Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or John McClane in the last two Die Hards). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown.
I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was content to leave its memory resting in peace. George Miller’s original premise had a group of children living in the wilderness without parents; Max was grafted on when the writer-director was debating who should find them. If the Mad Maxes are loosely comparable to the Evil Dead trilogy in terms of scope and development, they diverge with the third instalment. Army of Darkness is as overblown as Thunderdome, but it carries with it a crazy sense of humour and a berserk energy; it feels like a logical extension given the leap from the first outing to Dead by Dawn. Thunderdome, on the other hand, is flat-out tedious, when the next step from Mad Max 2 ought to have been autogeddon of glossier and even more extreme proportions. More than anything, it’s this absence that betrays the spirit of the series. Predecessors that were celebrated for speed and kinetic fury have been reduced to a crawl.
And Max himself. What has happened to the warrior Max? Well, he’s become a lot more like Mel Gibson for starters. He talks a bit, he’s chatty even (volunteering that he was once a cop), throws out a few quips, and is completely without the burden of a tortured past or an inscrutable outlook. Any mythic trappings he had assumed with Mad Max 2 are thoroughly discarded even before he plays saviour to a gang of Lord of the Flies rejects.
Max: I was a cop. A driver.
It isn’t as if Miller has forgotten the Max of before. Even given the ultra-mullet he’s first seen sporting (an alarming foreshadowing of Lethal Weapon Gibson), Max resembles the Max of before (although his leg seems to work a lot better); his damaged eye, his clobber (albeit with a stylish semi-sarong, perhaps a hangover from Mel’s The Bounty period), his skills rigging his booby-trapped car. The idea is presumably that he has progressed a tad in rediscovering his humanity since the end of The Road Warrior. This is perfectly reasonable, but no thought seems to have gone into what sort of person that makes him. Certainly, it doesn’t vie with the reported cut scene where Max dreams of his wife and son. He awakes to realise he is as bad as those he used to hunt as a cop. That would only work if he were still the Max of Mad Max 2, not whoever this is 15 years later.
He comes across as a Max who has lost his wherewithal (in particular asking Pig Killer what the plan is). Rather than the desperate survivalist, he’s now content to roll with it and hope for the best, deferring to others for answers or guidance (“He’s got the knowing of a lot of things,” he says of Master, who I guess goes well with a bunch of kids since he’s the size of an Ewok; it’s Max’s very own Caravan of Courage). It isn’t necessarily a problem to do different things with the character, or even not to have a car chase movie (although some form of adrenalised pursuit is surely essential; the chase at the end of Thunderdome is borderline superfluous, like the exorcism added to punch up The Exorcist III), but it absolutely does need to be coherent and engaging. This Max takes his cues from Indiana Jones in terms of adding humour to the character. He’s almost a precursor to Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China.
That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but lines like “Who are you, I can feel it! The dice are rollin’” do nothing to establish a mythic presence for Max, nor does the big-up he receives in the oral history at the movie’s finish. Miller clearly delights in the opportunity to indulge comedy moments, such as Max’s never-ending supply of armaments concealed upon his person, or placing him in askew situations we couldn’t have imagined hitherto (riding out into the desert with an over-sized papier-mâché mask on his head). Essentially, Max has been whored out to get financing for the actual idea that got Miller’s creative juices flowing.
We might as well have Goldie Hawn as Mel’s co-star, to complement Max’s hijinks. They might at least have been more fun than this. Certainly, a (doubtless improvised) line such as “Sure, me fairy princess” feeds on Mel’s freewheeling persona and casual homophobia circa Bird on a Wire. Thunderdome is Mel in a transitional phase. He’s on the cusp becoming superstar Mel. Gibson was big enough in 1985 for Thunderdome to be sold on his name, yet his US forays of the previous few years had been the choices of a serious actor (which he undoubtedly always had the chops for) rather than one chasing fame and glory. They were also choices that floundered at the box office.
