Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

Furiosa, Fury Road, And The Necessity Of Stakes

The tl;dr is I saw Furiosa, it was good! I liked it! It was also not amazing, and I think it fell way short of Fury Road (to be fair, nearly everything falls short of Fury Road) — and so I have myself asking, what about it falls short? As a storyteller, I can be pretty hyperactive with dissecting narrative even as it appears before me — my brain turns into ants picking apart the body of a struggling beetle, rendering it into its separate bits even before it’s dead, just to see what makes up this strange bug in front of me.

A really great story will lose me in it, bypassing my scrutiny — Fury Road, for instance, was like a snap to the medullah, just boom, delivery of pure delight. And Furiosa did not do that. And so I’m left asking why that is.

And in that there are some basic things I could say, right? It’s a bit long. Draggy at about the 30% mark for me. A bit overstuffed with plot in some places, and utterly hasty with plot in others. A lack of great side characters. It also suffers from what I call The Prequel Dilemma, which is not a Robert Ludlum novel, but rather, this (quoted from an earlier post) —

“Prequels represent a tricky conundrum because a story should have everything it needs to be understood in its first iteration. Right? From start to finish, the audience needs all the salient details to parse the plot and more importantly, the emotional throughline. So, to prequelize anything either means you’re going over redundant information or you’re leaving required material out of the prime narrative so that it can be told later. Neither are super-delicious choices. If you go over redundant information you run the risk of being bored, or actually changing the story (think of stepping on a narrative butterfly in the narrative past which then retroactively changes the future, like how Darth Vader’s redemption is very seriously complicated by Anakin’s choice to kill children and physically abuse the pregnant mother of his future Jedi-babbies). And if you’re leaving required information out, now you’re just doing the equivalent of offering paid DLC to complete a game someone paid full price to play in the belief it was, well, complete already. Which can be frustrating for the audience.”

Prequels are telling a story locked in fate — you have a known narrative terminus, a carved constant spoiler warning, and the best you can do is build up to that. You’re just lining up data points. Furiosa definitely falls into this: we know who she is, where she comes from, why she wants to go back, already. And the film doesn’t expand on that very much, except maybe on the notion that in Fury Road she talks about wanting redemption — though, I also don’t know that Furiosa convinced me she was in need of it? Mostly, the new film just… lines up the backstory we already knew and pads it out with PLOT STUFF and WORLDBUILDING BEATS, never challenging our understanding of the character very much.

Then there’s also some janky, I dunno, CGI? The effects are mostly solid, but do feel a bit behind Fury Road, and there are a few shots where it looks like you can tell it’ was made with… I don’t think it’s green-screen, per se, but maybe that new tech they pioneered for The Mandalorian? Which I think is both really cool and also ends up limiting your shots in a way where it’s getting overused and obvious, if that makes sense?

Anyway, these are all just… review points, and again, I really want to understand the fiddlier bits, ostensibly for my own understanding of how stories work. And ultimately what I come away with is–

I’m left thinking about stakes.

Er, not the thing you use to dispatch vampires or put up tents.

I mean, the storytelling component.

To define our terms a bit, I’d define stakes as what can be won or lost in a story. And I know ‘won or lost’ are loaded, gameified terms here, but I think they’re appropriate — there is, in a good story, a narrative wager. We know that there’s something on the table for the characters, right? They have a problem. They want something. They need something. They fear something. The story has put one or likely many obstacles in the way of them achieving their goals, often with difficult or impossible choices, and these goals, these choices, line up our stakes quite neatly. The stakes represent a question: what will be gained, and what will be lost, in dealing with this problem, in characters pursuing their goals? The story is there to play it all out.

In Fury Road, we understand the stakes, particularly for Furiosa and the women she is freeing from Immortan Joe’s citadel harem. Survival. Escape. Freedom. And the promise of a better place to go. (For Max it’s less clear, but still writ: the stakes for him are survival, at first, but eventually, redemption. I argue here in an older post that Max is the main character, but Furiosa is the protagonist of that first film of theirs.) The stakes are why the characters care, and then, by proxy, why we care, as well. In more mythic modes of storytelling, we want the heroes to get what they want and the villains to get what they deserve. In less mythic modes, we might be less emotionally settled on what we want, given moral or social complications — but we still know what’s on the table when the stakes are clear. Doubly so when they are simple — less “taxation of trade routes” and more “free the princess.” Simple works: love, hate, revenge, greed, whatever.

I think Furiosa has a problem with its stakes.

And herein, we’re going to get a little spoilerish.

So, be advised.





I think this ‘problem with the story’s stakes’ is embodied best by the scene where the war rig is churning along, piloted by a guy who has barely been introduced. (The other Praetorian — I think his name is Jack? I am honestly not sure. I liked him! But he’s just sort of, boop, there he is, new guy, and now he’s important I guess?) And then the rig is attacked by what I think were fragments of Dementus’ biker gang (again, more unclear shit). Some of them, from the sky! In that scene, we eventually see that Furiosa is… present. Why she’s present, I’m not sure? I think she’s maybe planning on stealing the rig? Or escaping in general? Again, very unclear. Either way, the scene is exciting, well-shot, with some real clever shit going on, but I didn’t really know why it was happening, or more to the point, why we were seeing it.

