Beyond Thunderdome: Rethinking the Ugly Stepchild of the Mad Max Franchise

In one particularly snarky corner of the blogosphere known as “film journalism” there are a few movie tentpoles that draw particular ire from the shlubby masses.

Some of these films are flatly terrible, others border on great yet seem misunderstood … and some like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome are simply shrugged off as unimportant, maybe because the two previous flicks in the franchise were arguably better.

But while Thunderdome lacks the gritty gusto of Mad Max or the sublime balance of world-building and plotting that made The Road Warrior a classic, it’s a shame to ignore a movie that — if taken on its own merits — might be one of the better and more unique Hollywood films of the ‘80s.

(and yes, I know it’s not technically a Hollywood movie, but with the Tina Turner stunt casting and Spielbergian vibe it’s totally a Hollywood movie)

Though while it’s got a lot of great things going for it, unlike its predecessors, it’s a bit harder to pinpoint those things that make Thunderdome work.

This is due in part to its split narrative. Much like another maligned third-installment, Return of the Jedi, it spends about 40 minutes being one movie and then abruptly shifts to another that connects on a narrative level yet feels different in terms of tone and theme.

Thunderdome4Have to fight! Have to crow!

When the film opens we find a far more ragged and long-haired version of Max Rockatansky. He’s shed his badass leather attire for desert robes, his scruffy dog for a mischievous monkey, and his supercharger has been replaced by a camel-pulled wagon, creating an aura of mystic wander instead of the brutal avenger that’s been the character’s trademark vibe since the intense finale of the first film.

This is usually strike one, two, and three for a lot of fans. The movie was released just four years after The Road Warrior and yet seems to take place quite a few years into the character’s future. For example, it’s the first movie where radiation is mentioned, indicating that a nuclear holocaust occurred between the second and third films, and this means Max has been through a lot of character changes that we haven’t been privy to.

Nolan and Goyer made a similar misstep years later with The Dark Knight Returns, which opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight with Bruce Wayne having quit his mission and transformed into a total recluse.

In the case of The Dark Knight Rises this was far more jarring because the franchise had a much tighter narrative through-line. Wayne’s transformation not only happened offscreen, it also felt out of character and also out of alignment with the final moments of the Dark Knight which ended with Wayne as Batman running straight at camera in a newfound commitment to his mission.

In the case of the Mad Max franchise, the linking narrative tissue was always treated as myth or legend. Each sequel (and this is also true of Fury Road) basically retcons the mythology of its predecessor in much the same was as the Evil Dead films. This leaves a lot more narrative leeway for its protagonist’s journey.

Still, it’s a lot to ask an audience to accept from their hero, though in the case of Beyond Thunderdome the character transformation isn’t nearly as jarring as the Dark Knight films, partly because Max was always an anti-hero and because Max really never had an ethos besides avenging his dead family. With that already resolved, why shouldn’t he wander?

In this regard the film works well in its first half, as Max is pulled out of complacency when his wagon is stolen and he travels to a twisted village known as Bartertown to get it back.

This section of the film seems to work best for the fans, as George Miller and his talented crew take time to let the world sink in. It’s the details that make the Mad Max films a cut above other b-level apocalyptic adventures and with Beyond Thunderdome we’re treated to a fascinating look at a proto-civilization starting to pull itself from the ashes of a holocaust.

Max quickly makes a deal with Bartertown’s figurehead Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner in one of my favorite pieces of stunt casting ever.

Thunderdome_MaxAunty

I’m sure Turner’s presence seemed far more distracting in the mid-80s when she was at the peak of her career, but looking back as a child of the ’90s she’s perfect as the larger-than-life villain. A little wooden, maybe, but much like Dwayne Johnson’s entire career she makes up for it with sheer charisma and screen presence.

After the wanton insanity of Toecutter, Wez, and Lord Humungus it’s fantastic to see Max up against someone more civilized … and it makes sense that the inherent politics that come with even a fledgling civilization get Max intro trouble, since it was that same bureaucracy in the first film that ultimately lead to Max’s soul-damaging revenge spree.

thunderdome_MasterBlaster

The first half of the film culminates when Aunty Entity hires Max for a political murder. This sets up the most memorable scene in the film, Thunderdome!

thunderdome_audienceYay.

In addition to being flat-out awesome (and one of the few sequences in the film directed by Miller directly), this sequence also gives us Dr. Dealgood, one of the best characters from the entire franchise. Evil and unabashedly vaudevillian, he struts around with a cane and spits out some of the best dialog ever.

Thunderdome_drdealgood“Right now, I’ve got two men, two men with a gut full of fear.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

This sequence is so memorable that despite mediocre boxoffice for the film as a whole, the Thunderdome idea saturated our culture to the point that in the late ’80s my friends and I would play a game called Thunderdome without even knowing about the movie (true, it involved pillows instead of chainsaws, but still).