His work with Peter Weir and Miller in the first five years or so of his acting career may still contain his best performances because, as powerful a screen presence as he often has been subsequently, there hasn’t always been someone guiding Gibson’s performance so as to rein in those Mel-isms; the tics and mannerisms, the excesses. He returned two years after Thunderdome in Lethal Weapon, ironically playing a proper mad chap, rather than one who gets furious occasionally, and he landed a fully formed superstar (who had also aged visibly; the Mel of Lethal Weapon is only convincing as a Vietnam vet because the actor looks about 10 years older than he actually is). Thunderdome’s Max is a slightly subdued test run for the fun-loving, ker-razeee, whip-smart Mel we are now familiar with, but that persona isn’t very Max.
The decision not to end Thunderdome on the camera’s retreat from Max alone on the road, but give him a fade as he wanders into the desert, could be seen as the next stage in the character’s iconic path. But, coming after the coda with Savannah in the ruins, it rather reinforces that this isn’t really a Mad Max movie at all. Structurally Thunderdome is an incredibly awkward beast, as the story Miller wants to tell begins halfway through. This is also the point where the movie stops stone dead. The Bartertown scenes are throwaway, inconsequential adventuring stuff (just with assuredly solid art direction, while Dean Semler makes that pig shit look good enough to eat); not what we expect from Mad Max, perhaps, but not so egregious that we feel betrayed. Max’s sojourn with the desert survivors is so miscalculated, however, it permanently hobbles Thunderdome.
Sure, give Max some young sidekicks, if you really must; it worked for Mad Max 2 (kind of)! But don’t stop the narrative in its tracks by have Max sit and listen to a cute telling of the events of the “Pockyclypse” by a ragtag gang of scamps. The middle act unwinds as an endlessly banal futuristic anthropology lecture. There’s no recovery from this point, as the picture has proudly unveiled for all to see just what a botch-job it is.
The return to Bartertown for a heroic rescue (there are more than a few plot cues borrowed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in Thunderdome, and it is very much not to Miller’s credit), and then, finally, the chase sequence we have all been waiting for, merely have the benefit of having something happen. The final chase was heralded at the time, but is now evidently a case of having been grateful for small mercies. That it is borderline incoherent (the manner in which Max and co end up on a functioning rail track, chased by Aunty’s gang, falls into “Don’t ask” territory) was neither here nor there; at least it was better than the indulgent drivel of the child tribe.
Dr Dealgood: Fighting leads to killing, and killing gets to warring. And that was damn near the death of us all. Look at us now! Busted up, and everyone talking about hard rain!
An aspect of Thunderdome that doesn’t bother me is the havoc it plays with the series’ continuity. My only wish is that it had played fast-and-loose to some good end. Instead it comes across again, as, “We just wanted to stick Max in this post-apocalyptic tale and didn’t care if it didn’t make a lick of sense to do so”. So Max is reconfigured into a post-WWIII environment. He now has to worry about things that weren’t an issue before, such as contaminated water (“H2O that’s my go!”) Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, complete with amazing gravity-defying boob job) comments that she was a nobody before, “Except on the day after. I was still alive”.
Dr Dealgood (an engaging, charismatic turn from Edwin Hodgeman) invokes the memory of the Big One when he talks about fighting leading to mankind’s near destruction. Mostly, though, the allusions are saved for the tribe of the flies with their laboured deteriorated language and Miller’s tiresomely obvious appropriation of memories of television as the new myths and legends. (The best line in respect of a halcyon TV age comes not from the kids, but from Aunty; “Welcome to another edition of Thunderdome!”)
Probably the most-discussed elements in respect of continuity are the return of Bruce Spence, and his identity, and the identity of Blaster. Some have posited the idea that Jebediah is the same gangly guy as the Gryo Captain; he has now resigned his position as leader of the Northern Tribe, or been deposed, and headed off with the kid he had with the cute headband girl. Well, yes… And I suppose there’s a way to explain Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More as one and the same character as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, if you really want to and absolutely have to. As for Blaster, Master’s mentally-changed brawn to his brains, Max’s recognition was likely meant to consciously suggest he recalled Benno in the original, although I do recall wondering if he was supposed to the same person.
