When I think about the movies I would put into time capsules or shoot into space for other civilizations to discover, they tend to fall into two categories.
In the first belong films of such peerless cinematic value that I’d want to preserve them as gifts for future generations, or offer them up as the best art human society is capable of producing. The second serve as a sort of shorthand: Rather than explaining the national mood at a given moment, I could just give extraterrestrials or future Americans a DVD or a stream and save us all a lot of time and confusion.
“The Fate of the Furious” — the latest installment in what I guess is still nominally a franchise about muscle cars, family and the butts of the women who drop starter flags at car races — is such a movie.
“The Fate of the Furious” is, quite literally, about how the Deep State, represented by chipper black-site operator Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and the car-racing team assembled by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), saves the world from Russian nuclear weapons. The launch codes for those nukes have fallen into the hands of a hacker who goes by Cipher (Charlize Theron) — she’s sort of like Julian Assange, except you know she’s really evil because she’s a white woman with dreadlocks — who in the movie’s best action sequence hijacks a bunch of cars through their Global Positioning Systems and sends them stampeding through the streets of New York like a bunch of cattle.
It’s a film in which women of color (Nathalie Emmanuel) can be computer experts; female love interests (Michelle Rodriguez) can be relatively butch gear heads without being seen as unsexed or undesirable; black nerds (Ludacris) get to drive tanks; everyone rips on Scott Eastwood, playing the latest and increasingly unnecessary white dude in the franchise; Dwanye Johnson and Jason Statham have such great will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry that at one point in my notes, it just says “Kiss!!!!”; Johnson coaches girls’ soccer; Statham saves a baby by means of a lot of creative and efficient murders; and Helen Mirren swears and drinks tea.
The movie is a weird and timely jumble of American anxieties about foreign policy and technology, conversations about race, nepotism and mediocre white dudes, and cultural aspirations around diversity. Which is not to say “The Fate of the Furious” is terribly good, per se.
Repeating “family” a lot is not a substitute for character development, and “The Fate and the Furious” can be frustratingly inconsistent on this score. It makes perfect sense that Dom and his wife, Letty (Rodriguez), would go to Cuba so they could spend their honeymoon ogling that country’s classic cars, but the movie handles Letty’s desire to have a baby in a way that’s emotionally bizarre even by the standards of a film that mixes up a car chase with a nuclear-armed submarine.
And for a movie that’s cast some of the greatest brawlers currently punching it up on screen, “The Fate of the Furious” chops up its action sequences with so many quick cuts that it can be hard to tell what’s just happened, much less to luxuriate in whatever magnificent, ludicrous mayhem Johnson and Statham have just perpetrated. The defining trait of the “Fast and Furious” movies at this point is their utter ridiculousness. If you’re in the business of, say, jumping cars through skyscrapers, you should at least give the audience time to appreciate the absurdity of it all:
The movie also floats, but doesn’t develop, the idea of a hacker duel between Cypher and Ramsey (Emmanuel) as a kind of feminized action sequence, all dancing fingers gliding over slick keyboards. It’s probably for the best that “The Fate of the Furious” doesn’t try to explain what’s going on as the two women stalk around each other through the twists and turns of code: explaining anything this franchise does is deadly. But it’s a reminder that just as “The Fate of the Furious” has a number of elements that could make for dandy spinoffs, it’s got missed opportunities as well.
The truth is that even if “The Fate of the Furious” isn’t the best version of the thing it’s trying to be, or a deep meditation on the insane year it so aptly represents, that’s OK. When the world is this stupid and maddening, sometimes it’s fun to ogle men’s well-muscled arms and the slick cars they drive with them, and to revel in a kind of dumbness that harms no one.
And if writer Chris Morgan and director F. Gary Gray haven’t sorted out the weird stew of politics and ideas that populate their movie, well, neither has anyone else. We’ll have to hope the recipients of our cinematic time capsule are actually around to see how it all turned out.