Well here we are. The last Mad Max film left for me to cover on Film Dump. Got them all done this year too. I guess that counts as a season, right? No? OK. I’m pretty glad that I did get around to covering these films. Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome I hadn’t seen for a long time. The original film is always a joy for me and God damn Fury Road was awesome. Thunderdome is the first Mad Max film I ever saw back in the 80s as a wee lad. Around then Mad Max was still a huge deal. Mel Gibson was a huge star beloved by all. One of those things can still be said today at least. So, how has Beyond Thunderdome aged? Lets find out shall we?
Beyond Thunderdome is often, rather egregiously, credited as being the reason the Mad Max series died. Some even call it a flop. It really didn’t and it really wasn’t. Fact was George Miller pretty much only made this film after being given the idea to work Max into a post-apocalyptic Lord of Flies style film. Correctly they felt it would work in the film’s favour to bring Max back. Also, the film was a huge hit. Critically it wasn’t as overwhelmingly positively received as The Road Warrior, but very little is, but it certainly made its mark. Just the image of the Thunderdome itself (a dome shaped cage where combatants fight to the death) and the phrase “two men enter, one man leaves” are fully in the modern lexicon of pop culture history. The film even had a theme song in Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” that reached No.1 in the US charts. The film was a big deal. It disappointed some, sure, but it wasn’t why the series went silent for 30 years. That was entirely down to a feeling of completeness and a lack of desire to make more. The natural way a series ends. But how is the actual film? After-all, success isn’t always indicative of quality.
In short, Beyond Thunderdome is odd. Really very odd. That’s saying something for a series that has featured a bladed boomerang throwing feral kid, a villain wearing BDSM and young warriors spraying silver paint into their mouths in order to ride eternal into Valhalla shiny and chrome. For the first half of it’s runtime this is pretty standard Mad Max stuff. Max (Mel Gibson) has his car… well… camel drawn wagon stolen and follows the culprit to a place called Barter Town. Barter Town is one of the few outcrops of civilisation in the post-apocalyptic Australia. Hell, for this world it’s positively advanced. The town is run by a woman named Aunty Entity played by Tina Turner, an early sign that this series may be going in a different direction. She has a problem with the man that runs her methane power factory underground, a dwarven man named Master (Angelo Rossitto) who rides around on the shoulders of the hulking Blaster (Paul Larsson). The due go under the pseudonym Master Blaster when their powers are combined Voltron style. Master Blaster is using his control of the power to get Aunty under his thumb and devalue her position of power. She makes a deal with Max to face Blaster in the Thunderdome and in return she’ll allow him to hunt for the man that took his wagon.
That all sounds pretty Mad Max-ish so far. The Thunderdome battle itself is a pretty unique take on gladiatorial battles, except with added bungee cords for that authentic Australian flavour. Max refuses to kill Blaster when he discovers that he’s a mentally handicapped person under his mask. Aunty has Blaster killed while he is helpless and, as punishment, banish Max to wander the Gulag, an uncharted, storm battered region of empty desert land. Now this is where the film takes a wild turn to the left. You’d think the film would basically involve Max making his way back and getting revenge on Aunty whilst destroying Barter Town. Instead he is found by a teenage girl and dragged back to an oasis beyond the Gulag where a tribe of children live near a crashed plane. Now you see where that Lord of the Flies element comes in. The children think Max is their lost Captain Walker come to take them away in his flying machine to the Morrow Morrow Land.
Now what’s odd is that thematically there are parallels that can be drawn between the Barter Town half and the child tribe half of the film. Barter Town features adults not learning from the mistakes of the past, violence and a greed for power causing their own gradual self destruction. Meanwhile the children are a society getting by peacefully with their own religious structure guiding them. Innocence and spirituality guiding them to be a glimmer of hope for the future of this world. The trouble is that you’ve just gone from this gritty a violent, very Mad Max feeling world to something that feels like it’s from an entirely different film. The sudden shift is jarring and the complete stripping away of all elements that makes Mad Max what it is can prove tough to take in. It’s a bold shift, for sure, but it really feels like an odd segue.
Eventually the plot finds its way back to Barter Town, with a few members of the tribe tagging along with Max, where they free Master from the factory, where he has been ridiculed and abused while we were away, and then get right back into a big old car chase because of course the film has to have a car chase. The moment the Beyond Thunderdome wanders into apocalyptic Lord of the Flies the whole plot goes off the rails and loses any real coherence. The kids explain why they think Max is Walker. Max says he isn’t for a while. Tries to convince them theirs nothing out there. Then they go out there. They destroy Barter Town by literally driving it’s fuel source away, potentially ruining the lives of the thousands that live there and one of the few places in the world that has any sort of structure. And… I’m going to ruin the end of the film here… For some reason when Aunty Entity catches up to Max she just kinda goes “alright mate. See ya later” as the kids are flying away to the ruins of Sydney. There’s just about enough reason for these events to happen, but they never really feel like they needed to. It’s all just stuff that’s happening now.
There’s no Max helping the helpless. The Tribe of kids certainly have their stuff together so they didn’t need his help. The kids that wander off just end up heading to Barter Town with Max, when he has no reason to take them there and is going against his promise of bringing them back to the oasis. Once in Barter Town he makes no attempt to go after Aunty Entity or find his wagon, the two things you’d think he would want to go there for. The film ends up feeling like Mad Max has an adventure with kids because why not. The frantic energy is sapped by this and it’s not helped that, on the whole, the film is more sanitised than any previous Max film. If I could apply a metaphor to this it would like going to cook toast, you’ve done it before so it’ll be cool, but you get distracted by something and forget. Suddenly you remember the toast and it’s kinda ruined a bit but you rush trying to make it edible instead of just scrapping it and starting over.
As far as the film looks, well, it’s pretty damn gorgeous. Even when it hits the kid’s oasis section. The scale and production quality has been bumped up considerably from the previous film. Barter Town looks like a fully functioning town and you get a good chance to see just how large it is. It’s a living breathing world and it’s one of those things George Miller has always excelled at crafting. Cinematography still has his usual pacing to it and his love of pushing shot and moments in directions many wouldn’t consider. The speed of the action feels somewhat slowed down and the film is certainly not an Ozploitation film like the previous two were. Whilst the world feels real it hasn’t got that same Aussie sense of humour and weirdness to it anymore. It’s almost the Hollywood version of Mad Max, although at a time when Hollywood took a few risks in comparison to today.
The chase at the film’s climax is somewhat unique, as it involves a train. But really that just means it’s a truck that ain’t turning. It also seems to feature quite a few less major stunts than The Road Warrior did. As mentioned earlier, the Thunderdome fight does stand out quite a bit. At first it seems clumsy and weird, what with the two combatants leaping about on bungee cords, but it gradually progresses and tells a story of it’s own that would work even without the context of the rest of the film. The Thunderdome is where the film should have ended really. With a battle for control of Barter Town in an attempt to free it of Aunty Entity’s grip. Instead the town is left to rot with no-one with the knowledge to keep it powered.
In all Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome isn’t exactly a disaster or anything. It’s really well made and is at least trying to push things in a different direction for a while. It’s just a slightly trying film to watch that feels like it has it’s energy fully sapped from it in the latter half. Energy that was already a little lacking due to slight tameness of the film’s attitude. Max is a far more talkative character in this film and this takes a little away from stoic beaten warrior character he’s built up to this film. He doesn’t feel like a broken shell of a man. He feels like a guy that needs a bath. So yeah, Beyond Thunderdome is the weakest Mad Max film. But it’s still a film that can elicit some levels of enjoyment, if you’re able to get through it’s more trying moments.