Like, in Fury Road, we have scenes where… similar-ish desert randos attack the rig, but the stakes are established that the rig has to escape, and it has left the path, having gone rogue. It is vital that they make it through and that the desert motorbike randos don’t take the rig down. In Furiosa, this similar scene is just… I think the rig going back and forth from the Citadel to Gastown. Right? It’s a routine run, run by the routine praetorian, and Furiosa is present for Reasons Unclear. The stakes are muddy. Is she trying to escape? Is she trying to take the rig or get off of it? Is she looking to get revenge against Dementus? The stakes for Jack are just he’s trying to do Immortan Joe’s business, which, okay, fine, but who cares? Immortan Joe is a creepy rapist cult leader, we’re not super into supporting his motivations, and further, his motivations in this scene seem to just be “deliver food, get gas, don’t die.” It’s a day on the job, which represent low stakes for us, the viewer. Then the stakes get muddier because Furiosa… doesn’t escape, doesn’t take over the war rig, and just settles into… a job? So, a scene that should feel vital and exciting just felt kind of confusing.

(A later scene that takes place at the Bullet Farm, where Jack and Furiosa are separated, works much better, because we’ve bought into the stakes — however specious it started — of their relationship. There, the action transcends action — which is really the point of action sequences. Too many films treat them like a reward in and of themselves but they are not. The action that takes place must represent the battle over the stakes. It’s also why I’d argue that the John Wick films get weaker and weaker with every iteration — the first film, the stakes are fucking crystalline in their clarity. But then every other movie pushes the stakes further and further out in favor of longer and longer scenes of relentless, video-game-level gunplay.)

The stakes in Furiosa are unclear in the long run — the only stakes we absolutely know are on the table is that she wants to get back home, that she’ll do anything to get back to the green place, but then, she mostly doesn’t try? There are opportunities she doesn’t take, and though we might assume she chooses not to take them in order to get revenge, she also doesn’t seem driven to get revenge against Dementus until the very end of the film. (And he meets a fascinatingly brutal end, though one that only comes after quite a lot of talking.) We can guess at the stakes and interpret some things, and that’s okay, and can work — but here the more we have to guess, the weaker the stakes become, and the weaker the stakes become, the less we (meaning, me, to be clear) care about what’s happening on-screen.

If the stakes are crystalline, many narrative sins can be forgotten.

When the stakes are unclear, we are at persistent risk of… let’s call it detaching emotionally from the story in front of us. We uncouple from it, like two train cars, one speeding ahead, one drifting behind.

Even the simplest of stakes — we do not want this character to die — are fucked by the story being a prequel. We know she doesn’t die. We know she loses an arm, and so we await that data point in the narrative, but we know she lives because… she’s in the next fucking movie, bro. We don’t know Jack will bite it, but we also know he’s not around anymore, so we can make a guess. Immortan Joe? In the next film. Dementus? Not in the next film. So for us, the stakes are mostly, “okay, how do the things we already know line up and occur,” and they happen in ways that are mostly expected. And even for the side characters, we can guess at their journey’s end pretty easily.

As a storyteller, the best thing you can do is know the stakes on the table — the bigger story stakes for the world at large, yes, but most importantly, the individual stakes for each character in that world. Know them, then communicate them however you must to your reader-slash-audience. You can get away with pretty much anything if we a) enjoy hanging out with the characters and b) know what’s on the table to be won or lost for them.

(Note here when I say “enjoy hanging out with,” that’s not the same as “like.” We don’t like Tony Soprano, per se, but we kinda enjoy hanging out with him, yeah? We want to live with him to see what happens.)

So, that’s it.

Zero in on the stakes.

What matters to these characters, and how can the story put that all in peril?

And also holy shit let’s stop making prequels, can we? Imagine if this film had taken Furiosa’s story forward, instead of backward? Holy shit, at the end of Fury Road she took over the citadel. Insert Dementus into that situation — hell, you could even make it so she knows him and he is, in fact, the one who killed her mother — and now she’s got this Human Chaos Bomb Wasteland Surfer Cult Leader Fucko to contend with, trying to figure out how to counter him before he blows up the stability she only just managed to secure?

Ah well. ANYWAY THAT’S IT, THAT’S THE POST. Nothing I say here should be construed as gospel truth, and all of it should be taken with a shotgun blast of rock salt. These are merely my opinions, and they may be foolish.

Okay! Love you! Bye!

(and p.s. there is certainly a larger discussion of Why The Box Office Is Weak Tea These Days, but that’s for a whole other post)

(p.p.s. buy my books or I die, and if you like writing books, Damn Fine Story or Gentle Writing Advice might tickle your glands)