In Thunderdome, Miller is trying to take his decayed society to the next stage, but doesn’t have the means to make it actually interesting rather than derivative. This is driven home when we reach the tribe of the wee, We’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic societies and skewed environments, not least Planet of the Apes and its first sequel, to recognise the tropes here. But Miller makes it larky, rather than of serious intent. Miller takes an idea like Master Blaster, that probably looked half decent on paper, and runs with it, rather than paying attention to whether it would actually be believable. He messes about with a designed future even more than Mad Max 2, so rendering it less conceptually likely. There are signs like “Helping Build a Better Tomorrow” and “ATOMIC CAFÉ”, and much is made of the town being built on pig shit (ha-ha!)
Aunty Entity: But he’s just a raggedy man.
Bartertown is the product of a director too influenced by Lucas and Spielberg. It isn’t a million miles from Jabba’s palace, complete with freaks and weirdos (I’ve mentioned Hodgeman, but Frank Thring is also great as the Collector; Miller scores with on the side-lines, but never achieves with the main event), just with added adult humour (“Sorry the brothel’s full” Max is told when he tries to reach a deal for information). Everything here is a first draft gimmick, from Blaster’s size (is this Miller doffing his hat to Gilliam?) and pigeon English (”Who run Bartertown?”) to the casting of Turner.
That said, I originally found Turner’s casting rather glaring and out-of-place, a shameless attempt at promotion (the series goes from being enormously influential to being so influenced that it needs to plug itself with MTV videos). Which it is, but I rather enjoyed her large, self-aware performance this time. Her scenes in Thunderdome are still mostly about how that top remains in place, with the secondary question of whoever thought they’d look real. But Tina has curiously strong chemistry with Mel, and her playfulness in their final moments together (“Well, ain’t we a pair raggedy man?”) is the kind of ambivalent mockery that actually works; there’s an apocalyptic Leone western stirring in their somewhere, but unfortunately it isn’t the story Miller wanted to tell.
As noted, the events in Bartertown are agreeable enough; a slapstick fight that isn’t so far from Mel’s beloved Stooges territory (Angry Anderson wouldn’t look out of place as Curly, and his role here is pretty much Wylie Coyote, with added giving the finger). The dynamics of the Bartertown power base(s) don’t bear much scrutiny, but that’s the case with the picture as a whole
Dr Dealgood: Right now, I’ve got two men, Two men with a gutful of fear. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!
The titular Thunderdome (was ever a title more evocative but in the plain light of day more underwhelming?) starts off looking pretty damn goofy. What ignominy is this, that Max should be reduced to twanging about on a giant elastic band? But, once the bout gets going, it evolves into a decently staged sequence. Miller deftly juggles a brace of elements with the same expertise he engaged battling cars; Max twirls back and forth, has problems with an erratic chainsaw, continually fails to blow that all-important whistle, which he loses in the dirt. It’s good stuff, but it shouldn’t have been the high point of the movie. Two men enter. One man leaves. Except when Aunty’s in there as well. If only Max hadn’t “Bust a deal and face the wheel”, what happens next might not have come to pass. Max and his damn compassion, eh?
Miller’s interest in his Lord of the Flies/Peter Pan tribe is baffling. In some respects, we can see the shape of things to come in Thunderdome; family-friendly movies, pigs even. His preoccupation with degenerated language and behaviours is irksome rather than arresting (much more intriguingly depicted in the likes of Doctor Who’s The Face of Evil, State of Decay – I hesitate to say Paradise Towers, which came after Thunderdome, although it correlates the best – , the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture with it’s simplistically derived V’ger). There’s a designer-laziness to the constructions; dull phonetics “Scrooloos” and “Pockyclypse” and “erf”, “cleverness” like “A gang called turbulence. It isn’t the kind of thing where the audience goes “Ohhhh, that’s clever” (as opposed to the Fourth Doctor’s deconstruction of the conflations and derivations in State of Decay).
The oral tradition concept does at least provide a piece of valid continuity with the themes of Mad Max 2, but since Max the hero has been all but lost, the question remains of what is left to justify it. If Bartertown is far from grim and gritty, the oasis kids represent a state of full-blown whimsy, with Max co-opted as surrogate dad. There’s a moment, with the mural of Captain Roberts, who does look like Mel, where we wonder if Miller might recapture the spirit of mythmaking, but instead we get the most Max-ian line of the picture (“There ain’t no tomorrow-morrow land and I ain’t Captain Walker”) Whether it’s Bugs Bunny or the Wicker TV, these concepts have no lure. The response when the “sonics” are revealed as a “how to learn French record” is, “Why are you stopping the action for this crap?” There’s a way to do this kind of thing, but Miller doesn’t know it. Twee about sums it up, particularly when Max heads off to rescue Savannah Nix with a couple of munchkins and a pet monkey.
