. If you don’t understand why certain people or places or artistic endeavors get accolades while other, seemingly better ones don’t, trust me, you’re not missing anything. It’s just because certain words don’t mean what they used to.