Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
AKA Mad Max 3
Starring Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Angelo Rossitto, Angry Anderson, Helen Buday, Tom Jennings, Robert Grubb, Paul Larsson, Bruce Spence, Adam Cockburn, Frank Thring, Edwin Hodgeman, Rod Zuanic
Directed by George Miller & George Ogilvie
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the much-maligned entry of the Mad Max trilogy, and I had only seen it once in my teenage years prior to this re-watch. Back then, I expected it to be Road Warrior 2, and when it wasn’t I called it a shitty movie. I guess it’s fair to assume that a sequel would somewhat resemble the films that came before it, but in this particular case it’s the wrong way to come at Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome because there’s virtually no way to enjoy it if you do so. But when considered on its own, and as a continuation of the wasteland and the societal issues built up in the previous films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a fantastic sequel.
This one is far more story-driven than the other films, making it a more traditional film in a very non-traditional franchise (and thus probably causing more people to be perturbed). Anyway, we open with Max making his way across the great desert via camel-drawn wagon. He gets robbed by a huckster pilot (who is totally not the Gyrocopter pilot from Road Warrior even though they’re both played by Bruce Spence), so Max continues on his way to Barter Town on foot. Once there Max attracts the attention of the town’s leader, Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), who decides to use his talents for her own purposes.
What I find really interesting about this one is the choice by Miller to set it many years after Road Warrior. Like the time jump between Mad Max and Road Warrior, this isn’t expressly stated, but there are many clues. First, Max’s hair is greying a bit. This is the obvious one that’s not worth much discussion. The second indicator is the existence of Barter Town. At some point the bandit clans of the wasteland — a few of them, anyway — must have grown tired of the chaotic ramblin’ life. So instead of living from tent to tent, they set up a town and built it upon the rules of the bandit (Two men enter, one man leaves, etc…). The need for an alternative to gas is also an indicator that time has passed. If the bandits are using alternative fuels, you know that gas is pretty scarce!
The final indicator — or at least the last I noticed (or am remembering) — is the tribe of children living in the wasteland without any context of the old world. This suggests that these kids were living on their own for quite a long time, and they further what Miller started with the Feral Kid in Road Warrior. It’s much more developed in Thunderdome, though, as these kids have built their own warped society based on the artifacts around them and their tales passed down through oral traditions. These kids are blank slates of a sort, with no ability to rebuild the old world. They are the new humans. The only problem is that like many early cultures, they are gullible because of their beliefs, leading them to think Max is their messiah.
And for their story, Max is essentially their messiah. He educates them and helps them to rise above where their teachings had plateaued. But it’s not just about them. Like the previous films, Mad Max is directly in the middle of two distinct groups. On one side we have the children representing a new hope for the Earth, and on the other side there is Barter Town: the bandits’ (or the bandits’ children’s) attempt at a somewhat civilized society (which is a bastardized, hyper-violent version of the old world). So, basically Max sits between an entirely new world and the continually rebuilt remnants of the old one.
As much as I find all this stuff really engaging, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome does have an intense lack of action, especially the car action the series is so well-known for. But what is here is really great, especially the Thunderdome battle. Thousands of one-on-one battles have made their way to the screen, but I don’t think any of them have been quite like that Thunderdome battle. It’s intense and exciting in the best ways, and you’ll wish there was a tie-in NES game that you could play after the movie is over. Like the car action in the previous films that defied expectations and wowed audiences with their visual flair, the Thunderdome battle once again solidifies George Miller’s place in the upper echelon of action filmmakers.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, give it another shot with all expectations off the table. It’s quite the bold choice to essentially change the franchise’s main genre, and Miller does an exceptional job delivering a more story-driven continuation of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Now I’m really curious to see how the new film, Mad Max: Fury Road, fits into all this!