Max: It all finished. It just isn’t there any more
That said, Helen Buday (a mere six years younger than Mel) makes a strong impression as Savannah. Maybe there was even vague potential in having Max as Scrooge McDuck, shattering the kiddies’ dreams or appropriating arcane language at will (“I’m the guy who keeps Mr Dead in his pocket”). A commentary on the mythologising of Mad Max 2? That at least would have ensured a through line for the trilogy.
Pigkiller: Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.
The manner in which Miller has lost touch with the series he is, at best, appropriating is exemplified by the surface details. We have Maurice Jarre’s sub-Laurence of Arabia score (complete with Mel crossing the desert with his dromedary chain; any one would think this was The Spy Who Loved Me; all that’s missing is a Roger Moore cameo), which is every bit as unsubtle as Brian May’s were only in different ways (witness the syrup-drenched demise of Blaster). There’s the announcement of Max (“It’s the man with no name!”), beating Robert Zemeckis to the archness punch by five years (Marty McFly introducing himself as Clint Eastwood). Then there’s Mel chasing a guy into some tunnels, only to run back pursued by many more moments later (both Star Wars and Temple of Doom). It would be churlish not to laugh at some of these, but they indicate a shortage of real inspiration.
What is there to say about the climax? With all that added budget, this is the best that Miller could offer? The elements intermesh with none of the skill of Mad Max 2, even if the point of departure is virtually the same (the good people – albeit some of them are thieves or power-obsessed – are led to a better life by Spence). The chase is perversely restricted by the decision to have it run along rails, and there’s no impact to Max’s heroic sacrifice. It’s notable that, yet again, Miller ends on a game of chicken, and perhaps most significant the Max now has sufficient sense of self-worth by now that leaps to safety before the impact.
Savannah: Time counts and keeps countin', and we knows now finding the trick of what's been and lost ain't no easy ride. But that's our trek, we gotta' travel it. And there ain't nobody knows where it's gonna' lead. Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we 'member who we was and where we came from... but most of all we 'members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there. 'Cause we knows there come a night, when they sees the distant light, and they'll be comin' home.
The grandiloquence of Savannah is too little too late. She echoes the adult feral kid, but only evokes wonder in a negative way. Such as, why would the return to abandoned ruins of best-forgotten civilisation be better than the fertile oasis where Max discovered the kids? Given that Miller is clearly intending this to be positive, it’s a puzzling end point. Home is the burned out ruins of a dead society, or home is something built anew elsewhere? It’s symptomatic of the muddle that is Thunderdome that the ending presents further thematic confusion.
In Miller’s defence, by the time he was filming Thunderdome his heart may not have really been in it any more. Byron Kennedy, the producer with whom he had collaborated since the early 1970s, was killed in helicopter crash while scouting locations at the age of only 33. The credits caption reads “For Byron”.
In addition, for the first but certainly not the last time, Miller took a co-director credit. George Ogilivie, a theatre director, shared duties with Miller and concentrated on the performances of the kids. I’m not sure that explains anything in terms of the ponderous script, but it further emphasises the disparate elements and directions that pulled Thunderdome asunder.
Not everyone despised Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Roger Ebert even had it in his 10 best films of ‘85, which, given the competition, is downright peculiar. I well recall there being goodwill towards it. It was a movie that wasn’t very good, but nobody really wanted to hate on it so they looked for positives. Thunderdome messes up Max as much as Babe Pig in the City throttles the uplift of the original, but at least the Babe sequel is actually a good movie (albeit extremely twisted for a kids’ movie). Thunderdome’s crime is not ultimately that it breaks with the theme and tone of its predecessors, or even that it pays scant attention to the essence of its title character. Thunderdome stands guilty of being boring. Whatever faults Fury Road may be charged with, I doubt that will be one of them.