I finally got around to watching Mad Max: Fury Road, which put before me the most compelling fantasy world I have seen on film in a long, long time. For the entire length of the movie I was on the edge of my seat, repulsed, intrigued, and fascinated by this teeny tiny glimpse into a terrible apocalyptic future.
Here is my theory about why it was so successful: they left some questions unanswered.
So often in Science Fiction and Fantasy movies there is a terrible burden to explain the rules of the world. Rules that would be automatically understood in films set in historical or modern day Earth. Mad Max did a fan-friggin’-tastic job of showing the rules of the world instead of telling us the rules.
**Note: below are Mad Max “Spoilers”. I’m going to talk about the world of the movie. Warning over.**
Like what is the deal with the silver mouth spray paint?
Why are post apocalyptic radiation victims chanting about Valhalla?
These are questions you may be asking yourself (or in my case my increasingly impatient husband) at a certain point in the movie. And instead of clunky dialogue to explain, they give us this:
MUCH more satisfying. It is infinitely cooler to see than explain (that spray painting your mouth is a way of asking for an audience to one’s suicidally epic deed of destruction that will win you a spot in Valhalla). So chrome!
It is also much more emotionally impactful, (aka horrifying) because you come up with the idea yourself. It is like your own mind betrays you, connecting the dots to reveal a terrible picture. My thought process was like “oh, I get it.” “oh, NO!” “That’s messed up!”. Which works really well for this movie.
Now one thing that isn’t vague AT ALL are the non-fantasy parts of the story. Viewers are crystal clear about Furiosa and Max’s goals and the basic plot of the movie the whole time. I want to make the point that Fantasy stories still have to answer the questions: who are the characters, why are they acting that way, and why should an audience care? These are essential story questions that transcend genre that I think always should be answered.
It is in the world building that unanswered questions can be so powerful. Or answering questions partway. Or answering a question so oddly that it brings up a zillion more questions.
Strange Alter for Steering Wheels?
Bird People? Swamp scavengers? Nightmare Fuel?
Rock Guitar Battle Accompanist?
All these elements clarify the rules and values of the world, without dialogue, and without being one hundred percent totally clear.
Perfect understanding of the world of Mad Max is not necessary to the story being told. The audience is told as much as it needs to in order to appreciate the story.
Other science fiction that does this well? OG Star Wars: A New Hope.
There are two suns on this planet? Mos Eisley is a wretched hive for scum and villainy, in addition to being a hive of unanswered questions! The Force, a central plot point in the movie, isn’t really explained. How are we to know how The Force works?
The thing is, as an audience we didn’t need to understand The Force fully to understand its importance to Luke and the Rebellion.
I think successful fantasy worlds answer the questions that are raised by the story, and leave many others open for wonder. It helps audiences revel in the otherness of the world. And for me, leaving unanswered questions, adds a lot of fun.