I thought we’d all agreed on Mad Max: Fury Road’s place in movie history. It’s an impossibly good third sequel that arrived 20 years after the last installment and was somehow still right on time. It’s so badass it can fill the screen with cock-rock fantasies of guitars spewing fire atop five-ton trucks while serving as a subversive riot grrrl parable. And it’s got enough bizarre cyberpunk imagery and bonkers high-speed action to make a story about people wandering blindly through the desert seem interesting for the first time since the Book of Exodus.
But then the internet had to go and start quoting George Miller, the Australian director of the whole Mad Max saga stretching back to 1979, as saying that the “best version” of Fury Road is the “Black and Chrome” one that arrives today on Blu-ray.
Can it really be true that the most sensory-overloading sci-fi-action film in recent memory is better in black and white? After watching the Black and Chrome Edition, I can tell you that the short answer is no. But it’s worth taking a closer look at what Miller has actually said on the subject.
He’s certainly not the first modern director to fall in love with black and white, and I’m not just talking about fetishistic filmmakers like Woody Allen and Guy Maddin. Serial Stephen King adapter Frank Darabont was similarly convinced that his 2007 film The Mist needed to be black and white; he couldn’t sell studio execs on the idea, but he paved the way for Fury Road’s Black and Chrome Edition when he got to release a black-and-white version on DVD. It definitely gave the movie the classic B-movie feel Darabont was apparently looking for—which unfortunately was exactly the wrong vibe for King’s very modern take on H.P. Lovecraft.
In the introduction to the Black and Chrome version, Miller says he first got the idea that he should make a Mad Max movie in black and white from watching decolorized dupe footage of his first Mad Max sequel, 1981’s The Road Warrior. And yeah, The Road Warrior probably did look better in black and white. It had a fairly simple color scheme: black leather and black cars on gray dirt and even grayer roads.
Fury Road, on the other hand, captures colors that didn’t even exist on film in 1981. It has dirt in a hundred colors—mud never looked so good! This is the most obsessively art-directed Mad Max movie that ever was, and there’s a thematic importance to it as well. When Tom Hardy’s Max says, “I exist in this wasteland,” and Miller cuts to said wasteland, we see a landscape broken but not without the potential for redemption: golden sunlight streaming through purple-grey clouds onto red soil. Swirling with color, it hints at the hope that Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa spends the entire movie chasing after.
Yes, the new version is worth a watch. Black and chrome certainly gets albino mutants their whitest, and the mythic look of the whole thing ties it in nicely to classic John Ford westerns like The Searchers, to which Fury Road owes its biggest cinematic debt. But it’s too stark, and it loses a lot both conceptually and emotionally by stripping away the palette with which Miller painted so carefully.
That’s what the director himself admits to, when his widely circulated “best version” quote is put in the correct context. What he actually says in the introduction is this:
So here we are with the black-and-white version of the movie. Some scenes in particular play a lot better, and some, there’s some information that we got from the color that’s missing. But overall, for me, it’s the best version of the movie. It’ll be interesting to see if you agree.
I don’t. But in the end, I enjoyed watching the Black and Chrome Edition the same way I enjoy a good cover version of a song. While it may not measure up to the original, it makes me look at it from a different perspective, and come away with a new appreciation.