Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
George Ogilvie, George Miller
Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Helen Buday (Savannah Nix), Tina Turner (Auntie Entity), Bruce Spence (Jedediah), Angelo Rossitto (Master), Robert Grubb (Pig Killer), Angry Anderson (Ironbar)
Fuel Shortage/Societal Breakdown/World War III/Nuclear War
“This ain’t one body’s story, it’s the story of us all. We got it mouth-to-mouth. You gotta listen it and ‘member. Because what you hears today you got to tell the birthed tomorrow. I’m looking behind us now… across the count of time… down the long haul, into history back. I sees the end what were the start. It’s Pox-Eclipse, full of pain! And out of it were birthed crackling dust and fearsome time. It were full-on winter and Mr. Dead chasing them all. But one he couldn’t catch, that were Captain Walker. He gathers up a gang, takes to the air and flies the sky! So, they left their homes, said bidey-bye to the high-scrapers and what were left of the knowing, they left behind. Some say the wind just stoppered. Others reckon it were a gang called Turbulence. And after the wreck some had been jumped by Mr. Dead but some had got the luck, and it leads them here. One look and they’s got the hots for it. They word it “Planet Earth.” And they says, “We don’t need the knowing. We can live here.” Time counts and keeps counting. They gets to missing what they had. They get so lonely for the high-scrapers and the video. And they does the pictures so they’d ‘member all the knowing that they lost. ‘Member this? Tomorrow-Morrow Land! ‘Member this? The River of Light! ‘Member this? Skyraft! ‘Member this? Captain Walker! ‘Member this? Mrs. Walker! Then Captain Walker picked them of an age and good for a long haul. They counted twenty, and that were them. The great leaving. They said bidey-bye to them to them what they’d birthed and from out of the nothing they looked back and Captain Walker hollered ‘Wait, one of us will come.'” – The Tell of The Waiting Ones, as told by Savannah Nix.
I mentioned in the previous column that the jump from the end of Mad Max to the beginning of The Road Warrior is fairly jarring because we go from a dystopian world that looks not unlike the one we currently live in to a proper post-apocalyptic wasteland. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is jarring for an entirely different reason. Picture if you will, that you’ve just finished watching The Road Warrior so you pop the disc out of your player, this song still fresh in your mind.
As the WB logo fades out, this song plays over the opening credits:
Now, the Tina Turner song that opens the movie isn’t a bad one per se (the one that closes the movie totally is, though) but it’s a big shift from Brian May’s (not that Brian May) somber score from the previous two movies to the poppy yell-singing of mid-80s Tina Turner. For fans of the first movie, I think this is the moment that a chill first creeps down their spine and they sense that something isn’t right.
Things start out well enough, the movie feels like a natural progression from The Road Warrior. An undisclosed amount of time (about 15 years according to the Mad Max wiki) has passed since the end of the previous movie (itself set only two years after the first) and Max rides through the desert atop some sort of modified vehicle pulled by camels. Gas is apparently even scarcer than it was before and Max appears to be some sort of junk trader, he looks old and broken down.
A plane, piloted by a man (Bruce Spence, more on him later) and his young son swoops down and knocks Max off his car. The man drops down into the seat and rides off into the desert taking his car, his camels, and his junk with it. Fortunately, Max now has a pet monkey that begins throwing items out the back, leaving a trail and giving him back his boots.
Soon, Max arrives at Bartertown, a trading outpost with electricity provided by methane gas harvested from pig waste, where he offers his skills in return for a chance to regain his lost goods. It is then that we meet the film’s villainess: Tina Turner… er, Auntie Entity. Auntie offers Max everything he wants in return for a simple task: he has to kill someone. Max’s assassination target is the only part of this movie that anyone remembers with any sort of clarity, Master Blaster. Well, specifically he’s supposed to kill Blaster (the large muscular man) and leave Master (the mouthy dwarf) alive. Max sets up the assassination by picking a fight with the duo and challenging them to Thunderdome, a violent cage match to-the-death meant to keep disputes between visitors to Bartertown civil as well as provide entertainment for the wastelanders passing through.
With no small amount of difficulty Max bests Blaster, managing to knock his weird full-face helmet off in the melee, and discovers that he’s actually a large man with Down Syndrome (a popular fan theory is that Blaster is Benno, the large simple-minded man from May Swaisey’s farm in the first movie, but this has never been even vaguely acknowledged by anyone in the production and is doubtful.) Max tells Auntie that this wasn’t part of the deal, effectively breaking said deal by revealing the planned assassination to God and everyone, and as such he’s punished by being sent out into the desert on a horse, his hands tied behind his back and a ridiculous mascot head sitting atop his own.
Max is found by a girl named Savannah Nix and taken back to her tribe. Savannah’s tribe are called The Waiting Ones; they’re a cargo cult of children abandoned by the survivors of a plane crash that took place shortly after the great war. They have come to worship the search party that left them as mythical figures, particularly the plane’s captain; Captain Walker. They’ve set up a religion around Captain Walker and the bits and pieces of old knowledge that they’ve scraped together over the years. They think Max is Captain Walker returned to resurrect their crashed plane and fly them to Tomorrow-Morrow land (a pre-apocalyptic city of which they have a picture.)