It’s even became a staple at the Burning Man festival, although much drunker and way less cool:

It’s during this thunderdome sequence we hit our first hiccup in terms of Max’s character development. When he discovers that the man he’s hired to kill has a mental disability, Max refuses to make the kill.

Of course the filmmakers weren’t going to tell us a story where Max would knowingly murder someone with a mental handicap, but as a result they reveal that Max has a conscience and a soul.

This is troublesome because not only was this already established by the end of The Road Warrior, the filmmakers also spend the rest of the movie giving Max a redemption arc … even though he’s obviously already redeemed. He’s a man who won’t kill the innocent, forced into violence only when he’s attacked. Doesn’t seem like such a bad dude to me.

It’s this core character vagary that eats away at the narrative. I really believe it’s part of why the film didn’t resonate with audience like the first two, leaving them room to nitpick the far less important flaws.

And those perceived flaws start in earnest after Max is banished from Bartertown and the second movie begins.

Thunderdome11
Max survives his forced trek through the desert and ends up with a tribe of feral children who are the sole survivors of a jet crash during the unseen nuclear “Pockylypse.”

Wild, dirty, and speaking with their own makeshift vernacular, these characters tend to make or break the film for most viewers. Personally, I love it, though my reaction might be biased by the fact this was the first Mad Max film I ever saw. They are certainly a tonal departure from the first two films, but this is mainly due to the overall PG-13 quality of the film.

Where The Road Warrior had a feral child brutally murder men with a sharp boomerang, the children in Beyond Thunderdome are, like all the deaths in the movie, completely bloodless.

thunderdome_lostboysThis might be what lead to the common critical battlecry of “those kids were just too cute!” (again echoing the trite critiques of Return of the Jedi, this time in regards to the Ewoks) but ultimately it’s an unfair accusation since they fall in line with the whole tone of the film.

The more valid critique might be the strong “lost boys” vibe they have. Not only could  you easily cut and paste scenes right into Spielberg’s Hook and not even notice, this section of the film takes a very magical turn that, while cool, seems out of place within the context of the whole franchise (or, at least, until Fury Road came along).

For some reason, Max oddly resembles the tribe’s prophesied savior and then ultimately fulfills that prophecy to leading them to freedom (ala the entire third act of The Road Warrior).

This “hero’s journey” is a little forced but makes sense. This film made just seven years after George Lucas inadvertently turned Joseph Cambell’s work on comparative mythology into a paint-by-numbers screenwriting guide.

Also, Miller spent the years between the second and third Mad Max films over in Los Angeles, cutting his Hollywood teeth on Spielberg’s Twilight Zone anthology.

Thunderdome8This “Spielbergian” grandeur is evident not only in the broader strokes storytelling but also in every frame and edit of the film. It’s noticeably more “refined” than the first two films, with more intricate camera staging and character blocking. Compare the perfectly timed orchestration of the Bartertown intro to the first assault on the oil refinery in The Road Warrior, which was rough and messy and in many ways far more real and visceral.

Thunderdome10As a huge Spielberg fan this is probably why I love Thunderdome, but it’s easy to see the stylistic shift that might have bumped a lot of people, and there are certainly other odd choices that make watching the film a little confusing.

For example, the re-casting of Bruce Spence as Jedidiah. Not only is Spence a very recognizable character actor, but his Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior also traveled around in a flying machine … yet he’s obviously not playing the same character because the Gyro Captain escaped to the coast at the end of The Road Warrior.

Thunderdome6Now with 50% more sidekick …

Also, in Thunderdome Max travels around with a mischievous monkey, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark, even though it never effects the plot and is seemingly there just to be adorable.

Thunderdome7And the finale on the train, while stunning, is far too reminiscent of the tanker truck chase at the end of The Road Warrior. It feels like a “bigger and better” version of the previous film’s finale, ending with Max flat on his back at the mercy of Aunty Entity and her gang … only to have her let him go free for absolutely no good reason.

Thundersome2Well. That was a freebie.

Placing such a huge flaw in character motivation at the very end of your film just to get the hero out of danger is an enormous crutch that rings false, leaving only the end credits and a Tina Turner song to win back the audience. It’s definitely the weakest moment in the film.

Looking back at Thunderdome it’s hard to really gauge audience reaction at the time. Over the years the film has been labeled as “bad” even though the few critical reviews that survived the digital boom over the past few decades are generally positive.

There aren’t many people that would claim Thunderdome works on the same level as its predecessors, but it’s a far cry from being a “bad” movie (whatever that means). The fantastic dialog alone justifies the film’s existence, not to mention the set design and amazing stuntwork that are, judging by Fury Road, a lot closer to what George Miller was striving for all along.

And while it may pale in comparison to all the others, it’s definitely worth a watch if you’ve never seen it and certainly should be considered “canon” by all the know-it-all shlubbs like me.

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