No Paul? No…problem?

While not the official tagline of The Fate of the Furious, it sums up the film’s approach to a newly Paul Walker-less Fast and the Furious franchise. Worried about the effect of his death on the series’ success, the movie is eager to prove that its ever-expanding family can pay homage to his memory in spectacular and surprising ways.

Let’s not forget that the previous Fast + Furious film, Furious 7, was the eighth-highest grossing film of all time with a total worldwide box office of over $1.5 billion. It appealed to global audiences by offering a swan song for Walker’s Brian O’Conner (I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again), the blue-eyed and smiley token white boy who had always hovered close to the franchise’s center. Rather than kill Brian off, Leia-style, the franchise provides him with a photogenic and holographic drive into the sunset. His final words? “It’s never goodbye.”

Except that it was. Walker died in a car accident at age 40, before even the completion of Furious 7. His character does appear in The Fate of the Furious, but only via allusion. Should we go get Brian to help lead us to victory? No, too dangerous. Should we name a baby after him? Yes, so manger-ous!

At first glance, the Fast and Furious team—including producers Neal H. Moritz (Juice, Goosebumps, Escape Room) and unleaded-as-ever Vin Diesel—seem to use Walker’s death as a reason to move on from Brian completely. Accordingly, they put legendary director F. Gary Gray (Set It Off, Straight Outta Compton) at the helm and bring in some surprisingly elite actors, including Charlize Theron (as hippie villain and aspiring influencer Cipher) and Helen Mirren (as Jason Statham’s cockney-accented mom).

Still, The Fate of the Furious continues the trend that the series began in Fast Five of moving away from car races towards globe-trotting, CGI-constructed vehicular fantasia. Think back, for example, to the Rio de Janeiro safe-dragging heist scene in the fifth film or the Dubai skyscraper-hopping getaway in film seven. Why contain cars in space and time?

Critics had seemingly grown tired of such physics-defying antics by 2017, when Fate dropped. Our own Mike McClelland wrote, “The Fate of the Furious feels like more of the same, a lesser retread: a showcase for flashy cars and a vanity project for its buff, aging stars.” Over at The Atlantic, David Sims observed, “The Fate of the Furious offers everything you might want from the series, but those offerings are beginning to look ever so slightly stale.” (It’s just a little ironic that Rotten Tomatoes considers that review “certified fresh.”) Those critics that did praise the film lauded how successfully it appealed to “fans,” a term that simultaneously acknowledges the films’ global successes and distances sophisticated writers of taste from such embarrassingly simple films. These are movies for ordinary fans, not discerning critics.

But the film is underrated as a study in spectacle. How little narrative does a film need to prop up the action? How can one wildly incoherent car chase lead to another and another? And how can spectacle help us work through traumas sustained (Walker’s death) and traumas anticipated (self-driving carpocalypse, climate change)?

The answer to that first question, it turns out, is “very little.” It’s not even worthwhile to describe the film’s plot except to say that Dom (Diesel) turns against his team at Cipher’s behest, so his former allies and a few former foes have to collaboratively figure out how to win him back into their good graces. The movie barely bothers to hustle up our sympathies, perhaps to publicly acknowledge that doing so would be completely unnecessary. It doesn’t even want us to doubt that the good guys will win. Instead, it’s more about what crazy, decidedly inefficient shit will happen to achieve the right result.

In the context of the Fast and Furious film series, the right result is always family. In fact, you might as well have a shot of Teremana tequila every time the word gets uttered or maybe just set up a little alter to American family where you can light incense every time a couple of bros hug it out. But F8 continues the series’ project of exploding the concept of family, transforming it into something pliable and embracive rather than monolithic and territorial. Your mortal enemy from a few weeks ago could easily turn into your new sibling. The major shift here involves Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw—the main bad guy in Furious 7—joining the team, eventually saving baby Brian and even laughing at the bare-knuckled punchlines of Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs. (“I’ll slap that whisker biscuit off your face!”) Literally anybody can join the squad in all of its multiracial, transnational glory.

This is part of the way the film sustains its chain of hot pursuits and intensifies its many spectacles. More family members means more planes, automobiles and even tanks that can all chase each other in increasingly difficult and incendiary directions. Possibilities for spinoffs and (even more) sequels materialize. In one of the film’s many WTF moments, a hard cut takes us to a Berlin (played here by some combination of Cleveland and green screen) that has been set ablaze and is only escapable via a route that includes a giant, German-killing wrecking ball. It’s not a depiction of World War II, but it easily could be. When will the franchise send these barrel-chested men back in time to battle the Nazis with the help of a revamped Volkswagen fleet?

Perhaps the series’ most underrated spectacle is Vin Diesel’s acting, which really shows how too much muscle can severely limit an actor’s range. His performance takes him to his present limit, pillow talk and child-drenching tears included. That’s the fun of it, especially next to Theron and Mirren. Diesel’s muscled cries and deadlift smiles effectively encourage these Oscar winners to depart their respective comfort zones and get a little reflexive, if only because they can barely understand what his brawny face is actually doing. One can only hope that Rami Malek and Brie Larson are next in line, waiting in the wings with their NOS-infused cannabis gummies and art deco planes.

Still, the greatest spectacle is the film’s numerous jaw-dropping set pieces. (Sorry, Vin.) In addition to the Berlin wrecking ball, there’s a Havana jalopy chase (a burning car must be reversed to victory and leap to its death to avoid hitting a crowd of spectators), a New York self-driving car melee (hundreds of them wreak havoc in the peopled streets) and a Russia submarine-versus-automobile bout (the ship launches itself out from under a sheet of ice to fling a fleet of vehicles towards the heavens). In each, there’s just enough logical directionality for viewers to make sense of the otherwise illogical proceedings. So when Dom uses the sub as a ramp for a neat car trick, for example, you can retrospectively draw out his path in a diagram for your skeptical friends.

There’s no denying that, centuries from now, historians will look back at The Fate of the Furious as symptomatic of early 21st-century anxieties. The fragile Russian ice crumbles to oblivion faster than you can say “melting ice caps.” Those computerized, driverless vehicles become an anarchical zombie horde through a relatively simple yet villainous computer hack. Even the Havana scene seems to have as much to do with restoring US-Cuba relations as it does Dom’s honor. (R.I.P., Obama-era aspirations.)

Yet these scenes are extraordinary enough to provoke surprised laughter and, thus, momentarily ease tension. Andrew Bird once sang, “To save all our lives, you’ve got to envision/ The fiery crash.” The Fate of the Furious adheres to this philosophy by imagining a succession of the most fiery crashes. To envision these disasters is to enjoy them, just for a second, before using these undesirable dreams as a quiet sort of call to action.

But even if these anticipated dangers remain theoretical on some level, it’s Walker’s death that brings them back to reality. Some people have a tendency to mock celebrity-death-engendered grief, but its personal scale is far more palpable than statistics and predictions. Paul is dead. We feel his absence in The Fate of the Furious. So when that flame-engulfed hunk of metal safely barrels into the Atlantic in the movie’s first scene, we feel relief but also regret that Walker himself couldn’t have tucked and rolled out of danger, just in time.

Ambitiously, The Fate of the Furious challenges us to consider the tangibly individual scale next to the globally catastrophic. If Paul Walker can die, the world can just as easily spiral towards massive disaster. Mortality hides in plain sight, a haystack for the needle of spectacle. The film attempts to forget but really does what it does in remembrance of O’Conner, every explosion a reminder of life—more of it, saving it, now—rather than a distraction from it.

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