Max sets them straight and plans to stay there with the Waiting Ones presumably forever, but Savannah – now disillusioned with having had her entire belief structure utterly destroyed – decides she wants to see the rest of the world. Max attempts to stop her, but she and a small group of loyalists head out into the desert and Max gives chase with a couple of other tribes-people.
They all meet up again and find Bartertown where they take Master and a prisoner named Pig Killer (guess what he did) and attempt to flee on the train engine that powers the city’s methane refinery/generator. What follows is a chase scene that’s a weak attempt to recapture the big tanker finale of The Road Warrior with lower stakes, less violence, and cheesier action. The chase scene (the film’s one and only) is actually a pretty good metaphor for the movie as a part of the Mad Max series.
Max meets up with Jedediah the pilot and all the kids (plus Master and Pig Killer) pile into the plane and attempt to take off while Max heroically drives his vehicle into the lead vehicle of Auntie’s squad of dune buggies, thus giving the plane enough room to take off and escape to a ruined city where they build a new society. The film closes out as Savannah tells a modified version of “The Tell”, praising Max’s heroism and talking about the new society of which she is the mother.
I think the biggest problem with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is that once we get beyond Thunderdome it doesn’t feel like a Mad Max movie amymore. There is a reason for that, it’s not supposed to be one. The Road Warrior was meant to be the last word on Max Rockatansky, with his ultimate fate left up to the audience’s imagination. The movie that we now know as the closing chapter of the Max Rockatansky saga actually started life as a post-apocalyptic take on Lord of the Flies. The script called for an adult to meet the group of children and George Miller suggested that that adult could be Max, so a reason for Max to meet this group was dreamed up which is why the first 20 minutes of this movie are better than all of the rest of it.
There’s also another reason this one’s the weak link in the chain. You may notice that Miller didn’t work alone this time and you’ll find that he worked less than his partner as a director. George Miller, as the story goes, lost interest in the production due to the death of his friend Byron Kennedy (producer of the previous films) so he turned over directing duties of all scenes except the action set-pieces to George Ogilvie. I think this may be part of the reason for the tonal dissonance to the rest of the series.
Another point against Beyond Thunderdome are its villains. Much like The Road Warrior, this one has two villains: Auntie Entity and her toady Ironbar. Ironbar is pretty much the Wez or Toecutter in this film, not due to any strength on the character’s part but just simply because there’s nobody better around. He’s not compelling, he’s not scary, he’s not funny and just seems like a pale imitation of what’s come before. Auntie Entity has a pretty decent concept behind her (more on that later) but she’s even less involved in the plot than Lord Humungus was, Max and her never actually clash and she doesn’t even die at the end. The most compelling villain is Master Blaster and he/they are out of the picture by the end of the first act.
I can’t help compare Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to two other famous part threes that went far afield of the movies that came before them: Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The Army of Darkness comparison is not only due to the movie’s more cartoonish tone (something that Raimi handles much better than Miller) and less violent approach to action, it also jettisons what had become enjoyable parts of the series (though unlike Army of Darkness, what it replaced them with is not equally enjoyable.)
This movie has one car chase, and it’s just a shadow of a bigger set-piece in the previous movie. Max’s trademark shotgun gets even less use (he shoots a guy’s feathered headdress) than Ash’s chainsaw before being jettisoned along with the shitload of guns and ammunition he’s managed to find since the last movie as little more than a cliche’d sight gag. It’s as if someone took everything I disliked about The Road Warrior and just decided to triple down on it. There’s one big fight, no real gunplay, and basically anything you enjoyed about the previous two films is given barely a nod of service before moving onto a thin second and third act that are dull and unsatisfying. That brings me to the comparison with Mexico.
I’ll defend Rodriguez’s third chapter of the Mariachi trilogy as any of the legitimate complaints about the film (except for whitewashed casting) can be leveled at the two films before it. I think that what a lot of people hate about Once Upon a Time in Mexico is that, though it is ostensibly about El Mariachi, El Mariachi is little more than a supporting character in a story about some less-iconic and likeable characters. This is Savannah Nix’s story, oh sure The Road Warrior featured book-ended narration by a grown version of the feral child and the first movie spent a lot more time with Goose, Jessie, and Toecutter than with its title character but they were still stories about Max. The beginning of this movie is about Max and there is some closure to his story, but it’s more about The Waiting Ones and they just aren’t that strong as far as protagonists go.
Also like Once Upon a Time in Mexico or Army of Darkness, its ranking in the series will greatly depend on whether you saw it before you saw the other two. While this movie is an awful Mad Max movie, it’s a pretty good post-apocalyptic movie. I just came expecting A Boy and His Dog meets The Punisher and got Ridley Walker meets Solarbabies with special guest star Mad Max.
