Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome should serve as a cautionary tale, not about non-renewable resource use, nuclear warfare, or time’s ability to corrupt history, but about watering down a film with the aim of giving it broad-market appeal. I don’t know if this was George Miller’s intention, or perhaps an after-effect of his partner Byron Kennedy’s untimely death, but the film’s PG-13 rating, relative reduction in violence, and story focus on a tribe of lost children makes Beyond Thunderdome a stand-out in the franchise for all the wrong reasons.
Let’s start with the pedigree of action established by Mad Max and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which I reviewed previously. The first film was a slow-burning revenge plot while the sequel was more of an anti-hero Western piece, both of which culminated in an epic highway chase sequence after building up the tension through a series of smaller action scenes. Beyond Thunderdome opts to leave the road altogether. Instead, we find Max as the Off-Road Warrior, wandering through the desert wasteland in a carriage pulled by a team of camels. It seems that the fuel resources have all but dried up, leaving the vehicles of the previous films to rust. There is, however, at least one functioning aircraft in this world, flown by a scavenging pilot and his excitable son. (I could probably dedicate an entire article just to the “Is the Gyro Captain actually Jedediah?” question; they were both pilot characters played by Bruce Spence.) It’s this airborne duo that causes havoc for Max at the movie’s outset and helps to catalyze the events that follow.
And yet, it lacked the punch felt in the opening sequences of the previous films. In Mad Max, we’re introduced to the title character in a high-octane chase between the Main Force Patrol and the cop-killing psycho, Night Rider. In The Road Warrior, we see Max engaged in a different sort of road battle against the thugs of Lord Humungus’ gang, each of them vying for access to precious fuel. In Beyond Thunderdome, Max gets knocked off a wagon and is forced to walk through the desert … not nearly as thrilling.
Then again, this path brings us to Bartertown, the first substantial settlement we’ve seen in this future dystopia. Led by Aunty Entity, in a surprisingly competent and enjoyable performance from Tina Turner (I was taken to task for not mentioning the score of The Road Warrior, so let me now make a mention of Turner’s own vocal talents that she provided for the soundtrack, which were well-received), the settlement is a thrumming hive of deals and steals, powered by
pig shit methane, and subject to the law of Thunderdome. “Two men enter, one man leaves!” This famous plot point has been referenced time and again in the years since the film’s debut, and Max soon finds himself at the center of it all.
Up until this point, things have been moving along nicely. Max becomes embroiled in Bartertown’s politics after proving his fighting skills and survivability to Aunty, who offers to fully supply him for his travels if he does but one little task: Kill a man in the gladiatorial ring of Thunderdome. Except this is no ordinary man, he’s the hulking protector/enforcer/transport known as Blaster, who supports the diminutive but brilliant Master upon his shoulders. MasterBlaster runs Bartertown (“Who run Bartertown?”) because he controls the subterranean methane facility that powers the city above. Aunty, like any power hungry leader, grows tired of this uneasy truce. All Max has to do is defeat Blaster in the cage match, and both he and Aunty will walk away as the big winners.
As you probably know, or may have guessed, that’s not exactly how it all works out. After a brutal, albeit PG-13, battle in Thunderdome – a massive caged arena in which two combatants are suspended by bungees and given access to a variety of weapons – Max’s uses Blaster’s weakness to high-pitch sounds to his advantage and knocks the monster’s helmet off with a crushing blow. As he’s about to deliver the death strike, it’s revealed that Blaster is a simpleton, a mountain of a man with the mind of a child. His sweet face stays Max’s hand. But then he does something stupid and reveals Aunty’s plan to the entirety of Bartertown, which forces her to execute Blaster and send Max into exile. (“Bust a deal, face the wheel!” These people love rhymes.) It’s at this point, in my humble opinion, that we have reached the best part of the movie; everything Beyond Thunderdome is, ironically, a trainwreck.
I’m sure a film thesis exists somewhere out there which suggests that Max’s motivations all stem from the death of his son, Sprog, in the first film. In The Road Warrior, Max acts purely out of selfishness until he comes to see the Feral Kid as a sort of surrogate son. Therefore, when he comes across an entire tribe of helpless young children looking for a hero, there’s no way he can turn them down. (There’s a competing theory – somewhere – that shows Max’s subordinate companions – Sprog, Dog and Feral Kid, the monkey and tribe of children – as de-evolving in parallel along with society and civilization.) And though Max resists for a time and even tries to take over as the tribal leader in order to live in relative peace and quiet, his heroic nature gets the best of him.
But it makes little sense even in the plot of the film. When Max goes to rescue one of the splinter groups from the tribe who rebel and nearly die in the desert, the small group is forced to resupply in Bartertown. Rather than simply get enough food and water for the trip back, they attempt to rescue Master, steal the Hell on Wheels train-truck (which acts as the town’s main generator), and more or less bring Bartertown down around them as methane explosions destroy the settlement. This results in the film’s final chase scene between Max’s ragtag band and the fuming forces of Aunty (who presumably drive methane-powered vehicles?). All of this plot tweaking serves only to provide a big endpiece to the film, which is certainly an enjoyable ride, but is sillier than it is serious. It doesn’t even end with a bang, but with a bush pilot. The said-same piloting duo who opened the film provide the deus ex machina that allows the children to fly to safety, leaving Max at the mercy of Aunty.
So, to recap, Max exposed Aunty’s scheme, stole her town’s lead engineer in Master, blew up Bartertown to the point of near-irreparability, and disabled untold minions and vehicles during their chase. He’s in for some severe punishment, right? Nope! She just sort of gives him a nod of respect and goes on her merry way. It’s a moment that raises the question of, just what was the point of Max in this film? He’s no longer the driver of the story, literally or metaphorically. All he did was screw up Aunty’s plan and thereby further complicate his own survival, scared a bunch of children who believed him to be their returned savior Captain Walker, and strongarmed the pilot into flying the kids to safety. He’s peripheral to most of the action rather than being a direct agent of it. And though the tribe, which has now settled in the ruins of Sydney, will tell his tale for generations to come, I wouldn’t be surprised if Max’s part in all of it becomes lost beneath the sands of time.
So that brings me to Mad Max Fury Road. The title alone is promising as it suggests we’ll be returning to the core action piece of the franchise: road battles. The trailers and clips look absolutely insane and that insanity has only grown and evolved since the mid 80s. I have little to no idea just how this story will fit into the mythology, especially with the never-disappointing Tom Hardy stepping into the title role, but I’m anxious to see the ideas that have been rolling around in Miller’s head all these years finally realized on screen. Early reviews strongly suggest it’s been worth the wait.
Mad Max Fury Road opens May 15th. If you missed my rundown of the best death scenes from the franchise, click here.