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Why Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterclass in visual storytelling

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Today’s genre films wish they were this good

We called Mad Max: Fury Road a cult classic when it hit theaters back in 2015, but what I find particularly special about the movie now is how well it holds up to scrutiny. Even though there are long stretches without any dialogue, director George Miller took such care with the film that, the audio and visuals tell about as much story as even the talkiest Aaron Sorkin screenplay. He was so good, his movie shows how other genre films are screwing up.

Video essayist Lindsay Ellis breaks down just one aspect of Miller’s craft in her video on planting and payoff. The whole idea behind plants (or setups) and payoffs is to introduce a concept or theme in the narrative, remind the audience that it’s still in play, and resolve it. It’s a simple way to show how something, well, matters to the story and its characters. In Fury Road, she explains, we see that with the War Boys’ chrome mouth spray, Max’s boot, and Max’s blood tube. Each is planted in the story, and each is effectively resolved in a way that exposes how the world works and what Max, Furiosa, and the Wives are trying to escape.

Ellis does a great job of demonstrating how this is just great visual storytelling, and even provides a few brief examples of how other filmmakers (cough Zack Snyder cough) are getting that wrong these days. But lets take a look at another example: Suicide Squad. (Because the DCEU deserves a few good knocks. Let’s be real.) Dan Olsen, a cinematographer and fellow YouTuber, took a look at the film and what that movie gets wrong on an editing level, and also touched on planting and payoff at length.

Starting at around 7:25, Olsen breaks down how Suicide Squad not only fails to payoff what it plants, but later goes on to ruin what was already well-established in the film’s universe. In the end, it’s bad editing, and compared to Fury Road, comes across as amateurish even when you acknowledge how chaotic the production for Suicide Squad became.

Now, I’m no filmmaker. I just like movies. But I’ll leave you with a few takeaways. First, movies are supposed to make sense, and paying attention to and paying off even small details serves that end. That said, even the best writers and directors screw up. But what does it say when what should be a basic tool in a director’s toolbox is one of many things that makes their movie stand out? Mad Max: Fury Road is an incredible film, but shouldn’t we expect more from our genre films overall?