Desaturated In The Auditorium: FURY ROAD And LOGAN NOIR

How George Miller and James Mangold's monochromatic renditions look to the future while creating tenuous links to the past.

In his intro to the Black & Chrome Edition of Mad Max: Fury Road, writer/director George Miller explains that the notion to suck all the color out of his dystopian action masterpiece came while watching a test print of The Road Warrior as Brian May was composing that picture’s score. Miller shot the Mad Max sequel in color, but seeing it in black and white (since the very literal workprint didn’t have the properly timed pigment added yet) allowed him to appreciate his movie in a different way. The architecture, as it were, was accentuated; as shot framing and sound design took greater command of his attention. The synaptic suppression created a whole new experience, and Miller was determined to release a Mad Max movie sans shading ever since.

Fury Road is one of the most vibrant big studio productions in the history of motion pictures. The greens of the Citadel, and the aquatic sparkle of the water its despotic leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), dumps on its denizens pops when compared to the barren browns of the surrounding Australian wasteland. When cars explode during the feature length convoy pursuit that accounts for much of the movie’s runtime, they generate blood orange fireballs that threaten to singe the eyebrows off audience members seated in the front row. To wit, wiping all that lively paint off Fury Road’s canvas was a mistake. The nighttime scenes in the back half are a mish-mash of muddled, inky blacks, sometimes becoming the filmic equivalent of a Rorschach Test conducted in an optometrist’s office that’s lost power during a thunderstorm.

So, when Logan Noir – James Mangold’s black and white rendition of this year’s smash “grown up” comic book movie – was announced, to assume this writer was skeptical is something of an understatement. If one of the absolute best films ever made couldn’t successfully desaturate its frames and retain the same sense of grandeur, what chance did this well-meaning, well-constructed, sometimes tragically flawed pop diversion have in topping it? Funnily enough, it’s the mere yearning for genre transcendence that lends itself to B&W better than Miller’s classic. During the Q&A following last night’s Drafthouse screenings across the country, Mangold said he wanted to make more than an “assembly line comic book movie” with Logan. If you marry this intent to the stark aesthetics of the past, suddenly the movie stands out in a way that it only strained to do before. The medium becomes the message, as a link to history (complete with an eyeroll-inducing Cinemascope card before the titles) is tenuously formed.

Don’t get it twisted, Logan Noir is still very much just Logan -- the product of a modern genre system which draws influence from motions pictures past while looking to the future (and very eerily mirroring our racist, near-collapse present). It’s an X-Men movie, deconstructed and then fastened back together with the sinew of a specific George Stevens Western. The thematic meat is aimed at the appetite of movie-going adults, tired of having to suffer through the latest serialized go ‘round of faux “end of the world” stakes. Here is a self-contained narrative that seeks to bring closure not only to several iconic characters’ existences, but an era in the lives of fans who grew up with seventeen years of Hugh Jackman donning adamantium claws and mutton chop side burns. The notes of this funeral march hit harder when they’re played without any colorized flourish because Logan’s death and Charles Xavier’s dementia are black and white – there is no negotiating with either.

When Logan first dropped, some complained that the R-rating, however freeing when it came to the sort of story Mangold and Jackman wanted their Wolverine to go out on, also led to a juvenile excessiveness in the violence and swearing departments. Just as Quentin Tarantino used desaturation to avoid an NC-17 on Kill Bill Vol. 1 (the lack of color dodging a bullet when the MPAA demanded he cut the House of Blue Leaves’ gore outright), Mangold rendering Logan’s crimson black in post now lowers the ludicrous level of splatter, while never lessening the brutality. Now that we’re not focused on arterial sprays every time Wolverine’s claws puncture a man’s form, it allows us to take in the clarity of the fight choreography (which is quite impressive on repeat viewings) and the crunches that sell the muscular rage that drives these scenes of slaughter. George Miller’s theory of sensory deprivation works wonders here, emphasizing the typically invisible arts that go into creating extraordinary fight scenes while simultaneously reducing the juvenile “kid in a candy store” mindset some of the set pieces lean into a little too hard. Sadly, a few extraneous F-words couldn’t be removed along with the movie’s dust brown palette.

If there’s an obvious distracting downside to the black and white application on both Fury Road and Logan Noir, it’s that heavy CGI SFX and attempts at replicating old fashioned cinema via digital means don’t mix particularly well. There are defined motion trails emphasized during Fury Road’s climactic rig detonation and Logan Noir’s psychic hurricane sequence (triggered by one of Professor’s Xavier’s uncontrollable fits) that are difficult to ignore. Try as they may, neither Miller nor Mangold can escape the limitations of the advanced technology they’re using to both build and then revise their respective visions. Honestly, it’s not a major disruption in either edition, but they’re certainly there, and keep both from completely achieving throwback goals.

Perhaps it’s the overt Shane references that help push Logan Noir over the top, but the Old West vibes Mangold and Jackman (who cited Unforgiven as his main inspiration when returning for this climactic chapter) yearned to deliver are undeniable when viewed through this new monochromatic lens. Just as Frank Darabont evoked the '50s B-Movies he’d always intended his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist to own (though, in fairness, he’d originally envisioned that work in B&W), Mangold’s catering to fans’ wishes* strengthens the overall visual acumen of his anti-MCU finale. The terse eulogy given for the titular protector now hits that much closer to home when delivered over his final resting place. He’s the last gun in the valley, laid down with only an ‘X’ marking his grave, the letter standing out against a faded backdrop he no longer belongs to.

*The idea for Logan Noir came from online interactions during Logan’s production, where supporters showed a ton of love to B&W stills.