Now that I have that out of my system, let’s talk about what I liked about Mad Max Beyond Thunderome. For one thing, it does finally put an end to Max’s arc though you’d have to be paying really close attention to pick up on it. When Max walks into Auntie Entity’s tent, the man playing saxophone gets a brief sorrowful look from our anti-hero. This is likely a nod to the scene in the first where Max watches Jessie play her own saxaphone, and the way the instrument reminds him of what he has lost over a decade ago.
Contrary to how he behaved in the previous film, Max appears to want to be around people now. He seems to want to stay with The Waiting Ones when he meets them and is fiercely protective of the ones who try to leave, to the point where he physically restrains them to stop them going. He even tries to hop on Jedediah’s plane but jumps out to help them escape. The scene of Max standing there in the wasteland looking out across the expanse is a lot more hopeful than a similar scene at the end of The Road Warrior. Maybe Max has finally let go of the incident that made him who he is. Maybe he returned to the oasis to live with The Waiting Ones, maybe he wandered and eventually found Savannah’s tribe, who knows, but the jaded cynic Max Rockatansky seems to have been replaced by somebody who has learned how to care again.
Another blink-and-you’ll miss it bit that returned in this movie is Max’s battle damage. The eye he injured in the car wreck at the beginning the third act in The Road Warrior is now permanently dilated (it’s hard to spot but keep a sharp eye on any close-ups of Max’s face. The shot where he looks down on Thunderdome and the one where he looks at Captain Walker’s plane are probably the best ones.) He still has his MFP jacket, though it seems to have regenerated its sleeve, and his boots; the pants likely wore out ages ago, though there’s the possibility he’s wearing them under his knee-length smock. The arsenal he drops off at the security check-point may have even been plundered from the corpses of Humungus’ raiders after the school bus drove off.
I name-dropped Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban above because it was very clearly an influence on the film (as were Lord of the Flies and A Canticle For Leibowitz, though those were influences on Hoban’s novel as well) the societies of Bartertown and The Waiting Ones are actually fairly interesting as studies of how civilizations and religions grow; though most interesting is the language. The people of Bartertown seem to be regressing as they cling to old-world fancies. Their attire is that of children playing dress-up and their speech patterns are equally childish: deals are sealed with spit-shakes, Auntie refers to Max as a “raggedy man”, and the law is written in silly sometimes rhyming phrases. There’s also the worship of Auntie Entity as some sort of weird mother figure.
The other thing I like about Bartertown is that you can kind of get a feel for the history. We know that Auntie, Master, and Blaster were founding members of the town. In the novelization of the movie, Master reveals his true name and that he was an electrical engineer, dropping his weird speech pattern; explaining that he only talked like that so that Blaster could understand him. You can kind of imagine these people meeting in the days following the war, setting up a society as survivors working together, only going mad with power and excess and growing further apart as the years went by until they’re at the point they are by the start of the movie.
This contrasts with the Waiting Ones who are evolving. They’re not concerned with returning to the way things were because for them it happened so long ago that it’s literally a fairy tale kingdom to them, they’ve re-purposed the refuse of the pre-apocalyptic world into their own culture. This is especially reflected in their weird speech patterns which involve odd grammar and mis-pronounced words. It’s an example of civilization/language/culture evolving as it appears to de-evolve and that’s a really interesting idea. One can only guess what the remaining tribe will make out of Max’s arrival, his harsh truths, and his departure with the others.
While I mocked the Tina Turner songs I do want to point out that the movie does have a proper score, and it’s wonderful. Maurice Jarre is a bit more bombastic than Brian May was but his songs are excellent and Pig Rock (the song that plays when Max first goes down to work in the refinery) may be one of my favorite movie themes ever.
One final thing I wanted to address is Jedediah the Pilot. If you’ve seen these movies, you may have noticed that Jedediah and The Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior are both played by actor Bruce Spence, they have a similar demeanor, and they’re both aviators. Miller and Spence have both said that they’re meant to be different characters and many point out that the feral child said The Gyro Captain led the people at the end of his movie (the novelization even mentions him dying in a woodcutting accident) but there are holes in this theory as well. Jedediah and Max don’t actually get a look at each others’ faces when the bit of larceny at the beginning happens and Max clearly recognizes him later on. There’s never any sort of reunion, but given the shaky partnership they had in The Road Warrior I wouldn’t exactly call them friends anyway (Gyro Captain’s valorous rescue notwithstanding); and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine The Captain tiring of his people and deciding to go back out to his life as a highwayman (taking his young son in tow.) Much like the the Jim Goose/Humungus theory, I’ve chosen to believe it’s true.
Beyond Thunderdome is the black sheep of the Mad Max family, but it’s not without its rewards. It looks like Fury Road will be a return to the kind of thing which made Max Rockatansky a cult icon, but this was still an interesting diversion if a horrible endcap to the trilogy. That’s it for the Mad Max trilogy; sing us out, Tina.
Doomsday Reels will now resume its regular publishing schedule since I can only get two weeks off work to get my appendix out once.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“I don’t want to be chopped into pieces by two-bit ass clowns. “