Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)


"Two men enter, one man leaves."

Anything following the jaw-dropping automotive carnage of Mad Max 2 was bound to be something of a disappointment to some. And sure enough, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome alienated many of the fans who seemed unable - or unwilling - to accept that most rare commodity in the world of movie franchising - character development. Those who howled in outrage because Max isn't roaring around the desert again in a rehash of the first two films clearly failed to grasp what writer and co-director George Miller was trying to achieve, not only with this film, but with the series overall.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the natural continuation the of the real theme that underpins the Mad Max series - not the car chases and the mayhem, but the birth of new mythologies and legends. All three films concern themselves chiefly with the way that legends come into being, a theme that had most been most blatantly announced in the wraparound narration that accompanied Mad Max 2. In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller explores the Max as mythical hero theme more extensively and with a good deal of invention and wit. By the end of the film, the Max who wanders the deserts, the subject of awed stories around the campfires lit in the ruins of Sydney to attract other survivors, is a very different character to the world-weary cop / family man that first appeared in the original film.

This attempt to develop the character is almost unique in movie franchises - where else would you find a character in the third part of a trilogy so informed by his past experiences, so transformed by them? Much of what happens to Max and his reactions to events is drawn from what had happened to him in the first two films - his sparing of the child-like Blaster, for example, or more obviously his willingness to risk his own life to save the children are decisions informed by the loss of his baby son in the first film, as was his attachment to the feral child in Mad Max 2.

Also key among Miller's concerns this time out is the exploration of how different societies can develop independently of each other. The clever structure of the script allows us to look at two very different attempts to reclaim something from the post-apocalyptic chaos. Bartertown is a capitalist haven where free-commerce rules the day and the politics are clearly of the pre-apocalyptic order. Auntie may mean well (she's a carefully drawn character who comes across as both well-meaning and thoroughly ruthless) but she's clearly well out of her depth and has to resort to violence and intimidation to keep her dream alive. To her credit, she's willing to keep on trying, even after Max and his cronies inadvertently destroy Bartertown - at least someone's making an effort seems to the message here, even if that effort is far from perfect.

In contrast to the drab, noisy Bartertown is the the colony of feral children, referred to by the kids themselves as Planet Earth but curiously better known elsewhere as Crack in the Earth. This is very much the counter-culture settlement, the embodiment of the hippie ideal as the old pre-war ways are abandoned in favour of a "back-to-nature" existence that echoes the ad hoc society found in William Goldman's The Lord of the Flies. Interestingly, at the climax, although Bartertown is being rebuilt and Planet Earth is still populated by some of the kids, Miller seems to be suggesting that the new colony in Sydney, founded by the feral children who escaped Bartertown along with Pig Killer, Jebediah and his son, may be the way forward. The wonderful closing shots, of Max still wandering the deserts while the new inhabitants of a ruined Sydney do their best to re-establish order and set up a haven for other drifters, suggests that the greatest hope for Mankind lies here, with a meeting of the two extremes. This exploration of the painful rebirth of society is in stark contrast to the hopeless barbarism of Mad Max 2 where it seemed that society's best hope was a bunch of idealists pumping gas in the desert.

So, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a film of big ideas which it explores with intelligence and wit. But that's not to say that the film skimps on humour or action. It may not have the large-scale automotive set-pieces of it predecessors, but there's always something going on in Thunderdome and it's far from dull. The climactic chase scene is disappointing only in that Miller felt the need to include it (it feels like a half-hearted top-of-the-hat to the fans) and that it's simply a re-run of the climax of Mad Max 2, with a train replacing the tanker. There's plenty of good humour too, building on the dark humour of Mad Max 2. Some of the slapstick involving the seemingly indestructible Ironbar seems a little forced at times, but moments like Max removing the spear from Pig Killer's leg ("What happened to two?") are welcome light relief.

Technically, the film is probably the best of the three. The set and costume designs are exemplary, the performances generally very good (Gibson and Helen Bunday as Savannah in particular are fantastic and Tina Turner is much better than many of the film's detractors would have us believe) and with his magnificent vistas of the Australian deserts cinematographer Dean Semler even outdoes his marvelous work on Mad Max 2. Maurice Jarre's music is less strident than Brian May's (which, in the first two films, sounded much more like horror movie scores than perhaps they should have done) and the teaming of Miller with Ogilvie results in a film full of stunning visuals with performances to match.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was greeted with enthusiasm by critics on its release but hasn't really clicked with the grass roots fan base as well as the first two films have. For those who think the film isn't as "cool" as the first two, there's probably no hope. But time has been kind to Thunderdome and a re-appraisal is underway. It would be criminal to relegate Thunderdome to a footnote in the Mad Max series as it has so much to offer. It remains a beautifully crafted, intelligent and thought-provoking film.

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